“Banter” is described as the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks; conversation that is funny and not serious; and talking to someone in a friendly and humorous way. However, "banter" in the workplace can actually be an expression with a more loaded meaning, which is used to try to downplay, deflect attention from, or justify what is actually inappropriate behaviour which might constitute bullying or harassment.
Always remember, what is one person's light hearted and humorous banter is another person's offensive and unacceptable harassment. Context is everything and the definition of harassment under the Equality Act 2010 is unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of creating a hostile, degrading or humiliating environment.
I'm sure no employer would want to create a sterile working environment, lacking in any humour or enjoyment. However, ensuring dignity in the workplace involves employees being sensitive to how their comments can be interpreted or misinterpreted, and the problems that can arise when the invisible line of what is unacceptable is crossed. It is certainly not ‘political correctness gone mad’ to expect colleagues to treat each other with respect.
As an employer this should remind you of the need to:
– have suitable policies in place and conduct appropriate training to ensure appropriate behaviour at work
– establish appropriate channels, both formal and informal, through which employees can raise concerns
– ensure managers are alert to the risks of problem scenarios developing, so they can be addressed before they get out of hand
– act swiftly and proportionately to address problems when they arise, whether informally or through an appropriate investigation and potentially disciplinary action
– ensure that sanctions applied to those who act inappropriately are proportionate and consistent, taking into account all the circumstances
– have a consistent approach to internal and external messaging about this sort of issue both generally and when specific issues arise.
We all know that banning banter is virtually impossible and may not be the answer either, as it does not necessarily indicate inappropriate behaviour.
However, employers do need to be alert to the risks in this area for everyone's sake.