have you ever heard an employer or co-worker say something in a work environment that seemed completely inappropriate, but no one else seemed to notice? Or have you ever told a joke at work and realized that others took it the wrong way? The line between joking around and harassing an employee can be both thin and pronounced at the same time.
While there is nothing wrong with joking around and having fun in the workplace, it stops being okay when someone starts feeling belittled, frightened, or uncomfortable. How do you recognize when someone feels harassed, and is it ever really completely safe to joke around at work?
The Responsibility of an Employer is No Joke
Jokes of a sexual nature are never okay at work, especially when power enters the equation. A position of authority makes the line between joking and harassment even more important. While employees of equal standing can find themselves in trouble for creating a hostile work environment for a co-worker, supervisors, managers, and executives have an even more important duty to guard against even the appearance of impropriety with lower-level employees.
If they can’t set the example, well, that does not bode well for the overall atmosphere on the job. Also, they are, in the eyes of the law, responsible for the work environment. They are in a position to deal with complaints and for hiring and training employees, so they are even more responsible to make sure that no one feels harassed in the workplace.
The most obvious, clear-cut sign that you have crossed a line is through an employee complaint. If you have received notice that someone is offended by your behavior, stop immediately. If you are the person that feels uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to speak up, even if your co-workers are. Employers have an obligation to create a reasonably safe workplace for all employees and to respond to legitimate complaints, but it is every employee’s responsibility to inform someone in a position of authority that there is a situation at hand that requires intervention.
If the person that is harassing you is your boss, you can try going directly to them if you feel comfortable, or you can go to the HR department for help. Some companies now have online forms available to file a complaint for investigation. If there is no HR department at your company, seek out an employment attorney for help.
Play it Safe
The best way to avoid claims of harassment is to avoid telling jokes of an offensive nature. In addition, if you get even the slightest hint that your behavior is making people uncomfortable, change it. If you are in a position of power, you have the duty to look out for people who make other workers uncomfortable. Creating a fun, positive work atmosphere does not need to include sexual or stereotypical humor. The line between telling a joke and harassing employees to the point where they are uncomfortable is quite clear, you just have to pay attention and be aware of your words and actions in the workplace.