Banter in the workplace can help build good working relationships amongst staff, but with a 45% increase in tribunal claims relating to workplace banter, it’s clear the lines between banter and harassment are getting increasingly blurred.
A few years ago a company asked us to deliver some training for their staff on the subject of workplace banter. They had identified that in a particular area of their business, things had become a little bit too well, bantery, and they were concerned that the invisible line we all talk about was in the process of being trampled over.
According to recent research conducted by employment law firm GQ Littler, they were right to be concerned. The number of tribunal claims relating to workplace banter has increased by 45% in the last year.
The statistics refer to the number of claims where ‘banter’ was an integral part of the employers defence, the ‘it was just a bit of banter’ defence.
What Does the Law Say About Banter?
As you might imagine, the term ‘banter’ is not one that is defined in law.
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits less favourable treatment on the grounds of ‘protected characteristics’, namely sex, race, sexual orientation, age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity and marriage and civil partnership.
Employers need to be concerned as they can be vicariously liable for the acts of their employees. In simple terms this means a claim can be brought against the employer and the employer can be held responsible and ordered to pay compensation.
What Are the Common Issues?
Often, the sorts of issues that can give rise to unhappy employees are jokes or nicknames that are intended to be, and often are funny. However, the reason it’s tricky is because, as Joe Lycett recently found out when a member of his audience reported one of his jokes to the Police, what one person finds funny, another can find offensive.
So how can employers create the right balance of creating a workplace that encourages a collegiate atmosphere where people get on well and develop relationships but don’t offend one other?
In truth, employers probably need to accept that their staff are not going to get it right all of the time. But there are things employers can do to help (and minimise their potential liability if it does go wrong). Suggestions include:
- Set the right tone – it’s got to start with senior staff and line managers. If they are not behaving in a respectful and appropriate way, it will inevitably lead to problems.
- Create an environment where people are confident to call out or challenge behaviour they find upsetting or offensive. Often things deteriorate when they are allowed to fester. If people feel comfortable to speak up then issues should hopefully be easier to resolve.
- Ensure managers are skilled in having difficult conversations. It is a skill and it can be learnt. Things rarely improve if they are not addressed.
- Consider how you incorporate the types of positive behaviours you want to see from staff into your core values or a company charter. It is one thing having a dignity at work or bullying policy for when things go wrong but implementing these things can be a more proactive and positive tool.
- Offer staff training, either on induction or as part of a more general training agenda. It does no harm for any of us to be reminded about these issues and it can be a helpful reset button if you’ve identified that there is a problem.