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When do workplace questions and jokes cross important lines?

Many workplaces have a fairly casual environment. Workers become friends. They talk about things that do not pertain to their jobs. They make jokes and get into personal subjects.

But when does this cross a line? When does banter turn into damaging language? When is it sexual harassment?

Other than direct, blatant harassment, one key thing to think about is creating a hostile work environment. If the things being said make people feel uncomfortable, even if they were not the people the comments were directed at, that can cross the line. People have a right not to feel nervous and distressed at work.

For instance, one woman noted that she once had a boss who made crude jokes about the workers under him. Some jokes referred to sexual acts he imagined other women engaged in. After one such joke, though the woman who was the brunt of the joke did not complain, this woman went to her boss and told him it was inappropriate.

Instead of doing anything, he acted annoyed and told her to file a complaint if she had a problem with it. Both by making the jokes and by ignoring her feelings, he was creating a hostile work environment.

In another job, she said that a co-worker asked her -- in front of a lot of other co-workers -- about her sexual orientation. He may not have meant it to be offensive, but it put her in an uncomfortable position. That is information she should never be forced to share. Again, that can create a hostile work environment and qualify as harassment.

These examples help you understand what to watch out for. If you go through these types of experiences, make sure you know what legal rights you have.

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