Is Workplace Banter Acceptable?

Office banter

Is Workplace Banter Acceptable?


Banter in the workplace: is it acceptable?

‘Lighten up love, it’s only a bit of banter’.

How often has someone uttered that, or similar, in the workplace over the years?  Is it always only a bit of banter?  And at what point does hilarity tip over into harassment?

Some argue that there’s a line up to which banter – or bantz to use the current parlance – is acceptable. I don’t believe so. At the very least, banter in the workplace, is something that the office manager needs to be aware of, keep a watchful eye on, and manage with care.

Defining Banter

The Oxford English Dictionary defines banter thus: The playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. As in ‘there was much good-natured banter’.  It sounds harmless enough doesn’t it? Indeed, if that’s all workplace banter were then it would be. Yet, as many industrial tribunals will prove, all too often banter is far from innocent and innocuous – whether unintentional or not.

When banter becomes harassment – defining it

It’s useful to know then the legal definition of harassment. According to this June 2017 article from Business Advice on deciding when workplace banter becomes unacceptable, harassment occurs when:

‘a person carries out unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which violates another person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or otherwise offensive environment for that person.’  Put another way – one of your employees might find it hilarious to mock the size of a colleague’s nose/feet/head or whatever it might be. And no matter if they have a nose like Cyrano de Bergerac and they deliver their incisive wit with panache – if they do it over and over then that constitutes harassment.  A lawsuit is likely to ensure that will be embarrassing and expensive for all.

It’s worth noting that harassment-causing conduct doesn’t have to be verbal or spoken communication. It can take many forms. Emails, posters, doodles, graffiti even messages on mugs or in bottles – if it has a negative effect on someone it can become harassment.

Of course, as the Business Advice article points out, major harassment cases are not so likely to involve nose-related incidents as ‘harassment on the grounds of a person’s gender, or sexual orientation.’  Protected characteristics in other words. Not that the person on the receiving end of harassment has to possess said characteristic. Joking that someone is homosexual when they aren’t may well end up with a harassment claim.

It’s not all black and white

The law though has lots of grey areas for you as the manager to be aware of.

As this section on the ACAS website points out: Phrases such as ‘reasonable’ and ‘appropriate’ are open to interpretation. That means that context and circumstance can be everything in some cases. Though rare, it’s not impossible for someone to take out of context, what appears to be a high-spirited exchange between two or more persons. Such situations can and do end in harassment claims.

How to avoid harassment claims in your workplace

In order for an harassment case to be made, the 2010 equality act states that a complainant’s reactions to behaviour that disturbs them must be ‘reasonable under the circumstances.’ But of course, context is critical. So it’s as well for you to be on the safe side and head trouble off before it gets through the door.

There has been much talk of late about the need to ‘draw a line’ concerning banter. The implication there being that the individual has a clear understanding of where that line is and doesn’t stray beyond it.

Yet, one must consider that comments or actions perceived and received as jokes or harmless banter one day might cause offence the next. Also, actions or comments taken as banter by the recipient, may cause offence to a third party, i.e. a fellow employee.  All of which makes it difficult to know where that line should fall.

We need to be aware at all times of the effect on others of any behaviour describable as banter.

Equality and Diversity Awareness

Putting your employees through equality and diversity training is worthwhile. Such training will reduce the potential for the making of offensive remarks in the first instance.

Alongside that you must set-up transparent anti-harassment and equal opportunities polices. But having them is not enough. You must communicate such policies to your employees. And, what’s more, be sure they understand there are consequences for engaging in banter that goes too far.

Having in place a fair and effective internal grievance procedure as part of your HR processes is vital in preventing you from the cost and disturbance of an employee taking you to a tribunal.

Should you feel you need any help with that then Go-Legal HR can give you that support.

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