Humor in the Workplace: When Does it Cross the Line?

Written by Ravi Sattiraju on October 8, 2018

Humor is one of the things that makes coming into work bearable. (That, and free donuts on Friday). Humor is also a way people can bond with each other, such as engaging in light teasing or coming up with fun nicknames to call each other.

But not everyone has the same sense of humor. And what is hilarious to one person could be offensive and denigrating to another. Laws at both the state and federal level prohibit harassment on the basis of certain protected characteristics, such as disability, race, sex, religion, color, religion, and age. If humor is consistently racial or sexual, for example, it might end up creating a hostile work environment.

How do you know if workplace humor has crossed the line? In truth, it isn’t so easy to tell.

Is the Harassment Severe and Pervasive?

One form of illegal workplace harassment occurs when the sum total of offensive conduct makes the workplace hostile. Offensive conduct can include:

  • Jokes;
  • Epithets;
  • Offensive remarks;
  • Slurs;
  • Nicknames;
  • Gestures; and
  • Offensive pictures.

Typically, a random joke is not enough to qualify as harassment. However, if the jokes are coupled with offensive touching, then the workplace might be hostile. And even if the humor never becomes physical, at some point it can become sufficiently pervasive that your workplace is so oppressive that it is discriminatory.

Did You Participate or Welcome Conduct?

Harassment must be unwelcome, so if you initiated or participated in offensive humor, it will be hard for you to claim you were offended. You can always claim you laughed simply to avoid standing out, but it is better if you spoke up and objected to the humor you find offensive.

How Do You Know if Humor Crosses the Line?

It is not always easy. Think of offensive humor as a sliding scale. At one end of the scale is a single salty joke told once in an otherwise boring workplace. At the opposite end is a workplace where offensive jokes are told every hour of every day of the week. At some point, in between these two poles, the workplace can become hostile, but there is no mathematical formula or bright line telling you when.

Furthermore, the courts will analyze workplace harassment based on a “reasonable person” standard. The question isn’t whether you were personally offended by the workplace humor; instead, the issue is whether a hypothetical reasonable person would be. It’s always possible you might be unusually sensitive.

What Should You Do?

The last thing you should do is simply grin and bear it. If the humor is interfering with your ability to do your job, you should meet with an experienced discrimination lawyer to review your case. The more examples you have to show your attorney the better. This doesn’t mean you should secretly record your coworkers without their consent. But you should keep a running list of offensive comments and note how often your colleagues make them.

Our New Jersey Sexual Harassment Lawyers Are Here for You Today

No one wants to be accused of being a prude or uptight. But sometimes workplace humor crosses the line. To learn more about whether you have a valid discrimination claim, meet with us today for an initial consultation. We can analyze your case and identify what are the best next steps to take.

Posted Under: New Jersey Employment Law, Uncategorized
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