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That’s so funny I forgot to laugh! What to do when joking crosses the line

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some employees think that teasing each other—even about sensitive topics like race—is perfectly fine. But sometimes joking escalates to the point where what was once tolerated or even welcomed crosses the line, creating a hostile work environment.

How you handle those situations can mean the difference between winning or losing a reverse-discrimination case.

Recent case: Jeffrey is white and his co-worker Freddie is black. When they first began working together, they exchanged race-based jokes, poking fun at one another. Eventually, Freddie became uncomfortable with the banter and went to HR. He asked HR to put on a sensitivity training session for his workgroup in which a fictitious, anonymous individual had overheard teasing and complained about it. The company complied.

However, Jeffrey didn’t stop, and Freddie complained again. Jeffrey was called into a meeting with HR, which explained that Freddie was offended and the teasing had to stop.

Jeffrey then complained that he wanted Freddie’s teasing to stop, too. The company said it couldn’t do that because Freddie was “protected” while Jeffrey was not. When Jeffrey protested and insisted that Freddie also shape up, the company fired Jeffrey.

Jeffrey sued, alleging he had been treated more severely (he was fired and told he wasn’t protected) while Freddie kept his job and wasn’t disciplined for his part.

The court said the case could go to trial based on different treatment based on Jeffrey’s race. (Walsh v. Stratos, No. H-11-2603, SD TX, 2012)

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