Breaking up the monotony of work with humor can be a welcome relief for co-workers. It can help break the tension and put people more at ease. However, when those jokes turn sexual in nature, they can make others feel uncomfortable and in certain cases, even threatened. Sexual joking may seem harmless, but it is rude and isolating to those who might be the intended or unintended target of a joke. It crosses the line into sexual harassment, which is illegal and not something an employee should have to deal with.
When Does Joking Become Sexual Harassment?
A joke that is sexual in nature crosses the line into harassment when it becomes unwelcome or a person who is impacted by the joke asks the person who told it to stop. The complication is that an employee may feel compelled to participate in uncomfortable behavior because they are trying to get along with the rest of their co-workers or they may even fear that their job is in jeopardy if they do not participate.
This is often a problem for women, especially those in male-dominated professions. A man may tell an off-color joke not realizing the harm, and a woman could try to ignore it or laugh it off because they are afraid of coming off as difficult to work with or someone who is easily offended.
If a person makes a joke that is in bad taste, this alone is not enough to constitute sexual harassment. There must be a pattern or a continuous display of such jokes. However, if a person tells an off-color joke that goes unnoticed, they might feel emboldened to tell another one and potentially push the envelope the next time around.
Those who are troubled by continuous jokes made at their expense or find themselves where such humor is not only commonplace, but also expected, have legal options to fight back against this culture. The first step is to reach out to a sexual harassment lawyer who will provide informed legal guidance on the best way to proceed in this type of situation.
What Constitutes a Sexual Joke?
There can be a variety of different manifestations of a sexual joke. They could be verbal or written and include images as well. In certain instances, these jokes are told among co-workers, emailed to a group, or even posted on a wall in the break room or at someone’s desk. Other examples of sexual jokes that can be considered harassment include the following:
- Jokes demeaning women
- Teasing regarding someone’s sexuality or sexual orientation
- Sexual comments about a person’s physique, appearance, or clothing
- Forwarding or generating sexual imagery through email
- Social media posts of a sexual nature targeting an individual
- Sexual stories or innuendos
- Sexual gifts
- Asking about a person’s sexual history or preferences
- Rude, crude, and sexual gestures
- Turning work discussions to sexual topics
- Spreading rumors about a person’s sex life
- Unnecessary or unwelcome sexual references
- Personal asides about sexual fantasies, preference, or history
Those who engage in these types of jokes should stop them immediately.
How Do Sexual Jokes Lead to Problems at Work?
Management owes it to their employees to maintain a safe and healthy work environment. That means everyone should feel comfortable in their workspace, and jokes of this nature can contribute to a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment is created when continuous abuse makes the daily activity of performing one’s job difficult. The primary factors involved have to do with a person suffering from sexual harassment or employment discrimination, regardless of what it is focused on. Sexual jokes can contribute to this environment.
In addition, an employee could suffer from emotional, mental, and physical anguish that could carry over to other aspects of their life. They might find themselves having difficulty sleeping, eating, or develop stress-related ailments. There are those who use sexual jokes to garner attention for themselves or just to make people laugh. They may not realize the harm their words are having on people. There are also those that know exactly how it is impacting people and use sexual jokes solely to intimidate people or their subordinates.
What Laws Cover Sexual Jokes?
Since sexual jokes can be considered sexual harassment, the same laws that apply to harassment apply here. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the mistreatment of workers. Those employees who believe that they have been the target of sexual harassment have multiple outside agencies to report the misdeeds of their company. At the federal level, they can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There is a 180-day limit for a person to file the complaint. In Pennsylvania, a person has 300 days to file a grievance with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).
What Should I Do About Sexual Jokes in the Office?
No one should feel uncomfortable or unsafe at work because of the actions of others. All workers have the right to work in a safe and welcoming environment. They also have the right to confront the person who is making them feel uncomfortable. There are multiple steps an employee can take when dealing with sexual jokes that might rectify the situation, such as:
- Speaking to the person: When an employee feels uncomfortable with a situation, they should speak directly with the person responsible. The conversation should be in private and be polite and friendly. The employee should explain to the person who told the joke why it might be offensive and how it made them feel.
- Collecting evidence: If a person is sending jokes through email or leaving pictures at a colleague’s workspace or in public area, the target of those jokes should collect them. They can use them when filing a complaint or lawsuit.
- Offering solutions: If an employee fails to reason with a person telling off-color jokes, the next option is to go to a supervisor. The employee should explain what took place and offer solutions, such as suggesting that the company host workshops to help employees understand the harm certain words can cause.
- Reporting the company: If the supervisor fails to provide any satisfaction to the request or the employee experiences retaliation for lodging a complaint, the employee can then report the situation to an outside government agency, such as the EEOC or the PHRC. A person can report their case to the EEOC and the state agency, since both share cases. However, numerous lawyers recommend starting at the state level first.
- Filing a lawsuit: A lawsuit is always an option for a person who is feeling uncomfortable at work, especially if management has been either unresponsive or hostile toward a complaint. The employee can consult with a sexual harassment lawyer on the appropriate time to file a lawsuit.
Those who are feeling targeted or isolated at work have numerous options to alleviate the situation. Ultimately, however, it is up to the company to guarantee that their employees can work and thrive in an open and welcoming environment.
Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Fight Against Sexual Joking in the Workplace
Jokes around the office can be fun and stress-relieving. However, when they cross the line into sexual joking, they can become stressful and intimidating. If you are faced with constant sexual joking that makes you uncomfortable, you do not have to tolerate it. The Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. will defend your rights. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County, as well as New York.