Workplace humor is a sensitive matter and a hot topic. Many people want to know about inappropriate jokes in the workplace, what they are, and what can happen if someone tells them. This piece will look at workplace humor and discuss the elements that make an employee or manager’s jokes inappropriate.
Is There a Place for Workplace Humor?
Having a lively sense of humor is an excellent attribute in the workplace. Many people would love to have a job where they can have a good time and laugh as they perform their work tasks. Thus, an upbeat sense of humor is an asset because it can cultivate positive work environments when used correctly.
The issue is that too many people use “humor” to mask abusive tactics and circumvent accountability. Furthermore, what’s funny to one person may not be funny to another person, especially if he or she is the target of the “joke.”
What Makes a Joke Inappropriate?
A variety of circumstances can make a “good joke” inappropriate in the workplace. These are some of the factors that can change “a little teasing” into something that needs attention from a manager, human resources representative, or attorney:
A Sexual Nature
You might be thinking, “Is it okay to tell a dirty joke at work?” Sure it’s okay, if the joke is about how someone slipped and fell in the mud.
In most cases, sexual jokes aren’t okay because someone in the room can report them as sexual harassment. Some workers tend to joke about their sexual acquisitions to their buddies, but they risk getting reported.
According to law, sexual harassment includes sexual comments about men or women, even if the offenders classify them as “jokes.” Therefore, it’s best to avoid the subject altogether, unless you discuss it in a soundproof room with someone who won’t take offense.
A Violent Nature
Violence is nothing to joke about in the workplace, as many people have experienced it over the past few years. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that almost 21,000 workers suffered non-fatal violence in 2019 alone. The highest percentage of those people were women, and 21 percent of them needed more than a month to recover from physical and emotional damage.
That being said, today’s workplaces are likely to take violence-related jokes seriously. Some employers even have policies to terminate workers on the spot for anything related to violence.
Inappropriate jokes in the workplace often involve harmful intent. Workers and managers highlight other people’s flaws or chip away at their confidence to uplift themselves. Too much of that can cause a worker to operate in a hostile work environment.
Sadly, many workplaces don’t recognize the damage it does to other people, or they blame the target for not having thicker skin. While employers don’t necessarily “owe” anyone anything, they do have a legal responsibility to ensure that their workers are safe. Employee safety isn’t restricted to physical accident prevention; it includes emotional and psychological abuse.
Workers who bully their coworkers or employees in this manner may think there’s nothing they can do about it. But a seasoned attorney may see it differently. Thus, it’s probably best for mischievous workers to let their coworkers alone do their jobs. You’d be wise to refrain from participating.
A Protected Class
Joking about someone’s federally-protected class is always dangerous. The government still protects workers regarding their religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, etc.
All it takes is for one worker to be offended and take the matter to the appropriate entity to report. After all, workers and managers never know when employees might keep audio recording devices in their fanny packs to back up those crazy work stories they tell.
Hence, it’s probably best for people to avoid messing with someone they really don’t know. Foul intentions sometimes have a way of coming back on the people who execute them.
Sometimes, other people’s responses determine inappropriate jokes in the workplace. In most HR-related issues, only one person has to take an offense. For example, a couple of males or females might joke about another worker’s body parts and chuckle at the water cooler.
Those two guys or gals might think the joke is hilarious, but the person with the “juicy bum,” “nice package,” or “huge tatas” may not find it as laughable. The third party has the right to go to human resources and file a sexual harassment claim for the inappropriate joke.
He or she also has 180 days to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if the workplace handles the claim inappropriately. Examples of handling a claim inappropriately are:
- Failing to investigate the matter
- Victim blaming
- Retaliating against the employee for speaking out
- Reprimanding the employee
- Firing the offended employee
- Turning a blind eye to a hostile workplace environment
- Driving the offended worker out
Situations like the above can get hairy for an employer if the worker feels like putting energy into the matter. That’s a free-will choice an offended current or former employee gets to make.
Can You Get Fired for Inappropriate Joke Telling?
A worker can get terminated for telling an inappropriate joke on a first offense if it’s a serious matter. An at-will arrangement can end at any time as long as the termination doesn’t involve a worker’s protected class. That means an employer can choose to terminate someone who becomes a liability to the company by telling inappropriate jokes.
They can choose to handle the matter by issuing the worker or manager a warning, write-up, or suspension. Unfortunately, they can also choose to handle the matter inappropriately in one of the ways mentioned above.
Examples of Inappropriate Humor in the Workplace
Many jokes can be inappropriate for the workplace. These are a few broad examples:
- Joking about how someone’s entire race of people are lazy thieves who get government assistance. That doesn’t have a single thing to do with the work tasks, and it could offend someone who works hard for every dollar and doesn’t get any help of any kind. Besides, it isn’t likely that the joking workers know the personal business of the entire race.
- Giggling and calling an absent worker a pedophile or pervert. Even if the information is public, the workers aren’t supposed to discuss another person’s sexual habits or information. That’s pretty inappropriate and could cause the company problems, especially if the information isn’t accurate.
- Discussing and joking about another worker’s disability or accommodation with a new employee. Disability is supposed to be a private matter, according to the ADA. Neither managers nor workers have a right to disclose another employee’s disability to other workers. Thus, it might offend someone who hears it, and that person could choose to report it out of concern for the disabled worker.
- Calling someone a hoe or dog and laughing with other workers. Not only is it inappropriate, but it can cause issues for the company if the “joking” worker also violated the “hoe” against her wishes in the workplace previously. Even if the jokes are unrelated to anything between the workers, they still leave room for sexual harassment claims.
When Does Joking At Work Go Too Far?
Use good judgement when deciding when joking at work goes too far. Joking goes too far when it turns into a malicious act to harm another person. It’s too much when it becomes a mob versus one person trying to pay his or her bills.
It’s excessive when it affects another person negatively, and the individual cannot perform the work duties in peace. Situations like these are not the offended party’s fault for getting offended. They’re the workplace’s fault for not managing their workers.
How To Deal With Inappropriate Jokes in the Workplace
Since there isn’t much workers can do to control other people’s bad behavior, they can only use available resources and methods. They could try approaching the joke teller. They can pull that person aside and ask the party to refrain from telling inappropriate jokes because they offend them.
The other party would respect the offended worker’s position in a perfect world, but the world is far from perfect. Thus, the other worker might increase the offensive behavior as soon as the other worker identifies it as something bothersome.
Offended workers can seek comfort and guidance from their managers, but they may be disappointed to find that their managers won’t manage the situation. In fact, the manager may defend the other person’s behavior as “just joking around and having fun.” The amount of “help” a worker gets depends on the business and how it operates.
HR is sometimes a helpful place to go if they aren’t a third-party organization with no clue what’s going on. They might do a little more to neutralize the occurrence. It really depends on the establishment and its level of integrity.
The last resort is seeking other employment and considering consulting with an attorney or EEOC representative. Offensive behavior is never okay. But it’s up to the employees to turn the other cheek and let it go or take the entire establishment through as much inconvenience as they had to go through.
Now you know which jokes are most likely inappropriate. If you’re not sure, ask, and if you are sure, don’t do it.