Why you must deal with offensive jokes

07 July, 2017

Failure to take steps to address inappropriate behaviour in the workplace may leave yourself and the business exposed to being vicariously liable for a sexual harassment claim.

Imagine this scenario is happening in your workplace.

One of your employees, Bill, likes to joke and tease in what he feels is a good-natured way. He makes comments like “how’s your love life?” and “get any over the weekend?” but he never means to be lewd or offensive. His colleagues have never objected and sometimes they laugh. You’re a little worried about the behaviour and think it might be inappropriate. What do you do?

You are right to be concerned. Although none of Bill’s colleagues have indicated they are uncomfortable with his behaviour, Bill’s comments may amount to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. The behaviour does not need to be intentional; rather the conduct needs to be perceived by the recipient as unwelcome

The relevant question is whether a ‘reasonable person’ in the shoes of the recipient would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

It is possible that one of Bill’s colleagues may be offended or humiliated by his comments, which are of a sexual nature. This is the case even if they haven’t spoken up.

Therefore, you should take steps to address Bill’s behaviour and remind him about appropriate workplace behaviour.

Because Bill’s behaviour has gone unaddressed for some time, a performance counselling meeting might be an appropriate way of alerting Bill to your concerns and putting him on notice that these kinds of comments will not be tolerated in the future.

You should also check that the business has appropriate workplace behaviour policies in place, which make clear the standard of behaviour expected of employees and that harassment of any kind will not be accepted.

You may wish to consider running some refresher training with the broader workforce about these policies and inform them that failure to comply may result in disciplinary action.

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