Learn the Difference: Joking vs. Harassment in the Workplace

No one wants to be stuck in a workplace that is boring and in which you cannot have any fun with your coworkers. However, sometimes “joking” can actually be workplace harassment. It is important that you know the difference between joking and harassment both so that you do not go too far and so that you know when the law has been broken if you are harassed.

If you believe you have been the victim of workplace harassment or have suffered due to another breach in employment law, contact The Law Offices of Larry H. Parker at 562-222-0146 for a free legal consultation.

People Are Bad Judges of What Others Will Find Funny

Harvard Business School researchers completed a study to see if others could guess what people found funny. It turned out that they could not. This was not just a question of people deciding with other general people would think – the study included couples who had been together for years. Even they, on average, were no better at predicting what their partner found humorous than was a statistical prediction model.

Why does this matter? Because even when one person finds a joke funny, innocent, and light, others could see it as offensive and even harassment.

The Line Between Joking and Harassment

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 all have clauses regarding harassment. Put simply, harassment refers to any unwelcome conduct that is based on certain protected characteristics. They include a person’s:

  • Age (if they are over 40)
  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

Note that the victim does not have to be the person that the “jokester” was targeting – it can be any person who is offended by the conduct.

Jokes That Can Be Construed as Unlawful Harassment

In order for a joke to be unlawful harassment, one of the following must be true:

  • Putting up with the joke was a condition of being employed. In other words, they would have been fired (or reasonably thought they would be fired) if they refused the “joke.”
  • The “jokes” were severe enough that a reasonable person would have found the work environment abusive, hostile, or intimidating.

Not that slighting someone or annoying them is not harassment. For example, if you make a mistake and your boss calls you a “rookie,” this might be aggravating, but it does not count as harassment. That is unless they constantly do it and you eventually feel unwelcome working there. At that point, you might have a case.

On the other hand, some “jokes” are serious enough that just one time is enough to form the basis for a harassment suit. For example, using a racial slur. If you believe you have been the victim of workplace harassment, contact The Law Offices of Larry H. Parker at 562-222-0146 to speak to an employment attorney.

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