06/04/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Ask Judy: 'When Jokes Go Too Far'

Q: There are some men at work who make really gross, inappropriate sexual jokes. More times than I can count, I have found myself laughing along with them so as not to appear as if I don't have a sense of humor. I tend to have thick skin, so I'm not horribly offended myself (I'm a woman) but I have heard rumblings that their jokes might be offending others who feel as if our office is being turned a frat house. I've worked in this position for several years and the casual nature of this particular workplace has, at times, led to a blurring of what is appropriate and what is not. Should I speak up? I don't want to appear as if I'm being prude or being overly sensitive.

A: No matter how casual the workplace, in today's litigious environment, one has to be careful what they say and what kind of jokes they laugh at -- especially when the conversation carries a sexual overtone. Furthermore, this is especially true, fair or not, when it is men in power making the jokes to or around other women in the office. While you may not be personally offended, more than likely, it does offend at least one person. Or at the very least, it makes at least one person uncomfortable. Either way, the situation could be setting up your co-workers -- and the company -- for a crisis because while you might simply consider the comments to be inappropriate office banter, others may consider it to be sexual harassment.

The first thing you can do is simply stop being part of the problem. Unless you work in HR, it's not your responsibility to necessarily police and monitor workplace conversation. You can, however, refuse to be part of it. Sometimes people honestly don't realize the magnitude of their words and have no idea that boundaries have been crossed. The fact that men would make such jokes around you -- a woman -- underscores the the point that they probably don't even feel as if they are doing anything wrong. If you are laughing along with them, you are basically saying that you condone the behavior And if you're OK with it, it could be reasoned by them, that others (women especially) probably don't have a problem with it either. Simply saying something like "take it outside, guys" or refusing to crack a smile when everyone else is laughing will send a subtle message that such behavior will not be tolerated by you.

If subtlety doesn't work, you may want to pull one of the men aside and have a private conversation. Frame the conversation in a way not where you are accusing him of something (as his defenses will probably immediately go up) but let him know that these kinds of jokes could be taken the wrong way and reflect poorly on him. You could also say that while you personally have no problem with the humor, others who don't know him as well may be judging him solely based on his crass remarks. Ensure him that you are simply looking out for him and letting him know what some people may be thinking but not saying to his face. Don't try to appeal to his empathetic side. If he is making jokes like that, he probably gets off on making people a little uncomfortable. Limit your comments to how he is hurting himself and his professional reputation. Yes, you may get mocked and you might not get a thank you, but if he has any brains or compunction, he'll dial it down and others will follow suit.

One last thing to consider is that while you may be included in such jokes, other women may not be. When you think about it, it's a form of social exclusion. If such jokes become the norm and others back away from participating, they may be inadvertently and unfairly marginalized from office socializing. In the workplace, such tactics can actually have an effect on someone's career prospects. They may be accused of being a bad sport or being difficult to work with. It's one thing if it's just a small group of people making jokes (although it still would be inappropriate workplace behavior) however, it opens up a whole new dynamic if this type of behavior becomes the norm for the office or if the people making the jokes are all in positions of power. If this is the case, you might need to contact HR (anonymously, if you can) so that official policies can be posted, acknowledged and reviewed by everyone.