In many offices, where a team have been together for some time, a culture of good-natured teasing and humorous insults can develop. Banter is friendly and most importantly, an exchange. It is neither designed to, nor has the effect of, shaming, upsetting, belittling, offending or otherwise making anyone hearing it uncomfortable. It is a shared joke.
Banter can reinforce in-group solidarity and improve relationships between colleagues. It can even be a useful tool when thinking creatively about a work issue – not having the restrictions of social etiquette (within reason) often means that challenges can be discussed honestly and openly with your colleagues.
However, the line between banter and bullying or harassment can be easily crossed – discussion topics and language that were used in the pub on a Friday night are not suitable in a Monday morning meeting.
Bullying can be the result of something that started out as banter but has been taken too far – a shared joke being aired in a public forum that humiliates a person, or teasing that crosses the line by making fun of a person’s disability etc. Bullying doesn’t require intent, what is important is the impact it has on the person being bullied.
It isn’t just bullying that is often dismissed as banter. Quite worryingly sexual harassment is often still labelled in this same way. Sexual harassment is behaviour of a sexual nature, whether a comment or an advance, which is unwanted, intimidating or humiliating.
As a rough guide, if the answer to any of the following questions is ‘yes’, then the line has been crossed:
- Is only one person not in on the “joke”?
- Does the remark or action have the effect of embarrassing, insulting or shaming?
- Is the joke about someone’s gender, sexuality, disability, race or other protected characteristics?
- Is it an unwanted sexual comment or advance?
- Does the recipient say, or otherwise indicate that that they don’t like it?
Good or bad, office banter will always exist within an environment where people interact on a daily basis. Ensuring that banter remains good humoured and does not evolve into something more sinister, is the responsibility of all employees. Encouraging constructive and creative conversations and allowing employees to speak freely and express their opinions, without fear of embarrassment, improves engagement and collaboration within the business.