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Banter? Horseplay? Bullying? Or Harassment?

What is deemed to be an acceptable joke, a bit of a laugh, banter between colleagues for one person can be seen completely differently to another.

There’s been a significant increase in tribunal claims over the last few years mentioning workplace ‘banter’. Between 2020 and 2021 there was a 45% increase in banter tribunal claims from 67 to 97.

Under the Equality Act 2010 harassment is deemed as unwanted conduct or behavior towards someone else, usually against a protected characteristics and has the effect of violating their dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

(The nine protected characteristics being Age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.)

If an organisation fails to deal with ‘banter’ and allows unwanted behavior to continue, the culture of the workplace can be severely affected, and can be especially difficult to change moving forward.

Whether a claim is successful at a tribunal, however, may hinge on different elements. Did the employee raise the issue with the person ‘committing the banter’, and inform them they didn’t find it appropriate, or didn’t want to be party to it. Did the employee raise the concerns with their employer and give them the opportunity to investigate and respond?

In many cases when someone is picked up on what they are saying, or how they are saying it the receiver is usually met with ‘oh it’s only a bit of banter’. ‘You alright fatty?!’ may be seen as a joke to the person saying it, and even to those around them, but to the person being called this, it can have a detrimental effect on the individual, sometimes affecting their mental health.

What has caused the increase in tribunal claims remains unknown, however, the pandemic may be have an unexpected effect on them. With many people either being placed on furlough during the pandemic or working from home individuals may have ‘forgotten’ how to behave in a professional environment, or individuals may not be in the same place they had been previously, and things that may have previously seen as a laugh and a joke may longer be the case.

Park City’s consultants have seen and heard an array of different situations where employees have said inappropriate things to other colleagues, or shared inappropriate content with others, or discussed subjects and topics of a degrading nature in earshot of other colleagues. The bottom line to remember is that an organisation can be liable for an employees’ faux pas when it comes to banter, even if it is outside of the workplace.

There are some things employers can do to try and protect the business and to ensure that employees recognise the boundaries between ‘having a laugh’ with colleagues and harassing them. Having clear policies and a clear zero tolerance on bullying and harassment is a start. Training manager and employees in equality, diversity and inclusion is also paramount. But if it does all go ‘a bit pear-shaped’ having in place additional support to the business is also paramount.

Park City Consulting can assist with Policies for employee handbooks, training in equality, diversity and inclusion along with a tribunal support product, that should things go a bit wrong will be there to support your business through any tribunal claim.

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