Bullying

When ‘banter’ crosses over into abuse

“It’s just banter! Just banter!” If you work in any kind of environment, from an office to a building site, you’ll be familiar with the term ‘banter’. It’s that humorous back and forth which can make the day a little brighter, to have a joke and a laugh with our colleagues, and to generally brighten up what can sometimes be a mundane working environment. But is it ‘just banter, or could it be something more ominous, and more harmful?  Kim Lennon, HR Manager at Berry & Lamberts Solicitors discusses further.

Workplace banter has its place but the term ‘banter’ should never be used as an excuse to humiliate, upset or abuse someone else. What may seem like ‘banter’ to one person could be deeply offensive or upsetting to someone else. Suggesting that the person who has been upset by a bit of banter and should accept it as a bit of ‘light-hearted fun’ is a classic case of shifting the blame in what could be a deeply uncomfortable situation.

Sufferers of workplace banter that goes too far are often reluctant to do anything about it. This is when banter has definitely crossed the line into abuse and bullying. Anyone who feels that confronting this behaviour could be detrimental to their position, or fears repercussions, may be the victim of workplace bullying. If someone feels uncomfortable, intimidated, berated or humiliated then that ‘having a joke’ or ‘just a bit of banter’ is not acceptable.

What can you do?

The first thing you should do is to talk to the person rationally and explain why their ‘banter’ isn’t as funny or harmless as they think but if they don’t take on board your concerns or you don’t feel able to talk to the person direct then you should talk to either your Line Manager or to your HR Manager.

The trouble is that there are a lot of ‘grey areas’ when it comes to the definition of what is reasonable or appropriate behaviour, and that includes banter. Workplace environments differ and comments which may be deemed acceptable in one place may well not be elsewhere. The Equality Act 2010 says that a complainant’s reaction to what is termed ‘unwanted conduct’ (which includes verbal banter) has to be reasonable, so in this instance, context is very important.

For example, if you overhear a remark about religious beliefs that isn’t directed towards you, but that comment still makes you feel uncomfortable, then the comment doesn’t automatically fall into the harassment or workplace bullying category. You have a right to state that the comment has made you feel uncomfortable and that it’s behaviour that shouldn’t be encouraged, but whether your employer will act on that will entirely depend on the nature of the comment, and its context. It will also depend on the policies and procedure of the company and how they define workplace bullying.

What employers can do is provide equality and diversity policies and awareness training so that people have guidelines as to what constitutes acceptable behaviour within the confines of the workplace. That includes stopping ‘banter’ that makes reference to things such as a person’s appearance, religious beliefs, sexuality or any other personal issue.

When banter becomes a bully’s tool

Banter can very easily turn into bullying, especially if it’s relentlessly targeted at an individual. Once others join in, this mass bullying can become not only deeply upsetting but frightening and intensely intimidating. If that is the case then what may have started out as a bit of banter has most definitely crossed the line. In this case, the victim should immediately inform a senior manager, their union representative or HR department and register a formal complaint or grievance.

In extreme cases where an employer has failed to respond to this level of bullying, there is the option of pursuing a tribunal hearing. Every employer has a duty of care to ensure the welfare of their staff. It’s also important that employers ensure that the working environment doesn’t become toxic for workers because of a misunderstanding of the line between ‘a bit of banter’ and workplace bullying.

Sometimes, though, a joke is just a joke, and a one-off incident of lighthearted mockery may be perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the law. In that instance, the best thing to do is to ignore it. If, however, that one-off joke turns into a campaign of abuse and bullying, then it’s time to call it out.

If you feel you’ve been the subject of workplace bullying, please  contact Karron Foot, Solicitor, on 01892 526 344 or kfoot@berryandlamberts.co.uk.

To discuss any legal matters concerning Employment law please contact the Commercial and Dispute Resolution team on 01892 526 344

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice.  The law may have changed since this article was published.   Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.