When banter means bullying…

The issue of office banter has been raised following a company boss describing a warning he gave to staff that “Labour voters will be made redundant first” as simply being banter leading up to the General Election. For many employers, finding a balance between banter and bullying at work is a difficult task.

Banter and jokes can very easily cross the line to become harassment which 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 offensive environment for that person”. Major areas of harassment that crop up in the work environment include harassment on the grounds of a person’s gender or sex or their sexual orientation.

The danger of harassment is that it can be more extensive than employers may realise. The conduct which causes harassment does not have to be verbal or spoken communication. It can take any form of communication, from emails to posters, so long as it has a detrimental effect on a person.

The conduct has to be related to a protected characteristic. However, the person on the receiving end of the harassment does not have to possess that characteristic. For example, making jokes about a person being homosexual when they are actually heterosexual can still result in a claim for harassment. In addition, the conduct does not have to be aimed at the person who is raising a concern. Where another colleague has overheard someone making a sexist joke solely to another person, they can still claim harassment even though they were not the intended recipient. This occurs commonly with emails or office notices that are aimed at a certain person.

Even without banter becoming harassment, employers may wish to consider whether they are creating the correct culture in their company, especially if this is having an impact on the workplace culture. It is possible to set in place rules about what is appropriate behaviour at work and this can include highlighting what language isn’t acceptable to use. Failure to take any steps to prevent or reduce banter at work could lead to the employer being deemed vicariously liable for acts of harassment carried out by staff.

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