Two employees making fun of female coworker

When Jokes at Work Become Sexual Harassment

By Douglas Lipsky

Many people spend their days at work, and jokes are a way to have a few laughs, connect with coworkers and reduce stress. But inappropriate sexual jokes can create a hostile work environment. If you have been subjected to offensive jokes in your workplace, talk to an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. This article discusses how sexual jokes may be the basis of a sexual harassment lawsuit. 

Inappropriate Jokes in New York Workplaces

Despite federal, state, and local laws designed to protect employees against harassment, inappropriate joking is common in many workplaces. Whether jokes are offensive is subject to interpretation. An offhand remark or occasional off-color joke may not constitute sexual harassment. On the other hand, sexual jokes that are severe or pervasive may rise to the level of a hostile work environment. The following are examples of inappropriate jokes that might cross the line into harassment: 

  • Demeaning jokes about an employee’s gender (male or female) or gender identity (nonbinary)
  • Jokes about a coworker’s sexuality or sexual orientation
  • Sexual comments about an employee’s appearance
  • Inappropriate jokes or images sent through email or another electronic communication
  • Gag gifts of a sexual nature
  • Sexual gestures

Some consider inappropriate jokes harmless, while others may find them offensive. In some cases, people tell sexual jokes as a way to intimidate subordinates or colleagues. Regardless of the intent, sexual jokes in the workplace may violate federal, state, and city laws – sexual harassment is considered an unlawful form of discrimination. 

Why You Need a Sexual Harassment Lawyer

All employees in New York have a right to a work environment free from sexual harassment, including offensive jokes that create a hostile work environment. But taking legal action against an employer and proving a sexual harassment claim is challenging. 

An experienced employment lawyer can help to protect your rights and hold your employer accountable. In short, employers may be liable for inappropriate jokes by anyone – supervisor, coworker, vendor, customer, or client – that constitute sexual harassment. Your lawyer can investigate to determine whether:

  • Sexual jokes commonly occur in your workplace
  • The jokes were about you (e.g. based on your gender, appearance, or sexual orientation)
  • You complained to a supervisor or human resources personnel about the offensive jokes
  • Your employer knew about the sexual jokes and failed to take corrective measures

Although you may be reluctant to come forward out of fear of losing your job, your employer cannot legally retaliate against you for complaining about sexual jokes in the workplace. Your employer cannot fire, demote, or discipline you for reporting sexual harassment. 

The Takeaway 

There’s a time and a place for good humor, but sexual jokes in the workplace are offensive and illegal. In a successful sexual harassment claim, you may be entitled to compensatory damages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, attorney fees, and court costs. The best way to protect your rights is to consult an experienced sexual harassment attorney.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.