How to Confront Inappropriate “Jokes” at Work

Written by Luke Kitchen
Last updated November 21, 2022

Unfortunately, many people experience discrimination and harassment at work. This can happen in many different ways. Often, it manifests as inappropriate “jokes”.

While this type of discrimination/harassment may be masked with a sense of humour or laughter, it doesn’t make it any less harmful or distressing for the person at the brunt of the joke. Jokes can be a way of communicating bias, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and more.

In this blog, we are going to provide a guide on how to deal with and confront inappropriate jokes and language at work. We hope that everyone reading our resources can find somewhere inclusive and supportive to work. But if you are struggling right now, we want to help you deal with those tricky situations and find a better path forward. 

Let’s start by defining what exactly we mean by inappropriate jokes. 

What Counts as Inappropriate Language at Work?

Sometimes the first difficulty in dealing with inappropriate jokes is deciding what is and isn’t inappropriate. Many people may hide behind the phrase, “it was only a joke”. So, knowing what is inappropriate language and how to tell other people that something has been inappropriate can be the first step in dealing with this situation. 

A joke is inappropriate if:

  • It touches on societal prejudices or stereotypes towards a certain group or protected characteristic, e.g. race, age, or gender
  • It includes expletive language or cursing 
  • It degrades or devalues the person to whom it is aimed
  • It is part of a repeated pattern of jokes from the same person/group

You can also use your own judgement to discern if something is inappropriate. If it doesn’t feel good, there is likely something lurking behind that feeling. 

Now that we have established what can be counted as an inappropriate joke, we can move on to looking at what to do when they arise. 

The Steps of Dealing with Inappropriate Jokes at Work

Once you have decided that you are dealing with inappropriate jokes at work, it is time to do something about it. The following steps can help you manage this situation as appropriately as possible. 

Keep a Record 

It is important to keep a record of all instances of inappropriate jokes and language that you experience while at work. Write down what was said, who said it, and any other details you have. If you have to make a formal complaint to HR or an external body at any point, these records are very beneficial to have. 

Gather Witnesses 

As well as a record, it helps to have witnesses for your case. If someone was around when these jokes are made, reach out to them and ask if you can have a witness statement on what happened. Or ask if they will back you up in an HR meeting. They may not always be willing to but, if they are, it can very much help your case. 

Challenge the Joke Directly 

As long as it feels safe to do so, you can directly challenge the joke that has been said in the workplace. Ask the person telling the “joke” what they meant by it. Tell them you feel uncomfortable and think the joke may be touching on a sensitive topic. Sometimes, people may immediately clear up what they meant and retract any offence. If this happens, you don’t need to worry or take anything any further, which means it is always worth trying. If it continues to happen after you have spoken about it, this means you know there is a deeper problem happening. 

Speak to Co-Workers About How You Feel

It is always important to talk about these issues and explain to others how you feel. Don’t keep everything bottled inside and make sure to speak to the person telling the jokes and those around you both that you are upset and feel discriminated against/harassed/bullied. This can sometimes stop the problem. Again, if it doesn’t, this helps your case in the future and shows evidence of disrespect and unwillingness to cooperate on the other person’s side. 

Speak to HR/a Line Manager

After you have tried dealing with the problem yourself, if it doesn’t work, you should speak to a member of HR or a line manager at work. Report the problem using your records and witnesses. 

They may suggest mediation and/or they may discipline the member of staff involved. Hopefully, these options will resolve the problem and your workplace will deal with the perpetrator appropriately. However, if this isn’t the case, then it may be time to take the issue further.

Make a Formal Complaint 

Discrimination, harassment, and bullying are illegal under U.K. employment law. This means that you are entitled to make a formal or legal complaint about any inappropriate jokes you are experiencing at work if you have tried the previous steps to no avail. 

You can check out Citizen’s Advice’s page on making a formal complaint of discrimination and having a tribunal. They can help you with the various options that exist and walk you through how it all works. 

You also have the option of consulting a legal solicitor if you want to make a legal case against your workplace. In this case, they can provide the necessary advice and guidance for your case. 

In all scenarios, your evidence of the language itself and proof of the steps you have followed to stop the problem before escalating the complaint will help.

Finding a Safe and Inclusive Work Environment 

Everyone deserves to work somewhere they feel safe and included. If you are experiencing/have experienced inappropriate behaviour at work and it hasn’t been dealt with correctly, this can be a big letdown. It also might be something that motivates you to find a new job.

The good news is, there are lots of safe, inclusive, diverse jobs out there for you to find. And you can find them on our inclusive job board at Aspiring to Include. 

You can also check out our support for diverse job seekers through our many guides and pages. 

Everyone deserves a safe working environment, work with us to find one of your own. 

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Last Updated: Monday December 19 2022
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