Why the 'I was just joking' defence doesn’t cut it any more

by Donna Chisholm / 28 April, 2018
Barbara Plester. “It’s really hard to stand up and say, ‘I’m not laughing at that.’” Photo/Ken Downie

Barbara Plester. “It’s really hard to stand up and say, ‘I’m not laughing at that.’” Photo/Ken Downie

RelatedArticlesModule - Sexual harassment i was just joking

It's the fallback position for perpetrators when they’re called out for sexual harassment, says Auckland University senior lecturer Barbara Plester.

Workplace banter is often the Trojan horse for sexual harassment. The excuse that “I was just joking” becomes the fallback position for perpetrators when they’re called out, says Barbara Plester.

A senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s faculty of business and economics, Plester chairs the equity committee, and she has studied workplace humour since 2002.

“I started off thinking it was such a lovely topic, but it’s not always that nice – it has a dark side.” Humour is a necessary part of the work environment, but it can have “a bite or a barb in it, when someone is really having a dig”.

“[The founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund] Freud says we use humour to relieve ourselves, and the things we release in humour are sex and aggression. It’s a way of saying the unsayable. But the ‘just a joke’ defence [for sexual harassment] has long gone. We don’t get away with that any more.”

Although there is usually a power imbalance in sexual harassment cases, Plester says she’s also seen cases, such as Hayley Young’s, in which a subordinate targets a superior. “Harassment can happen by men to men and women to men, but it’s predominantly men to women.”

A man might tell a dirty joke “to see where it gets us. She laughs; it escalates. But if he’s the boss, people laugh at his jokes because he’s in a position of power. He thinks it went down well, but he’s forgotten he’s the boss. Laughter doesn’t mean I loved your joke. It can be embarrassment, and it’s really hard to stand up and say, ‘I’m not laughing at that.’”

If you can’t put your hand up overtly, she says, you can always try “unlaughter”. “You stay po-faced and stony and it sends a very strong message if everyone else is laughing and you’re glaring.”

Harassment is more likely to happen at work events where people are drinking – alcohol-fuelled occasions featured in the recent Human Rights Commission case in which a senior financial officer harassed an intern and in the Russell McVeagh complaints. Plester says she knows of firms that have stopped hosting such occasions because of that risk.

Men might claim they can’t be mind-readers, or that banter at work is healthy, but Plester says work, or work events, is no place for sexual humour of any kind.

Why your jokes fall flat

  • “It’s just a joke” does not stack up as a defence for sexual or sexist sentiments. Jokes can frequently upset and offend.
  • Marginalised groups can become targets for humour, so be sensitive to this.
  • If it would embarrass you to have your joke told to your boss, senior colleagues or printed on the front page of a newspaper and attributed to you, then it is probably not a good joke to tell at work.
  • Just because you think it is funny does not mean others will too. Try to see joking and quips from someone else’s perspective – especially if they are a different gender or sexual persuasion or have different values than you.
  • A sexual or sexist joke may incite a lot of mirth, but is never a good idea at work, even when you know your colleagues well. It may be overheard or repeated and is likely to cause offence.
  • Sexual or sexist jokes shared via email can cause a lot of distress and can be easily circulated. Avoid this practice.
  • Company sexual harassment policies need to consider humour. One person’s “joke” is harassment to someone else.
  • Just because people are laughing does not mean they all like the joke or the sentiments in the joke. People may laugh from embarrassment or social pressure and politeness while actually feeling offended and upset.

From Laugh out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humor, by Barbara Plester and Kerr Inkson, soon to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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