We have all seen “Karen Memes” or heard the “OK, Karen” refrain stated in response to what is basically a white, middle-aged woman, in a public place, acting in a manner that appears to stem from a sense of privilege. Karen memes show a white woman yelling to speak to a manager, belittling a worker, or allegedly carrying out microaggressions toward an individual of another race. “OK, Karen” is often stated as a joking rebuke to a perceived inappropriate response by a woman to a question or situation.
While Karen memes have been around for a couple of years, they have gained popularity during the COVID-19 Pandemic with people more stressed in public, posting more on social media and spending more time surfing social media at home.
So, are Karen memes appropriate for your workplace? While many people find them funny and pass them along through social media as nothing more than entertainment, do they set you up for claims of hostile work environment or discrimination?
Under the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/et seq.), and many other states’ human rights acts, the answer is maybe.
Allegations of the spreading of Karen memes or use of the phrase “OK, Karen” may help establish employer liability under the Illinois Human Rights Act or even provide evidence to establish a hostile work environment under Title VII.
The Illinois Human Rights Act (“Act”) prohibits employers from creating or maintaining a hostile work environment. Under the Act, "harassment" means any unwelcome conduct on the basis of an individual's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, order of protection status, disability, military status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, unfavorable discharge from military service, or citizenship.
Take a look at what Karen memes represent — a white, older, woman, with an alleged sense of privilege, being the subject of a joking rebuke on social media. It is possible these seemingly humorous distributions among workers may be seen as something more. They may not be as innocuous or humorous if a claim is filed alleging age, race or gender discrimination by the “Karen” target and the Karen jokes surface.
First, Karen jokes may be seen as racist or based on color. Karen memes always involve a person who is Caucasian. The Illinois Human Rights Act protects against harassment on the basis of an “individual’s actual or perceived race, color…” including harassment on the basis of being white. Under the Illinois Human Rights Act, an employer cannot discriminate (or create a hostile work environment) on the basis of a person’s race or color. Yet, skin color is a central theme of every Karen joke.
Second, Karen jokes may be seen as sexist. Again, under the Illinois Human Rights Act and Title VII, you cannot discriminate or create a hostile work environment based on a person’s sex. Every Karen is either female or perceived as female. Karen is viewed as acting irrational, or with other derogatory traits stereotypically and offensively associated with females.
Third, Karen jokes may be seen as ageist. They usually show a person who is an older, middle-aged woman. Under both the Illinois Human Rights Act and Title VII, you cannot discriminate on the basis of age. In a younger workforce especially, it is readily apparent how damaging jokes can be to people who are middle aged, especially when coupled with other ageist comments or conduct.
The common refrain “OK, Karen”, when expressed in the workplace, though intended as a light-hearted joke, may be construed as a microaggression or an insult. The subjective feelings of the target of the joke are relevant in claims brought for harassment. As an employer, this is laden with risk.
Moreover, the memes may be construed to have an element of bullying. A common element of a Karen meme shows a woman who is in an emotional state. The viewer has no idea what actually precipitated the emotional outburst, but the subject is deemed a “Karen” on social media to be forever judged and repeated as a Karen joke. One recent Karen Meme shows a younger man chasing down a woman at her house, the woman was crying and crouching on the ground and trying to hide her license plate number, begging him to stop while the man continued to videotape. Anything that suggests an employer tolerates bullying or humor at another person’s distress is potentially damning evidence in a hearing.
As an employer, you should consider the types of humorous social media you post, repost, and distribute, as well as others you receive. You should also make clear to your employees that respect for each other is always expected and Karen jokes may be as offensive as jokes about African Americans, indigenous people, people of different abilities, etc. Karen jokes cannot be sanctioned by you as an employer, and you need to make sure that employees understand your position. If a person complains about a Karen joke, listen to the complaint and appropriately address it pursuant to your anti-harassment policies.
While it is doubtful the passing around of Karen memes and “OK Karen” jokes will lead to a harassment claim being filed, the Karen jokes may be used as evidence to establish an overall hostile workplace. Your obligation as an employer is to create and maintain a workplace that is free of discrimination on the basis of the employee’s actual or perceived race, color, age and sex. Putting an end to the Karen memes and Karen jokes is a start.
Jokes in the workplace are fine — just be careful that the jokes do not create a hostile work environment.
Kristin Tauras and Jim Cook practice employment law at McKenna Storer. If you have any questions regarding this topic, you can reach Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jim at email@example.com.