Sexual Harassment at Work: How to Deal With Inappropriate ‘Jokes’

Sexual Harassment at Work

An office is supposed to be a place of professionalism and dignity. Sure, friendships and relationships can develop, but for the most part, people show up for work. Unfortunately, some do not seem to understand the need for professional behavior. 

In 2021 alone, there were over 8,191 cases of sexual harassment charges filed in the U.S. The majority of these victims tend to be women. Interestingly, if that figure feels low, it probably is. 

Most victims of sexual harassment do not report it out of fear. This fear stems from the implicit or explicit threats revolving around their career growth and professional reputation. 

In this article, we will look at one of the most common defenses that abusers use. The trick of passing off sexual harassment as ‘jokes.’ We will explore the importance of boundaries and how establishing them early on can reduce the likelihood of harassment. 

Employers Have Legal Obligations to Prevent Sexual Harassment

Before we dig into the subject of boundaries, it is worth noting that employers have to meet certain obligations. While laws might differ between states, most have explicit rules regarding sexual harassment prevention. 

Look at states like California. Its sexual harassment laws, such as section 12940 of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), are very clear. It states that employers shouldn’t discriminate based on sex or gender and makes them responsible for preventing harassment as well. 

Employers can’t escape by not committing harassment themselves. They need to take active steps to ensure all employees are treated fairly. The Law Offices of Jeremy Pasternak note the consequences of non-compliance with an example from a landmark case. 

This refers to the Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie lawsuit, which had the defendants pay $3.5 million in punitive damages. No employer wants to risk such a situation happening under their watch. As a result, sexual harassment prevention has improved a lot in recent years. 

That said, harassment still occurs, especially in more subtle ways that can be tricky to catch. Let’s explore how you can deal with sexual harassment when it comes in the form of inappropriate jokes and remarks. 

Boundaries Need to Be Drawn Early

If you are a new face in the office, abusers will often test how you react to ‘jokes.’ Most people want to make friends at a new place and will take them in stride. Initially, these jokes may appear completely innocent. You might even notice other female coworkers laughing along. 

You naturally lower your guard and smile or laugh. However, if the person who made the joke is an abuser, you may notice the nature of these jokes change. (Note, sexual harassment obviously occurs in many ways. In this article, we are primarily looking at the more indirect type.)

The abuser may start to joke with you alone, away from other coworkers, and you start to feel uncomfortable. Often, instead of drawing a line when we get uncomfortable, we suppress our feelings and try to keep things peaceful. 

This is the biggest mistake that you can make. Abusers are looking for precisely this type of silence. They hope that you will second-guess yourself with questions like, 

“That wasn’t inappropriate, right?”

“Maybe I am just being over-sensitive.”

Or even, 

“I guess jokes like these get told in every office.”

By not speaking up immediately, you give your abuser more power. The jokes or remarks keep getting more inappropriate until it feels too late to speak up. 

How Can You Draw Boundaries in a Tactful Manner?

If someone is making you uncomfortable, not offending them should be the least of your concerns. That said, sometimes a joke may actually be a joke, and misunderstandings can occur. Tactfulness can keep things professional while also addressing the issue.

On receiving an inappropriate comment, instead of smiling or ignoring it, ask them to explain what they mean. This disarms many abusers. 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you meant by that. Can you repeat that once more?” 

A lot of inappropriate harassment relies on suggestions and innuendo. When you ask them to repeat or explain what they said, their harassment loses power. 

“Did you mean for that to sound inappropriate?” is another good response you can use.

If they feel caught, they will go the typical route of telling you to ‘calm down’ or  ‘relax.’ Instead of responding immediately, let the silence sit for a while. It’s interesting how abusers lose interest when they realize their attempt at getting a rise out of you isn’t working. 

More importantly, the situation no longer becomes one that gratifies them. Abusers enjoy the discomfort they can create and revel in that power. Strip that away, and they are likely to stop harassing you. If they press the issue, tell them straight that you don’t find the conversation appropriate and want them to stop. 

This gives most people a reality check because they realize you might readily report them and press charges.


It’s interesting how a lot of harassment disappears when abusers don’t find you vulnerable. You don’t have to be physically stronger than them. Simply knowing how to deflate their advances can be all that’s necessary. 

Naturally, you should escalate things if the situation is more serious. In fact, if a coworker or manager disregards your desire for appropriate conversation, you shouldn’t hesitate to file a complaint. 

Additionally, if you witness a colleague being harassed, it can be helpful to know how to help them out. Remember, the more people that stand up to harassment, the less power abusers have.

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