HR Blog: Beware the banter in your business

Banter is defined as an exchange of light, playful teasing, and is also often accompanied by a declaration of “only joking”.

However, as harmless as it sounds, it runs the risk of causing actual damage to a business and the people within it.

Banter is often used as a defence in employment tribunals concerning claims of discrimination, although it is rarely successful.

One person’s perception of banter can be very different to someone else’s, and a seemingly innocuous joke may actually cause offence. It is not just those engaged in a conversation to consider, but anyone overhearing it. They might raise concerns if they find it to be offensive. Such situations need to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, fear of shame or being called difficult or sensitive can prevent a person from speaking up about problematic banter. They may even go along with it to try and fit in, even if it makes them uncomfortable. This is worrisome, as it allows banter to continue, often behind the scenes or in private chat groups.

Persistent banter can lead to a damaging and risky company culture, from accusations of bullying and harassment to discrimination; it’s a minefield for claims and can breakdown trust in a business.

It’s also not a healthy environment for employees, allowing other issues to manifest, such as low morale and increased absences.

What can employers do about banter?

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop banter altogether in the workplace, especially when a joke or two can ease stress and contribute to a fun workplace. However, ensuring that employees have clear and open lines of communication with management to report their concerns is vital.

From there, an investigation may need to take place.

A recent case concerning banter between an all-male car sales team has shown how complicated this issue can be, and how employers can stumble when tackling banter in the workplace.

When tackling workplace banter goes wrong

Mr Rathod often found himself partaking in, or being the butt of, the existing laddish banter within the company.

The culture, described as crude and immature, had allowed personal opinions and prejudices to filter into regular conversations, some of which had included racist remarks towards Mr Rathod.

Tiring of the persistent banter, he eventually raised a grievance relating to a particular colleague. The accused employee ultimately resigned but, in his defence, provided evidence of Mr Rathod joining in on some of the jokes.

Due to its zero tolerance approach to harassment of a sexual or racial nature, the employer felt there was no choice but to discipline and dismiss Mr Rathod for his involvement.

This led to an unfair dismissal claim which the defendant won.

The judge pointed out fundamental issues with the company culture and the absence of a proper investigation. Crucially, others in the company who had acted the same way were not dealt the same zero tolerance hand.

This case highlights not only the risks of banter running the show, but also the risks of tackling banter without a proper investigation.

Managing banter with support from HR

The language used in a business matters. An anti-banter policy offers protection, but it’s leadership that can make a real difference day-to-day by setting an example.

An inclusive company culture is less likely to fuel problematic banter and can create a happier and more productive working environment.

If you need help dealing with banter in your business, remember that we are here to help.