When ‘Banter’ crosses over into abuse

Posted 22/11/2018 : By: Alexander Curnow

“It’s just a bit of bants!” 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 we all use to make the day a little brighter, to have a joke and a laugh with our colleagues, and to generally brighten up what can be a mundane working environment. But is it ‘just bants’, or could it be something more sinister and harmful?

Workplace banter has its place. However, the term ‘banter’ should never be used as an excuse to humiliate, upset or abuse someone else. What may seem like ‘bants’ 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 should accept it as a bit of ‘light-hearted fun’ is a classic case of blame shifting in what could be a deeply intimidating and demeaning situation.

Victims of workplace banter that goes too far are often reluctant to do anything about it. This is when banter has definitely crossed that 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 intimidated, berated or humiliated then that ‘having a joke’ or ‘just a bit of banter’ has stopped being funny.

What should employees do?

The first thing is usually to talk to the person rationally and explain to them why their ‘banter’ isn’t as funny or harmless as they think. If they don’t take those concerns on board then escalate the situation by taking it to a manager. However, this sometimes isn’t appropriate, depending on the situation and the seriousness of the conduct.

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. 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 an employee overhears a remark about religious beliefs that isn’t directed towards them, but that comment still makes them feel uncomfortable, then the comment doesn’t automatically fall into the harassment or workplace bullying category. My colleague, Jessica Piper, has recently commented on Evans v Xactly Corporation Limited, an Employment Appeal Tribunal case, which confirmed that the office culture is a deeply relevant consideration in the context of harassment claims under the Equality Act 2010 - click here to read

What should employers do?

The employer should therefore assess any situation as a whole to determine what action to take. This will almost invariably require a full investigation not only to manage staff appropriately but also to minimise any risks of claims. It is important to identify whether any protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 are involved to assess those risks and to ensure the correct issues are identified. Check the definitions of ‘harassment’ and ‘bullying’ in the staff handbook and investigate with those in mind.

Employers can also ensure that equality and diversity awareness training is implemented and that everyone understands what constitutes acceptable behaviour within the confines of the workplace. That includes stopping ‘banter’ that attains to things such as a person’s appearance, religious beliefs, sexuality or any other personal issue.

Banter can very easily turn into bullying, especially if it’s relentlessly targeted at an individual. Once others join in, this mob 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 complainant has the right to go to a senior manager, their union representative or HR department and register a complaint or grievance which should be dealt with in accordance with the procedure in place.

Sometimes, though, a joke is just a joke, and a one-off incident of light-hearted mockery may be perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the law. If, however, that one-off joke turns into a campaign of abuse and bullying, then it’s time to stamp it out, before a toxic culture results in a perfect storm of claims and high staff turnover.

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