Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s time to call.

When does joking become harassment?

On Behalf of | May 28, 2024 | Employment Law

The workplace needs humor, especially to get through tough and stressful times. But all too often, co-workers crack jokes at the expense of others, creating an uncomfortable situation.

Sometimes this joking is meant to be innocent, but in other circumstances it’s aimed at intentionally harming the target or those who are nearby.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of these statements, or if you’ve been made uncomfortable just by being present when they’re made, then you might be wondering where the line is between innocent office banter and harassment and discrimination.

It’s a good question, and one that lawyers have to grapple with all the time. In the remainder of this post, we want to look at the issue a little more closely so that you can better gauge whether you should consider taking legal action due to the harm that’s been caused to you by workplace discrimination or harassment.

When does it go too far?

To better determine when joking crosses the line and becomes harassment, we have to look at how harassment is defined. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment is a type of discrimination that occurs when unwelcome conduct is based on an individual’s presence in a protected class such as age, gender, ethnicity, nationality or religion. However, such harassment is only deemed illegal if tolerating it is a condition of maintaining your employment or the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment.

Therefore, when assessing whether workplace humor has crossed the line, it’s helpful to analyze the content of what’s being said and done. If a joke doesn’t take aim at a protected class, then it’s probably not illegal, even if it is in bad taste or annoying. But if the joking is severe, such as relying on a racial slur, or involves a protected class and is incessant, then there’s a good chance that unlawful harassment has occurred.

Examples of when joking crosses over into harassment

Still, it can be hard to tell when a one-off joke crosses the line and becomes harassing in nature. Here are some examples of when workplace humor and behavior goes too far and become harassment:

  • Jokes that marginalize or are hostile towards a group of people.
  • Unwelcome comments about someone’s physical appearance, including those comments that are sexually explicit.
  • Constant statements that seem to belittle someone because of their presence in a protected class.
  • Personal stories that are insensitive to the characteristics of others.
  • Asking personal questions that leave a worker feeling uncomfortable, threatened, or even afraid.

If you’ve been subjected to any of these situations, or if you’re unsure of whether you’ve been subjected to harassment, then you’re better off erring on the side of caution and reporting the concerning behavior to your employer. If your employer then fails to take action to protect you, it may be time to take legal action.

Act on your rights as a worker

You have several workplace protections. The sad reality, though, is that it’s up to you to act on those rights to ensure that you protect your interests as fully as possible. Therefore, if you suspect that you’ve been harassed, be proactive in seeking recourse. Only then can you find accountability and potentially recover the compensation you deserve for the harm that’s been caused to you.

If you’re unsure of where to start with all of this, don’t worry. There are ways to find the help you need to get through this difficult time in your life.