What To Do When Your Boss Makes a Sexist Joke



Let’s set the scene.

Your boss walks into the office laughing. Hoping to make a good impression on the boss, you offer up a cheery good morning and ask him what he’s laughing about.

Boss: The person that I sat next to on the train told me a hilarious joke. Want to hear it?

You: Sure!

Boss: Why did the woman cross the road?

You: Don’t know. Why?

Boss: I don’t know either but the bigger question is, what the hell is she doing out of the kitchen?

You: …um…haha (awkward laughter).  OR  Wow, you’re such a sexist jerk!  I can’t believe you said that! (eyes blazing with anger)

So we end up feeling like we either sold out or just jeopardized our jobs.

Not good either way.  What else can you do?

If you believe your boss doesn’t actually believe women should stay at home and not work, then you have some good ways of bringing this up without endangering your job.

What If Your Boss Wasn’t Trying To Be Hurtful?

It may be hard to think that you boss wasn’t trying to be hurtful when he said that sexist joke.  Totally understandable.

But let’s step back for one moment and consider that he may not have been trying to be offensive.

Lots of people laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes but don’t actually believe in them.

How many people these days actually think women shouldn’t be allowed to work?  Few, thankfully.

We all probably know someone in our family or group of friends (maybe even ourselves) who would tell and laugh these sexist jokes but aren’t actually sexist.

So why do they tell them?  Sometimes getting a rise out of people or chuckling over the ridiculousness of the joke is more the goal.

But just because they don’t intend for it to be insulting, doesn’t mean it’s not.

His Joke was Demeaning and He Didn’t Mean To Be Hurtful

The most important thing is to distinguish between his intention to say something funny and his impact of saying something demeaning.

Just because he meant to be funny, doesn’t mean his joke wasn’t offensive.

Just because his joke was hurtful, doesn’t mean he was trying to be hurtful.

Both are true.  Acknowledging this when you talk to your boss will go a long way in helping him not get defensive and see that it can be mean.

How To Approach Your Boss

While things rarely go as planned, here’s some ways to approach your boss that increases your chances of a successful conversation.

1.  Make sure you’re calm and truly see the distinction between his good intention and bad impact before you go to talk to him.  Even if you use the same words but are still secretly made and judgmental of him, he’ll probably sense it.

2.  Talk to your boss when he’s alone, has time to talk, and behind closed doors.  The less he’s worried about someone overhearing or about the deadline coming up, the more he can focus on what you’re saying.

3.  Let your boss know that you want to have a potentially loaded conversation.  This will help him understand that something serious is happening that he needs to pay full attention to.  Also knowing that you’re a bit nervous about how he’ll respond will more help him make sure he reacts well.

  • “I wanted to talk to you about something important but wanted to make sure you didn’t take this the wrong way.”
  • “I want to talk to you about something you may not want to hear.  Can you keep an open mind around what I’m going to say?”

4.  Have your boss know what it’s about and the impact on you. Use “I” statements and focusing on how you feel and what he said.

  • “I wanted to talk to you about the joke that you made earlier. I’m a guy and it made me feel uncomfortable when you made that sexist joke because…”
  • “I’m not sure that you realized this morning, but I was upset by the joke that you made because…”

5.  Let him know you don’t think he meant to be offensive.

  • “I’m sure you didn’t think that your joke was going to be offensive.”
  • “I know you didn’t mean for me to feel uncomfortable.”

6.  Help him understand why it’s offensive to you.  Make your reason real and personal so he gets the impact.

  • “As a working woman, I feel like those types of jokes make it seem like there’s something wrong with me not being at home.”
  • “Growing up as a boy, I saw how hurt my mom was when people told her she should have just stayed at home and take care of the house and kids.”

7.  Emphasize that he’s not someone who tries to hurt people intentionally. This makes it more difficult for him to assert that he will continue telling jokes knowing that it’s hurtful.

  • “You’re normally so respectful of people. It just felt really out of character for you to say that about women.”
  • “I know you wouldn’t want to tell that joke again knowing how it can be insulting to people.  As your friend and colleague, I felt I should let you know so it doesn’t happen accidentally.”

What To Do After He Responds

The best case scenario is that your boss doesn’t feel judged and defensive and acknowledges he shouldn’t say sexist jokes.  Even better if he appreciates that you trusted him enough to bring this up with him and has more respect for you.

Then all you need to do thank him for taking responsibility for his behavior and not all people are able to do so.  It’s not easy to accept the fact that you did something hurtful, even unintentionally. So it’s important to acknowledge it.

The worst case scenario is that your boss gets defensive and gets mad at you.  Keep emphasizing that you know he didn’t mean to be hurtful and you’re bringing it up to make sure nobody else gets really offended.  If he insists on being mad and claiming he didn’t do anything wrong, thank him for his time and leave.

Document the incident with details and see if this behavior is a pattern.  Sexually discriminatory jokes are grounds for firing someone if they continue to happen.

Life rarely goes as smoothly as the process outlined above.  But we hope that this gives you some good ideas on how to both stand up for yourself and help your boss take the high road.

Do you think this approach would work?  Did it work for you?

Amy Shaw is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a recent graduate from Washington College where she studied International Studies and History and is currently working in Missoula Montana. Amy loves spending time outside, listening to music, and trying new vegetarian recipes.