Workplace Banter: Where to Draw the Line?

There has been discussion on the difference between bullying and banter for decades. So, where does "joking around" transform into hurtful bullying? 

How can you, as a manager and owner of a small business, teach your employees when to set an endpoint? How can you keep employees safe from disparaging comments disguised as office jokes? And if this indeed happens, how should you handle it so that it doesn't end up in court?

As you read along, you'll find out. 

What Distinguishes Workplace Banter from Discrimination?

In specific workplaces, jokes and banter may be more prevalent than in others. Banter is a term used informally to refer to jokes or lighthearted taunting. Although this may show a contented and carefree workforce, such behaviour may constitute harassment or discrimination, especially if done at another person's expense.

Although it seldom works, banter is frequently raised as a defence in employment disputes involving discrimination charges.

One person's definition of banter may be very different from someone else's, and a joke that seems harmless can still offend. Anyone overhearing a conversation should consider it, not just those who engage in it. If they find it offensive, they could voice their concerns. These circumstances demand serious consideration.

Unfortunately, people don't always speak out about offensive banter because they fear embarrassment or being seen as problematic or overly sensitive. Even though it bothers them, they may even conform to fit in. As a result, banter continues, often behind closed doors or in private chat channels, which is concerning.

Constant banter may create a toxic and unsafe workplace culture, including charges of harassment, bullying, and discrimination. It can also weaken consumer trust in your company. Consequently, it's not a healthy workplace for your employees, which leads to the rise of other issues like low morale and higher absenteeism.

How Should You Teach Your Employees to Know When to Stop?

As an employer, you are responsible for preventing harassment and bullying across your organisation at all costs. 

All employees, regardless of position or standing level, must attend workplace ethics training. Moreover, frequent refresher training should be provided; depending solely on outdated learning is inadequate. Your managers should receive more advice and training. Doing so helps them recognise inappropriate workplace behaviour and promptly address it. 

Poor behaviour is often avoidable if it is immediately identified and dealt with, especially in a team-based organisation where it can be detrimental to workplace morale. It is vital to promote a respectful workplace culture. In many cases, the most diversified businesses are also the most successful and productive. 

So, instead of being too hesitant to speak up (perhaps out of fear of punishment from other team members), which unintentionally can make them involved, offer employees the resources and confidence to be able to. Everyone will know how to behave at work if there is a solid set of policies and a staff handbook that employees are familiar with.

What Can You Do About Workplace Banter?

Given that a few gags may relieve stress and foster an enjoyable work environment, it's unlikely that you'll be able to restrict banter in the office altogether. 

However, it is essential to ensure that employees have open and transparent lines of contact with management to voice their concerns. After then, it may be necessary to conduct an investigation.

A recent example involves workplace banter between an all-male car sales team. They demonstrated how challenging this problem can be and how companies might fail when dealing with workplace banter. 

In more severe cases, if the banter is discriminatory or potentially prejudiced or has caused significant distress, it is acceptable to address the problem formally in line with the necessary business processes, like the disciplinary policy.

What Should You Do If Workplace Banter Crosses the Line, So It Doesn't End in Court?

Following the company's disciplinary policy will be necessary if the matter can't be settled peacefully or is severe enough to warrant a response under company policy.

It is inappropriate for an employer to stop an employee from filing employment tribunal claims because every employee has the right to do so.

You must take timely action without undue delay to investigate the complaint using standard procedures. The employee must be informed of the investigation's progress and expected end date. 

You will then start disciplinary actions against the offender if it is determined that the banter was engaged in and constitutes misconduct or gross misconduct.

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