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Understanding workplace banter.

By partnersinhr, Mar 13 2018 01:13PM

Understanding workplace banter

A strong workplace culture can be a great asset to any small business organisation, but a light-hearted environment that's big on banter can easily walk the line between a friendly and welcoming place, and a hotbed of negative problems such as harassment & bullying. Here at Partners in HR, we're taking a look at exactly what workplace banter is, and how you can nip it in the bud if it goes too far.

What is acceptable?

The key test is what is 'reasonable' or 'proportionate'. Small businesses are often tight knit, with close relationships leading to a normal level of teasing and lightheartedness which can be viewed as part of the company’s ‘culture’. However, if that banter is perceived by the recipient or fellow colleagues in a negative or derogatory way and actively affects a person's career progression prospects, mental health or the ability to do their job - it's gone too far. Things like regular comments, practical jokes, strong language or in-jokes can all be problematic for individuals, and potentially damaging for a small business resulting in disengaged staff and an increase in absence and raised grievances. No company wants to have a reputation as an unwelcoming or discriminatory place to work.

Under the Equality Act, harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating and intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”. We'd all like to think we can spot harassment easily enough because it's an obvious and open thing, but harassment, discrimination or bullying can also be extremely context dependent - it isn't always clear on the surface. While women are often disproportionately affected by workplace 'banter', anybody can potentially be a victim - which could prove an issue if the grievance goes to a tribunal, or even to court. For example, in 2015 there were over 11,000 age discrimination cases (http://www.agediscrimination.info/age-discrimination-claims) and 43% of men don't report sexual harassment they witness in the workplace.

What can I do?

As a small business, it's important to act quickly and have all your bases covered in case a situation becomes out of control. You shouldn't attempt to stifle the kind of humour and team spirit that makes your company such a great place to work. A simple conversation may suffice to solve the situation but do have robust HR policies and procedures in place in case they are needed. These should cover the actual workplace (for example codes of conduct, harassment & bullying policies) and online (social media policy), where employees are the public face of your company. Company owners must set the tone and onboarding processes should make it clear exactly what is expected of an employee. Company functions need to be monitored and other measures such as anonymous reporting functions and regular training on inclusion can also be helpful.

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