“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? They’re all things people say when someone reacts to an offhand comment, a casual remark or a mocking phrase that came off as hurtful.

Sometimes, it may just be a poor choice of words, with nothing behind it. But often, “teasing” and little “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 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the 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, as a manager, you must take steps to ensure that staff understands that there are clear lines between humor and harassment in the workplace.

It’s nothing new.

Covering up prejudices, personal animosity or other uncomfortable feelings like jealousy or insecurity with “humor” has been used as long as workplaces have been around 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 fare, 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 humor is common doesn’t mean it’s acceptable at work. When it happens often, and the reaction is negative, it’s not a joke. It’s workplace harassment that could violate 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). What’s more, federal agencies have steadily increased enforcement of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws in recent years.

So, what can you do?

Harassment and discrimination are tricky topics that lead to many different reactions, often including discomfort or annoyance. If the issues are limited to just a few people, a manager may be inclined to talk with people on an individual basis. This can backfire, however, because singling out people may put them on the defensive and could possibly increase internal hostilities. 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. That way everyone understand their rights and responsibilities and employees aren’t as likely to claim they didn’t know their behavior constituted harassment or discrimination, should charges being filed.

If you have multiple locations, remote workers or a problem scheduling training for everyone at once, look for a virtual training system that can deliver the same content to all members of your organization. Remember to include management in any training program. Managers can be as much a part of the problem, whether they are actively harassing staff members with mean spirited comments, or are failing to take action against those who do.

Emphasize empathy.

In addition to harassment training, a program that teaches and reinforces empathy toward other employees is a good second-level of training for helping employees see situations from other peoples’ perspectives in order to better understand why some humor is simply not appropriate in the workplace. Look for a diversity awareness or sensitivity training workshop or training tool that can increase awareness of how words can impact others.

Model behavior from the top down.

All the training in the world won’t change a thing if the staff sees management making nasty 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 adopt a cutthroat attitude as a business norm. In such an organization, there would probably be a very 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.

Don’t overreact.

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 humor that are more mean than funny. Offer ways for employees to report incidents anonymously, and look for names that come up frequently. Harassment is no joke, so make sure you’re ready and able to handle the situations when they arise.


1 Harassment, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.