Are Sexual Jokes by a Boss or Coworker Grounds for a Lawsuit?

February 1, 2020

People think of sexual harassment as a clear cut case where a work associate makes an advance or treats you in a certain way that makes you uncomfortable. Some of the situations that come to mind include:

  • Your boss offers a promotion if you go on a date or sleep with him/her.
  • A coworker or customer touches you as you pass and didn’t have your permission.
  • Your work associate sends you suggestive or explicit messages and won’t stop.

Other forms of harassment may not be as clear. This is why every company needs to have sexual harassment policies in place. Sexual jokes should be one of the policies that’s covered. If a company bans jokes of a sexual nature from being told in the workplace, it eliminates the risk. Unfortunately, some companies never think of jokes as being a possible form of harassment.

A boss or coworker tells an off-color joke that has you cringing. The joke may be about a same-sex relationship, a blonde woman being promiscuous, or a person of another culture being a prude. While the others are laughing, you found the joke of a sexual nature to be demeaning or crass. Does a dirty joke qualify as harassment? In short, the answer is yes, but it’s usually only considered as sexual harassment if the jokes are told regularly and not a few times a year.

If jokes about sexual orientation or sexual acts make you uncomfortable in the workplace or cause you to feel offended, it can constitute sexual harassment. You have two options. You could try to resolve it on your own or seek guidance from an expert in sexual harassment claims.

You find yourself in this position. Some of the people in your workplace are telling sexual jokes and you overhear them. It makes you uncomfortable and you fear what happens if you speak up. You’re not sure what to do next. These are the steps to take if you have a boss, coworker, or associate telling jokes of a sexual nature.

Tell Him/Her to Stop

If you can, privately talk to or email the joke teller and say the jokes are not funny to you. Ask that person to stop in a calm, polite manner. That may be enough to change his/her behavior. When possible, get documentation that you’ve asked that person to stop. Send the request in an email. That helps prove that you asked civilly. Keep records of the responses you get. Keep a journal of what happens after your request.

Talk to Management

If it doesn’t or the work associate makes fun of you or causes further offense, talk to your boss or supervisor. Again, be calm and keep track of the response you get. If the boss or supervisor doesn’t help or if your boss is the person saying the sexual jokes, it’s time to go to HR.

The HR department should have a system in place to handle the complaint. They may take a written account from you regarding dates and times, which is why it’s handy to keep a journal of when the jokes are told and what you’ve experienced when you asked the person to stop. They will start an investigation. You’re protected by laws so there should not be any retaliation.

Once the investigation is complete, you should be given written notice on what the resolution is. The person that told the joke will get a written reprimand that goes into his/her file. Sexual harassment training may be required. If it’s a repeat offense, the worker or boss may lose his/her job.

What cannot happen is that your boss or other work associates retaliate. If you are being subjected to an unusually heavy workload, negative treatment, demotion, or termination after making a complaint, your rights are being violated. You need to talk to an expert. A personal injury attorney who specializes in sexual harassment claims must be your next step.

Can You Sue?

Can you sue someone for sexual harassment that occurs due to a joke of a sexual nature? Again, yes you can if it made it impossible to perform your job. You can also sue if you did speak up and were demoted, fired, or treated in an unfair manner after making a complaint.

While it can be humiliating to stand up for yourself when the harassment involves a joke, you must take that step. Odds are that someone in the group that laughed was just as uncomfortable but lacked the courage to go against the others.

You can be courageous and stand up, but you don’t have to do it alone. The California sexual harassment attorneys at Shegerian Conniff are ready to help you through the process. Call us for a free consultation and know where’s here to support you through each step of the process. You don’t have to deal with sexual harassment alone.