Is a dumb joke sexual harassment?

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.

Related Posts

21 thoughts on “Is a dumb joke sexual harassment?

  1. I almost deleted my subscription to this blog thread since I am trying to “simplify” life. I read this article however, and was impressed not only by your writing skills, but at the practical non-threatening way in which you responded to the situation. I so often ask my clients the same question of “what do you want to accomplish” and the answer can change their perspective. Thank you.

  2. I am trying to complicate life and this letter and response did not disappoint. Also what is a pirate’s favorite letter of the alphabet? “ARRRRRRRR!” You’re welcome.

  3. At what point would you say that bad/inappropriate jokes DO become sexual harassment, or close enough that action might be required? I don’t disagree with you, but I am dealing with a situation where one of our department head’s sense of humor occasionally crosses the line of good taste. To me (I have a nominal HR role and report to the CFO) it seems dumb but not actionable, but I’m having trouble articulating that to my boss.

    1. It’s a very fine line, and difficult to navigate because sexual harassment law requires that not only is the person complaining offended, but that a normal person would be offended as well. And how do you know if someone is offended until you’ve said the joke?

      Different work places have wildly different standards, and someone who is laughing can be secretly taking notes and planning to spring. The good news is that the company has to be given the chance to rectify, but you don’t want to get to that point.

      How unhelpful is that? You don’t want to build a culture where off color is okay–because once you reach the point where a reasonable person could be offended, it’s just a ticking time bomb.

      1. That is helpful, believe it or not – specifically the piece about the org. having to get the chance to rectify or respond to the situation. Of course no, we don’t want to get to the point where we do have complaints on our hands, but I think it does allay the “OMG WE HAVE TO RESPOND TO EVERYTHING JUST IN CASE” paranoia.

  4. It is in the silliness of today’s world where people don’t have the common sense God gave a dog.

    No, it is not. It may be insensitive, off color, crude, vulgar and inappropriate but it is not harassment…..the definition of harassment today is ridiculous. If I am offended, put off or feel “threatened” by anything, and I do mean anything, you say, you are harassing me… is ridiculous and the lawyers love it.

  5. I find articles like this invaluable, if only because I would use up a week’s worth of my tact battery trying to answer this question. Now answering questions like this would only use up a couple days’ worth of tact!

    1. Thanks! The nice thing about taking questions via email is that I can ponder on the answer before responding, which isn’t so easy to do when someone is standing in your office.

    1. Oh, come on, “you’re driving me nuts!” is funny. Okay, not terribly funny.

      But, I’ll support your legislation.

  6. Here is the best way to “cure” someone of making off-color remarks: pretend to not understand. And keep asking about it as though they had said something totally reasonable and you really need to understand what they were saying.

    “What?” “I don’t understand.” “What wheel?” “Where did the wheel come from?” “Nuts?” “What do nuts have to do with driving?”

    Keep a puzzled look on your face and earnestly inquire until they give up in disgust and say ‘never mind!’ It will only take one or two times of doing this and they will stop because it’s just no fun any more.

    1. You’re not going to cure anyone with that, at best, they’ll stop telling you any jokes but they’ll save them for others (which I guess is the result you want).

      I’ve got a pretty sexual sense of humour (and I’m a woman) I simply keep it under wraps at work and I don’t need to be cured of anything. A sexual sense of humour isn’t a disease.

  7. I thought the nuts joke was benign – can’t see why anyone would be offended. Although I don’t actually get it?

    The ‘daddy’ one is definitely creepy. But if it’s one a once-off thing, personally I’d let it go. People sometimes make off-colour remarks once in a while. Unless they do it repetitively, I can’t see the point in making a big deal out of a one-time remark.

Comments are closed.

Are you looking for a new HR job? Or are you trying to hire a new HR person? Either way, hop on over to Evil HR Jobs, and you'll find what you're looking for.