Can Jokes Be Considered Sexual Harassment?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace. But for years after its enactment, men and women continued to endure the indignities and trauma of sexually invasive words and acts in their place of work. 

One reason that sexual harassment and other offensive behaviors persist is that they are sometimes dismissed as unserious “jokes,” not meant to harm anyone. Sexual harassment can be harder to prove than other workplace claims like wrongful termination and discrimination against pregnant women and mothers. 

However, in some cases, jokes can be considered sexual harassment, depending on the situation. Here’s what you need to know:

What’s Wrong With Jokes in the Workplace?

There’s nothing wrong with jokes in the workplace! But in some cases, courts have viewed jokes as a method of sexual harassment. 

What’s important is that everyone feels safe and comfortable at work. The content of jokes can create a violent or threatening environment for some colleagues. 

What Happens When Harassing Jokes Are Made in the Workplace?

That’s all up to the witnesses who hear the joke and whether they have the courage to confront a harasser. There are proven strategies for how to deal with inappropriate jokes in the workplace

Often women, especially women in male-dominated industries, like sports, construction, or technology, will not speak up about unsavory jokes. They may feel worried that they will be seen as difficult or too sensitive, or they may feel unsafe confronting the speaker. 

Since vulnerable co-workers or colleagues may not be able to do so, it is important to call the speaker out on their offensive suggestions if you are in such a position. Many times, the “joke” is merely an unstated inference that is sexually explicit, offensive, or harassing. The speaker relies on the unsaid words to land the joke–and the harassment. 

Can We Do Anything in the Workplace Anymore?

Unfortunately, some people feel like increasing social awareness of sexual harassment, brought about by the #MeToo movement and other social media campaigns, are ruining all the fun at work. The problem is that these people have been behaving inappropriately and they are complaining now that they are being held accountable for their actions. 

Another problem with letting colleagues get away with sexually offensive jokes is that it may embolden them to perpetrate other acts of sexual violence. 

These could include:

  • Inappropriate touching, perhaps too low on a colleague’s back
  • “Brushing” up against a colleague’s breasts, buttocks, or other body parts
  • Repeatedly asking for dates
  • Following a colleague, whether at work or on personal time

Basically, if you allow a person to make an excuse for one type of sexual harassment, they may be more inclined to try other acts for which they can make similar excuses: “I didn’t know I was touching them there” or “I didn’t even realize I was passing their house every day” might seem plausible enough to allow a harasser to get away with traumatizing another person.

What Else Should I Do About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

In addition to confronting the perpetrator of sexual harassment, you should consider reporting their behavior to a supervisor or the human resources department, if you have one. One common reason people fail to report is a fear of losing their job or being shunned for doing so. 

State and federal laws prevent employer retaliation against you if you report sexual harassment. If you become aware of sexual harassment and fail to report it, you may become complicit in allowing it to continue. Especially if you hold a supervisory position over either of the parties involved in the harassment. You can consult with an experienced employment law attorney to learn more about your rights in this situation.