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How to respond to sexual innuendo and “jokes” at work

On Behalf of | Feb 22, 2024 | Sexual Harassment |

How do you handle it when your client, co-worker or boss makes some loaded comment that references your looks, your body or your sex life?

This is a common issue faced by working women all the time. Roughly one-fifth of men polled by the New York Times admitted that they occasionally told “sexual jokes” or engaged in “harassing behaviors.” That’s why it’s helpful to know how to shut those kinds of comments down. Here are three options:

1. The direct approach

Communicate that you find the comment inappropriate and offensive. For example, you can say, “I don’t appreciate that kind of comment; it’s not appropriate.” Then simply walk away. That simultaneously establishes your boundaries and diffuses the situation so that you can address it later, in a less heated moment.

2. Respond with absolute silence

The speaker knows that they’re being inappropriate – and they want you to engage with them. You can deprive them of any satisfaction and (probably) make them deeply uncomfortable by responding with absolute silence. Stop whatever you are doing, look at them directly and say nothing at all until you are ready to resume your work or the conversation you were having before their comment.

3. Ask them to explain themselves

This is particularly effective with innuendo and suggestive comments, which are designed to “skirt the line” so they can be passed off as “jokes” if anybody complains. Turn to the speaker and say, “I don’t understand. What do you mean?” and keep repeating some variation of that comment as they struggle to explain. The joke usually stops being funny once the speaker is forced to spell things out.

Finally, you have every right to a harassment-free workplace. Address your concerns with management. If the company fails to put a stop to the harassment, it may be time to seek information about your additional legal options