Some sexual harassment on the job is fairly clear. If a supervisor makes statements about how one gender cannot do their job properly or if a co-worker makes direct comments about someone else’s body, you know something is off. You know that’s a potentially hostile workplace environment. You don’t have to think about whether or not it crossed a line. You know it did.

However, one area where the lines can become rather gray is when it comes to jokes. Humor, on the whole, is a good thing in the workplace. But when does that off-color joke cross the line? When is that “joke” really just an offensive comment? When is someone serious and when are they not? It’s often hard to tell.

The problem with jokes

The first thing we need to make clear is that jokes can become sexual harassment. This is especially true when they happen all the time. That’s what leads to a hostile workplace. One joke made in poor taste, especially when the person apologizes after seeing how offensive it is, may have less of an impact. Daily joking that makes workers feel uncomfortable or even afraid, though, is something else entirely.

Sometimes, it may be a slow process. Experts have said that it can “deteriorate” over time and become harassment. Maybe it started as an honest joke, but the person just would not let up. They kept pushing things farther and farther until it was clear they had left those lines far behind.

Another issue, as some experts have noted, is that “humor sends a serious message.” Another way to think about this is the old adage that everything we say in jest has roots in what we honestly think.

So, if your boss makes sexual or gender-based jokes at your expense, they may claim they just thought it was funny. But they still told you what they think of you. There’s a grain of truth in there. They may laugh and smile and try to act like it’s all in good fun, but you know what they think. The joke may take it farther or exaggerate it, but it may not negate their position entirely.

That too can make for a hostile workplace. When the jokes focus on you, it can harm your mental and emotional health. It can make you see that those telling the jokes — and those laughing at them — are standing against you. That type of harassment and discrimination cannot be allowed to thrive in the workplace.

What now?

If you do find yourself facing any type of harassment, it is critical that you know exactly what steps you can take to protect yourself and your career.

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