Written by KATE SCOTT

Light-hearted conversations are an important part of workplace life – nobody wants to work in miserable silence. But at what point does ‘banter’ become a form of bullying, and is it damaging to workplace culture?

Communication between employees is generally to be encouraged, even if the conversation isn’t directly related to work. Jovial conversations can keep spirits up during the working day and are an important factor in keeping morale high – but staff should be clear where the lines are. An organisation’s own standards should be clearly communicated and part of the culture, setting the tone and ensuring everyone is aware of what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Employees should be mindful of their colleagues at all times, and remember that what one person may find funny, another might find offensive. Humour is fine as long as it doesn’t cross the line into other areas – for example bullying, sexism or racial abuse. Let’s also remember that there are lots of types of “banter” – and the wrong kind of “girl talk” can be equally as damaging.

Banter does have the potential to affect morale and performance when it is not considered funny by one or more employees. The law recognises that different organisations have different cultures and what may be acceptable for some may constitute harassment in others. A recent tribunal (Evans v Xactly Corporation Limited) found that an employee who was the target of banter was not discriminated against, because he was an active participant in the culture of banter, and the comments did not create an intimidating environment for him.

Managers should be especially aware of the dangers of getting involved in banter because this could make it difficult or impossible for an employee to raise their concerns. If in doubt, they should take a step back.

What can employers do to ensure banter does not get out of hand?

It is vitally important that issues are dealt with promptly – don’t wait for a pattern to emerge. An incident only needs to happen once for it to be considered harassment. Everyone has the right to decide what behaviour is acceptable to him or her and to have his or her feelings respected by others.

Employers and managers have a duty to protect their employees and should have regular training and an overview of employment law and the Equality Act, including a full briefing on the responsibilities of line managers with regards to bullying, harassment and discrimination. This training shouldn’t happen just once – it needs to be regularly refreshed.

We always recommend to our clients that they have a Dignity at Work Policy in the Employee Handbook which is accessible to all employees.

To find out more about how you can nurture the right culture in your business, contact us by emailing: info@realityhr.co.uk or call us on: 01256 328428.