Generally speaking the line is drawn where the person receiving the email draws it. Harassment does not look at the intentions of the person doing it - here the person sending the email - but at the person on the receiving end of the behaviour. The sender may find the joke the funniest thing in the world but what one person finds funny and acceptable may be seen as offensive and unacceptable by another.
Harassment is unwanted or unwelcome conduct aimed at a person due to a protected characteristic such as sex, age, race, sexual orientation etc., which creates a hostile environment for them to work in. So, for example, any email joke containing sexual innuendos may make a male or female receiver feel harassed on the grounds of their sex or sexual orientation.
A manager’s view of the incident should not have any effect on how you treat it within the workplace. Whilst a manager may also find an email funny they have a duty of care to all employees, especially the one who finds this joke to be bullying or harassing, and failing in this duty could lead to claims of constructive dismissal.
As it is hard to know where to draw this line you should take a zero tolerance stance on bullying. The best way to communicate this to staff is through an anti-bullying policy which will make it clear to employees what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. Most workplaces will have an email or internet policy but you can review this to check what it contains on the sending on non-related work emails. These together can be used as a deterrent to the sending of ‘jokes’ or any form of jokey material, such as cartoons or pictures, via emails to work colleagues.
Managers should also be given training on how to deal with bullying, including recognising bullying behaviour and dealing with the effect that this can have on an employee. If an employee makes a bullying allegation through a grievance then you should follow the ordinary grievance procedure. Any bullying or harassment complaints should be dealt with through the ordinary contractual disciplinary procedure, with reasonable sanctions dependent on the bullying incidents.
If an employee raises a complaint about any form of bullying, you should call our award winning 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2772, choosing option 1.