When someone sexually harasses another worker and is accused of doing so, perhaps to HR or perhaps right in the offensive moment, one of the most common excuses they make is to say that it was “just a joke.”
People often use this as a tactic to deflect responsibility for their actions. They understand that the victim is angry about what has just happened, but rather than admitting to what they’ve done and apologizing, they try to act as if they haven’t actually done anything wrong. They may even try to make it seem like the victim is simply being too sensitive and that they are somehow in the wrong.
It’s important to remember that this can still be an example of sexual harassment. Saying that something is a joke is not an excuse. This is especially true if this kind of behavior continues all the time and creates a hostile work environment in the workplace, where employees of one gender feel that they are being treated differently than those of another gender. Even when they are not specifically targeted with these jokes, they may still feel like they are uncomfortable at work or that they are not being given equal treatment to their peers.
This is more common than many people realize
Why do we need to consider this? One reason is simply that it happens a lot. In one study, men were asked if they made a practice of “telling sexual jokes or stories that some might consider offensive.” Roughly 20% of them, or one out of every five, said that they did so. This means that even working at a small business with just a few employees means there’s a good chance you could encounter someone who often makes these types of off-color jokes.
If you’ve been discriminated against or harassed on the job due to your gender, always make sure you know what legal steps you can take. You do not just have to accept this behavior.