“But it was just a joke!”
“You’re too sensitive!”
“Jeez, I was just teasing you!”
“Just kidding! You just take everything too seriously!”
Sound familiar? These are all things people say when someone reacts negatively to inappropriate humor in the workplace. Whether it is an off-hand comment, a casual remark, or a mocking phrase these can be hurtful and have a lasting impact on workplace culture.
Sometimes, it may just be a poor choice of words with nothing behind it. But often, teasing and inappropriate jokes conceal a mean-spirited attempt to put a coworker or staff member down. In either case, off-color jokes can quickly become problematic in the work environment and considered actionable harassment once:
- Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment
- Conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.1
That’s why when humor turns mean or offensive at work you must take steps to ensure that staff understands that there are clear lines between humor and harassment in the workplace.
Inappropriate Work Jokes Are Nothing New
Covering up prejudices, personal animosity or other uncomfortable feelings like jealousy or insecurity with “humor” has been used as a tactic since the beginning of work. Unfortunately, jokes are used as a way to say something nasty and then blame the recipient for reacting.
It’s possible that some employees aren’t aware of the impact of their words. For example, in some families, little put-downs and insults are common fares, so an employee might then carry that communication style into the workplace. Others might be using humor to share feelings they don’t know how to express directly. Some people feel it shows off their wit when they craft pointed barbs. And, yes, unfortunately, some employees just enjoy the reaction.
The fact is, just because off-color inappropriate humor in the workplace is common doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. When it happens, and the reaction is negative, it’s not a joke. Negative effects of humor in the workplace are sometimes severe enough that they result in a violation of any number of state or federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). Federal agencies have steadily increased the enforcement of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws in recent years.
Addressing Inappropriate Comments In the Workplace
Harassment and discrimination have significant impacts on the workplace including increased turnover, decreased productivity, not to mention the legal costs. If the issues are limited to just a few people, a manager may be inclined to talk with people on an individual basis, but this might not be enough. To ensure that the entire staff is on the same page about appropriate workplace humor, it’s a good idea to require that people at all levels of your organization complete sexual harassment and discrimination training. Company-wide training ensures that everyone understands their rights and feels empowered to intervene if they encounter unacceptable behavior.
If you have multiple locations, remote workers, or a problem getting everyone together for training, look for a virtual training system that can deliver consistent content to your entire team. Remember to include management in any training program. Managers play a critical role in preventing harassment within their teams.
How to Deal With Inappropriate Jokes
In addition to harassment training, a program that teaches and reinforces empathy toward other employees is a great way to deal with inappropriate jokes. These programs help employees see situations from other peoples’ perspectives in order to better understand why inappropriate humor in the workplace is harmful. Explore diversity and inclusion programs and training programs that focus on employees’ self-awareness.
Discourage Inappropriate Work Jokes From the Top Down
All the training in the world won’t make an impact if the staff sees management making inappropriate jokes or comments about employees in meetings or in preferential side conversations. Make it clear from the top down that verbally abusive speech won’t be tolerated at any level.
Make it a Company Value
Some companies encourage a cutthroat attitude as their company culture. In such an organization, there might be a low tolerance for anyone complaining about hurt feelings or unkind humor. If you’re serious about eliminating this form of harassment from your company, you may need to take a hard look at the formal and informal company culture. It might be time to rethink any norms that encourage potentially harassing or discriminatory behavior.
No zero-tolerance policies! There will always be times when someone will make an unfortunate statement or will try to make light of something hurtful. What you need to watch for is a pattern of jokes and inappropriate humor in the workplace that is more mean than funny. Offer ways for employees to report incidents anonymously, and look for names that come up frequently. Harassment is not a joke, so make sure you’re ready and able to handle the situations when they arise.
1 Harassment, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.