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When does a joke become sexual harassment?

On Behalf of | Apr 17, 2023 | Workplace Harassment

“Lighten up. It was just a joke.” Perhaps you have heard that or something similar before. You may even have heard it a lot.

Some bosses and colleagues seem to think they can make sexist comments and dismiss it as nothing more than a harmless joke if the person they are talking about reacts negatively. Fortunately, the law does not agree. Employment law recognizes two forms of sexual harassment:

Quid pro quo

This is when someone asks for something sexual in exchange for something else. One example is if a boss says to an employee, “How about you jump into bed with me tonight, and we can see about that promotion you’re after.” That could be grounds for a sexual harassment claim, even if they have never said or done anything wrong before and claim they were joking.

Hostile work environment

Maybe the comment was less extreme and did not suggest an exchange of favors. Still, if it is part of a pattern of sexual harassment that makes going to work uncomfortable for those targeted or others around them, it could classify as sexual harassment under the concept of a hostile work environment.

The pattern could involve repeated comments or “jokes” as well as physical touch, sharing sexual images and more. What matters is that this was not just a one-off incident. Note that others who witness the behavior can bring a claim — not just the person targeted.

Employers need to take steps to prevent and deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. You’ll want to learn more about your legal options if they fail to do enough.