Harassment laws and legal definitions are broad, which makes it difficult to draw a line between harmless banter and sexual harassment. Plus, humor is subjective. What one person thinks is funny, another may find very offensive. Whether jokes are considered sexual harassment depends on the situation and the content. If the jokes are sexually explicit or inappropriate, or they otherwise create an uncomfortable, hostile work environment, then they can certainly be sexual harassment.
When are jokes sexual harassment?
An isolated comment or joke that is not exceptionally sexually inappropriate might be uncomfortable, but it probably would not stand up in court as sexual harassment. However, if the jokes are sexually graphic or inappropriate and the joke-teller continues to tell the jokes frequently even though you have made it clear you find the comments offensive, it can be sexual harassment.
Case in Point: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Forbes contributor Emily Heist Moss recounted a restaurant work experience in which her boss, while lecturing on the proper cleaning technique for the mini-fridges under the counter, told staff that they had to kneel to clean the back corners. He pointed to a waitress and said, “Come on, Kari, you know what it’s like to spend plenty of time on your knees….” and made a tongue-in-cheek gesture.
Moss explained that even though her boss had not directed the comment at her, it was offensive and sexually inappropriate, and created a hostile work environment for her. When she confronted the boss and told him that he should set a higher standard for humor, he rolled his eyes at her, pointed to a poster on the wall, and said, “There’s the hot line for sexual harassment if you want to call it.” This employer’s actions not only constitute poor management and leadership, but probably also sexual harassment.
Moss explains, “It’s a fine line between, ‘You look nice today,’ ‘You look nice today’ with a leering grin and an ogling chest-level stare, and ‘You look nice today’ if you’re worried that not looking nice might cost you your job. Contextualizing a workplace conversation helps us determine what falls on which side of the harassment line, but it’s still a distinction that’s extremely difficult to articulate, and even harder to prove.”
What do I do if a coworker or boss routinely tells inappropriate jokes?
First, speak up. Confront the joke-teller and let him/her know that his/her remarks are inappropriate and offensive. If s/he continues despite your concerns, if you are singled out or excluded, or if you feel the jokes are discriminatory toward you or another protected class, speak to a supervisor or the human resources manager. Perhaps you and the joke-teller can find an amicable solution.
If not, victims of workplace sexual harassment have the right to file a Charge of Employment Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as take legal action. If you feel you have been sexually harassed at work, contact Robert A. Klingler Co., L.P.A. for a free case evaluation. We can explain your rights and assist you with any appropriate legal action. Call us today at 513-665-9500.