A Joke Is Just a Joke... Right?

April Fools’ Day can be an opportunity for harmless fun, but it can also create the risk of vicarious liability for unsuspecting employers. The general rule is that an isolated joke, without more, will not give rise to liability for harassment or discrimination. However, a pattern of insensitive “jokes,” or particularly offensive conduct targeting a person based on protected characteristics (such as race, gender, or disability status) may create legal exposure – and that is no laughing matter. To better guard against such exposure, employers should consider the following:

  • Get it in writing: A strong anti-discrimination statement coupled with a standards of conduct policy making clear that inappropriate workplace jokes are not tolerated can be helpful in establishing that improper conduct is merely the result of an employee’s distasteful conduct and is not indicative of company culture.
  • Consider training: Written policies are important, but so is ensuring that corporate practices and culture align with them. Holding periodic seminars or training events to coach employees about acceptable behavior and boundaries can help to ensure that the company’s policies are resonating with staff.
  • Investigate complaints: Allegations of improper workplace jokes should be taken seriously, and organizations should resist the temptation to turn a blind eye to inappropriate conduct merely because it occurred on April 1. An employer that promptly investigates and, if appropriate, disciplines an employee who violates a workplace policy can often obtain legal protection.

Is your organization adequately protected against being made a punchline? Contact us today at (248) 477-6300.

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