There are a multitude of good reasons to joke around with your coworkers. The copy machine is broken again. The vending machine is out of the good cookies. And hey, Fred from accounting is probably gay. Isn’t that hilarious?
If you’re thinking, “One of those things is not like the others,” you are correct. Two of those jokes could be funny and harmless. The third one, the one about Fred, is neither. And it could be considered harassment, which could get both the harasser and the company in a world of trouble.
There are certain groups that are protected by law. State laws can protect more groups than the ones shielded by federal law, but if, for example, Missouri decides it doesn’t want to protect people who are disabled, they can’t do that. Federal law supersedes state law. However, Oregon can decide they want to protect people based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and that’s allowed.
Unfortunately, that means if you’re fired for being gay, some states will just shrug and tell you to find a new job, because there are plenty of places where it’s still totally OK to fire people simply because they aren’t straight. It also means that jokes about Fred’s sexuality could be considered harassment in Colorado, but not Kansas.
It’s a lot to untangle, and that’s why it’s a good idea for companies to offer their employees training on preventing harassment. Federal agencies often have different rules and guidelines than privately owned companies. Religious-based organizations may be exempt from certain requirements. Oh, and federal anti-discrimination laws generally only cover companies with more than 15 employees, but state laws may not always do that.
But if you want your workplace to be as welcoming as possible, it’s important to cultivate a tolerant environment regardless of where you live. Look at Texas, where dozens of companies who do business in the state protested against a “bathroom bill” that they believed would discriminate against transgender people (the bill failed to pass in a special session). Smart companies want to attract candidates from a wide range of backgrounds. They don’t want to be seen as narrow-minded and hateful, because that’s going to limit the pool of people who want to work for you.
Inevitably, this leads to complaints, ones like “People are going to file a complaint against me because they don’t like the art in my cubicle,” or “People are going to get me fired because they say my choice of coffee is oppressing them.”
First of all, those are both ridiculous straw men. No one is seriously proposing suing you for your choice in either art or caffeinated beverages. As long as it’s not overtly violent or pornographic, you can decorate your office in the style you please. If it is either of those, go to a gallery and get some newer, classier art. And unless your coffee is made by Westboro Baptist Church, you should be fine there as well.
The world is changing quickly, and sometimes that can be intimidating. An honest effort to just think before you speak goes a long way, and anti-harassment training can also be clarifying. But think about the type of office you want to work in. If there’s a guy in the office who constantly calls his female co-worker demeaning names, then chances are he’s the only one getting any enjoyment out of that. The targeted co-worker will understandably feel stressed, as will other co-workers who worry that he might go after them next. It’s easy for one bad actor to bring the whole office down. The best way to combat harassment is to take it seriously when it starts. Don’t wait for the affected parties to start filing lawsuits. By then, it’s too late.