When does workplace banter go too far?

It's no laughing matter when a jokey culture turns into harassment, says the Institute of Leadership & Management's Kate Cooper.

by Kate Cooper
Last Updated: 22 May 2019

Over the last couple of years, train drivers have been warned to ‘mind the gag’ as part of a union-backed campaign challenging the use of the term 'banter' to excuse bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Their union should be applauded for tackling this tricky subject head on. Thankfully the days are passing when workplace inclusivity would be threatened by clumsy, thoughtless or discriminatory jibes under the guise of ‘just messing around’.

This remains a complex subject though and, as is so often the case, there are two sides to the story.

Banter is hardly all bad. Given the choice between a fun working environment and a not fun working environment, few of us would opt for the latter, all other things being equal. Humour helps us relax and bond as teams, contributing to better morale and, in turn, enhanced productivity and wellbeing.

But there’s always a line that can get crossed, when one person’s jokes become another person’s bullying, and it’s not always easy to know where the line is. What we can know is that when banter produces discomfort and embarrassment, it can have damaging effects on the performance, confidence and mental health of your employees.

How bad is the problem? The Institute of Leadership & Management recently surveyed more than 1,000 of its members on their experiences of banter in the workplace to assess whether it was a force for good or bad in a working environment.

The results are fascinating and reveal noticeable differences between how men and women deal with, and are impacted by, banter. More women (twice as many, at 20 per cent) said they were made to feel less confident than their male colleagues due to the negative banter they experienced and 10 per cent of women said banter has had a negative impact on their mental health, compared to just three per cent of men. Worryingly, one in every 25 women who responded said they had even left a job because of it. This is clearly no laughing matter.

Despite these perceived negative effects of banter, 73 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t ban it in the workplace (only five per cent said they would). Over two-thirds of men and 56 per cent of women said they used banter to get to know their colleagues better – which reminds us of the important social function of work.

But short of banning all fun and/or personal conversation at work (try putting that on your job descriptions –ed.), what can you do as an employer to ensure banter doesn’t cross the line and hurt people? 

  1. Create a banter policy or make staff aware of any existing policies or specific procedures.  We found that 37 per cent of workers were unaware their company had a banter policy. There needs to be better employer-to-employee communication about all the corporate policies.

  2. Hold inclusivity training and discuss the fact that what might be considered banter by some leaves others feeling alienated.

  3. Make it clear where the workplace banter line lies at staff inductions - or give reminders to existing staff when needed, so there isn’t any confusion about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate.

  4. If banter is particularly common in your industry or organisation, create an environment where staff are comfortable to challenge unacceptable behaviour and, most importantly, know they’ll be heard. One in 10 staff are likely to avoid social occasions due to inappropriate banter. Tackling the issue creates a culture where people feel that they can raise any concerns, and ultimately helps to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace.

Thankfully we no longer accommodate discrimination in the workplace, but we don’t want to create sterile, joyless environments either. Knowing there’s a line and understanding how not to cross it is the key to ensuring banter can still bring benefits without ever going too far.

Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management. The Institute’s report – Banter: Just a bit of fun or crossing the line? – is available here.


Image credits: rawpixel.com from Pexels

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