Is a dumb joke sexual harassment?

by Evil HR Lady on December 8, 2014

I have been a contractor at a bio pharmacy company for six years. Due to a reorganization, I am no longer qualified to do the job that I have performed since 2008.

I want to know how to address two inappropriate sexual comments made.

My director, a male, shared a joke during an offsite holiday lunch. The joke was…what did the Pirate say when the wheel fell in his pants? “You are driving me NUTS.” It is appropriate for the director (male) to make reference to testicles as ‘Nuts’ during our lunch? There were four ladies from the department, including my immediate supervisor, a woman, who is a Sr. Manager. The Sr. Manager (a woman) laughed and said, “Niccee!” I think this is completely inappropriate.

Also, the Executive Director fixed the copy machine that had caused a co-worker some anxiety. When she went to the copy machine again, the Executive Director had fixed the printer and asked the female co-worker, “Who is your Daddy?” That comment is out of place and creepy. Is this a question of dominance or sexuality?

What should I do with these inappropriate comments? Should I report them to the employment agency, which is my employer? What will be the consequences to telling those sexual comments to the agency? Am I kissing my past six years of references good-bye? Will I be ‘blackballed’ and cannot find employment?

What’s your goal in telling the agency? If it’s to get your job back, it won’t happen. You were a contractor in the first place and in the second, you’re not qualified to do the job anymore. If it is to get your former manager in trouble, that’s not likely to happen either. The contract the agency has with the company is more valuable to them then your relationship is, so they aren’t going to hand slap (they don’t have the power) or refuse to do business with this guy again. So, what do you hope to accomplish?

While you’re thinking about that, let’s talk about sexual harassment. In order for someone to be considered sexually harassing you, or for a workplace to be considered “hostile” it has to be pervasive and you have to be offended. I’m pretty prudish and easily offended and I snorted at the pirate joke and told it to my husband. His verdict? That’s a stupid joke. It is. It’s a stupid joke. The “who’s your daddy?” comment is just dumb. If it was part of a constant stream of questionable sayings, it would be problematic, but in isolation and even with the “you’re driving me nuts!” joke, it hardly rises to harassment or a hostile workplace.

So, let it go. I suspect that if you hadn’t been terminated, you probably wouldn’t be thinking much about these incidents. But since you were terminated, you’re annoyed and jobless and you have time to dwell on these topics. And you are annoyed because the joke really isn’t appropriate for an office, and maybe the guy is a jerk after all and, well, somebody should get in trouble!

With sexual harassment claims, you have to give the company an opportunity to fix the issue, which means you really can’t raise it after you’re gone.

Let’s talk about how to handle this in the future. When someone tells an inappropriate joke, speak up in the moment, “That’s a little off color, don’t you think?” or if it’s a touchy political situation, say something privately as soon as possible. “Bill, I would really appreciate it if you don’t make jokes like the one you made today. I found it offensive. Thanks!” This gives the person the opportunity to change their behavior. If the behavior persists, then bring it up with HR. Although, I wouldn’t advise bringing either of these situations to HR unless they are part of a larger context of discrimination or harassment. They both can be supportive evidence of bad behavior, but in isolation neither is bad on its own.

The biggest thing for you to do, though, is throw your efforts into looking for a new job. That is what will make this all better. And, you certainly don’t want to have anyone have negative feelings about you for complaining about this.

Now, if this hadn’t been a joke but a “If you sleep with me, I won’t lay you off,” from the executive director, I’d tell you to report that, ASAP, and let the reference consequences be darned But, not worth the risk over a joke or two.

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