Can a “Joke” Qualify as Sexual Harassment in Connecticut?

Sexual harassment is not always well understood. Many people have questions about what is and what is not sexual harassment. As an example, what if a supervisor or co-worker claims that they were “just joking”? Can that comment still be considered sexual harassment? The short answer is “yes”—but it always depends on the specific circumstances of the case. Here, our New Haven sexual harassment attorneys explain the most important things you need to know about the legal standard for offensive jokes and similar types of comments. 

Understanding the Sexual Harassment Standard: Severe or Pervasive

Neither federal law nor Connecticut law prohibits joking or teasing in the workplace. That being said, labeling conduct as a “joke” is not necessarily a valid defense against a sexual harassment claim. As explained by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employee has been a victim of hostile work environment sexual harassment if the offensive conduct they endured was so severe or so frequent that it would make a reasonable person feel unsafe or unwelcome in the workplace. In other words, “jokes” may be deemed sexual harassment if: 

  1. A single joke was extremely offensive; or
  2. Many jokes—while possibly minor—occurred over and over again. 

Ultimately, what constitutes “severe” or “pervasive” hostility must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. That being said, if you feel or felt unwelcome in your workplace because of sexual jokes or otherwise offensive jokes, you should consult with an experienced New Haven, CT hostile work environment attorney. Your rights may have been violated. 

Joking is Not a Defense: Impact Matters Far More than Intent

The fact that something was a joke is not, in and of itself, a valid legal defense. This is because the impact of the behavior matters for more than the intent. Indeed, the intent of the person(s) making the joke is very much a secondary issue. What is just a joke to some people may be deeply hurtful to others. Even if the person truly meant no harm and was just trying to be funny, it can still be sexual harassment. 

The effect that the conduct has on the victim—and their ability to feel safe and comfortable in their workplace—is what matters most. Comments said in a joking manner can absolutely create a hostile environment. That is not to say that all offensive jokes are necessarily unlawful sexual harassment. Still, all complaints should be taken seriously and an employee’s concerns should not be brushed off by their employer. 

Call Our New Haven, CT Sexual Harassment Lawyers for Assistance

At Hayber, McKenna & Dinsmore, LLC, our Connecticut employment lawyers have the skills and experience to handle the full range of sexual harassment claims. If you have any questions about sexual harassment and “joking” behavior, we are ready to help. To get a completely confidential initial consultation, please contact our law firm at (203) 691-6491. With an office in New Haven, we represent employees throughout the region, including in Middletown, Bridgeport, Stamford and Waterbury.

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