Banter in the workplace

We were interested to read about the outcome of this employment tribunal when it popped into our inbox last week. Whilst this is most definitely an example of an extreme case it is always beneficial to stop and think how your colleagues might perceive what you are saying to them.

A good atmosphere in the workplace is undeniably a good thing. It helps communication between team members and helps to promote trust and understanding of each other. For many individuals, “banter” in the form of gentle ribbing is part and parcel of two people getting on but can it also be a precursor to something more sinister?

An award of £3.2 million has just been made to an employee whose victimisation was said to have begun with banter. The victim was said to have been described as, among other things, “bonkers”. Not the most mature word perhaps but certainly one which is often used between friends as affectionate ribbing. Generally, we assume that no offence is meant and no adverse comment really being made on our mental health.

However, even a word as innocuous as “bonkers”, when used by friends, can perhaps become irritating and then offensive when being used repeatedly by an individual with whom you do not have a friendship, and perhaps the tone of voice can add a dimension that is threatening and insulting.

The findings of the employment tribunal in the case above was that, however this had begun, whether or not it started out as banter that could be perceived by some as innocuous, it became deliberate bullying that progressed to sexual harassment. Additionally, the company, a bank, was found to be at fault, having not investigated the victim’s complaints and having not disciplined the perpetrator who, the tribunal found, should have been dismissed for gross misconduct.

Given that banter exists in some form in most companies and that none of us want to end up in employment tribunals, what lessons can be learnt from this case?

We certainly don’t advocate a zero tolerance approach to banter in the workplace but we do need to remember that different people interpret things differently. Someone may interpret something as intangible as your tone of voice or the way you look at him or her in a way that it was not intentioned.

Teasing, in its gentlest form, and joke telling are part and parcel of how many people relate to each other. It is a part of how we get to know each other, both in our personal lives and getting to know our colleagues. After all we regularly spend more of our wakeful hours with our work colleagues than our loved ones and banter can make our working days more bearable.Therefore you need to ensure that any banter that does exist is never permitted to get out of hand by ensuring that it is always appropriate to the culture of the company.

Are your policies and procedures around Equal Opportunity, Bullying and Harassment as up to date as they can be? Do you offer an open door if anyone has any concern? Do you promote good practice from the top of the organisation down

Always remember, you don’t know what sort of day someone is having, what stresses they may have on and how they are going to react. However, the reward of a happy team in which any banter remains genuinely affectionate banter is surely worthwhile.

If we can help support you in any of the issues raised, please contact us

Tel: 01562 881019


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