Is workplace 'banter' the enemy of inclusion?

Salma Shah examines the impact of inappropriate behaviour at work and explains how to tackle it

Credit: Ferran Traite Soler/Getty Images

Discriminatory, bullying and exclusive behaviour can often be dismissed as jovial teasing or light-hearted office banter. Bystanders may feel pressured to join in, and do so out of fear of feeling left out becoming unpopular, but ignoring, denying or shrugging off banter at the cost of others is giving employees the green light to carry on as usual. 

Banter can often play out as microaggressions and microinvalidations, and we need to start by educating ourselves on these. A microaggression is a behaviour or comment that is negatively targeted at someone from a marginalised group, undermining a culture of inclusion and reinforcing privilege. Microinvalidation is communication that subtly excludes, negates or nullifies someone’s thoughts, feelings or experiential reality; for example, telling someone they are being oversensitive about an inappropriate remark, or getting defensive when someone is sharing their experience of exclusion. 

No one wants to work in a sanitised work environment where everyone feels they are constantly walking on eggshells, fearful of upsetting someone. Humour and wit is a great way to connect. There is always room for ‘good’ banter; for example, self-deprecating humour where someone pokes fun at themselves is a powerful way to lighten the mood, break the ice or disarm negativity. However, we need to understand that bantering is unique to different situations, individuals and groups. If in doubt then ‘don’t’. Banter targeted at one person is particularly risky. We also need to ask whether the banter is being used to highlight a flaw and draw attention to someone, as then we can also assume that this will be causing a disconnect. Playfully pointing the finger at what is perceived as wrong with someone will, over time, lead to them feeling excluded and isolated. Banter can also be disguised anger or frustration. 

Fostering inclusion also means creating psychological safety and a culture where people feel they belong. The risk of banter is that it can lead to the opposite of this. Inappropriate banter is a lot like acid rain: over time it can silently cause long-term damage to the ecosystem of plants and organisms, buildings and statues can be impacted by longer-term exposure, and the finer details and sculptural beauty of a monument may end up discoloured, weathered and indistinguishable from its original beauty and grandeur.

We humans are the same. Subtle forms of exclusion in the form of banter can have a similar impact on someone’s self-belief, confidence and self-worth. Not feeling we belong and being excluded is also linked to depression, anxiety and emotional distress. Inappropriate banter can have significant implications for an employee’s psychological wellbeing and experience at work.

Leaders and managers must have a clear and no-nonsense policy on what is appropriate banter and what is not, both in the workplace and on social media. Be aware that those who are excluded or have had to put up with banter may have learned to stay silent – don’t assume they are quiet because they have little to say.

Addressing banter will require organisations to embrace radical inclusion. Leaders and managers need to be open, non-judgemental, reflective and curious about their own biases, privilege and assumptions. They also need to understand and have empathy with the lived experiences of those with different backgrounds, identities, life choices, beliefs, dreams and feelings to them. Each of us has a sphere of influence around us where we can take the decision to be an ally rather than a bystander. One way to be an impactful ally is to shut down inappropriate office banter.

Salma Shah is founder of coach training and leadership development platform Mastering Your Power, and author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching