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Is a “joke” a form of harassment or discrimination?

You’ve been working hard in your career for years, and you finally get the promotion that you’ve been seeking. You’re now going to be in a management position at the company that you work for, and you’re very excited about it.

But on the first day that you go in for this new job, you face some discriminatory remarks. For instance, perhaps you are a female worker and you will be managing male workers who are level below you in the corporate hierarchy. But when you are introduced, one of them makes an offhand comment about how they “didn’t know women could be in leadership at this company.” Then they look around the room, grinning, as if expecting others to agree with this “joke.”

Jokes are not an excuse

As you can already see from this example, jokes certainly can be a form of harassment. In this case, it is potentially harassment and discrimination, especially if this attitude is pervasive at the company and may have made it more difficult for you to get the promotion. It may have held you back in other ways in your career.

That said, “It was just a joke!” is one of the main ways that people will try to excuse their poor behavior. They may even try to gaslight you into believing that it is your fault, claiming that you just “don’t have a sense of humor” or you “just didn’t get it.”

But no matter what they say, all employees deserve to be treated fairly and equally. Discrimination and harassment based on things like gender, sex, race or religion are prohibited. If you’re facing this type of conflict at work, make sure that you are well aware of all of your legal options.


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