Can’t They Take a Joke?
3 Minute Read
3 Minute Read

Usually followed by: ‘It was only banter’.

If there isn’t anything that makes HR professionals and Employment Lawyers roll their eyes it’s these statements. Not only is it generally a quasi-admission that someone has said what they have been accused of, but their only justification is weak.

Not to be a kill joy, of course, we want people to have a positive experience at work, however, that can never happen if it is occurring at the expense of another employee’s experience.

‘Banter’ is the poor excuse often attached to very sub-par behaviour and a carryover from high school when peer pressure means that someone would rather go along with the ‘joke’ than say how they feel or state that, actually, the joke isn’t funny, it is totally at their expense, and a mean way of someone showing social dominance.

Not in my workplace.

The workplace can be a pleasant, fulfilling environment where employees can enjoy friendships and fun provided it is all within professional boundaries. Ruining someone else’s day with something inappropriate, cutting or potentially discriminatory is not ‘a joke’. It is however, potentially bullying.

Trends have shown over a 30% increase in bullying allegations where the behaviour has been masked as banter, and between 21 and 22 there was a 44% increase in tribunal claims where bullying was cited. This is serious stuff.

So no, you are not being a ‘kill joy’ or ‘boring’ or ‘soft’ you are protecting your business, your colleagues and the welfare of those in your business.

Rant over. Now, onto the useful stuff. How do we root it out?

How Do We Rule Whether It’s Office Banter?

A fair investigation is crucial, whilst at the same time providing a safe and consequence-free environment for those who come forward.

Ensure witness statements are documents. Consider whether there is any evidence that can be sought beyond just witnesses and then take stock.

Remember, in an investigation, we are considering whether there is a case to answer – not deciding whether someone is guilty or not. So if there are facts that could if proven would support a finding that someone is guilty, you have sufficient grounds to potentially proceed to a disciplinary.

Often in these sorts of situations, we have one word against another. An employer can come to a decision on whose version they prefer, provided in doing so they are being reasonable. Having something to back up these sorts of decisions is inherently preferable, so for example why do we consider something is more credible for one person and not for another?

Documenting all steps taken and the decisions that are made are crucial. If a matter proceeds to tribunal the microscope will focus on how reasonable your decision-making and actions were. Ensuring you can justify the action taken, and provide evidence of what you did is therefore crucial.

When it comes to ‘banter’ it is really important that we take such matters seriously. In 2022 a female banker won a £ 2million sex discrimination claim after her colleagues left a witch’s hat on her desk (which was judged to be inherently sexist) and routinely demeaned her by regularly responding to her with ‘not now, Stacy’.

In Robson b Clarke’s Mechanical Limited, the employer lost a claim where an employee was referred to as ‘Half Dead Dave’.

In Vickers v Hill Biscuits Ltd a female employee was awarded compensation for a suggestive comment in a birthday card, in 2012 a heterosexual male employee won £40,000 after he was called ‘gay’ and other homophobic slurs because he didn’t like football.

So when an employee who has upset someone else retorts with ‘it’s just banter’, clearly Employment Judges don’t see it that way, and neither should you!

Are You Ready To Be Your Workplace Hero?

It’s evident that dismissing inappropriate behavior as “just banter” is not only unacceptable but can also have serious repercussions for individuals and businesses alike. As HR professionals and employers, it’s our responsibility to foster a workplace culture where all employees feel respected and valued. So, let’s put an end to harmful “banter” and instead focus on creating a positive and inclusive environment for everyone.

Reach out to us now to speak with our employment experts to learn more about implementing effective strategies for promoting a healthy work environment.