Third of workers have experienced bullying disguised as banter, research shows

Experts say while managers are unlikely to want to stop all staff interactions, establishing robust policies and training are key to tackling workplace harassment

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A third (32 per cent) of UK workers have experienced bullying masked as banter, research has found.

An Irwin Mitchell survey of 2,179 people revealed that the accounting and finance sector (38 per cent), hospitality (39 per cent) and retail (38 per cent) were some of the most prevalent industries for workplace banter-based bullying.

The data “posed serious concerns” about identifying unlawful behaviour in the workplace, according to Irwin Mitchell, which would give employees the right to bring forward legal claims such as discrimination and constructive dismissal. 

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The pitfalls of workplace banter

Workplace bullying claims hit record high, data shows

Paul Seath, partner at the employment department of Bates Wells, said: “While a dose of healthy banter can be good for workplace relationships, inappropriate banter can make life for those on the wrong end of it very uncomfortable. And can also stray into bullying and harassment and be discriminatory.”

The line between the two can be fine and depend on people’s perceptions, he cautioned: “While one person might view something as healthy, another won’t.”

Deborah Casale, employment partner at Irwin Mitchell, also highlighted the legal consequences bullying can have on employers.“If an employee is being made to feel they’re not wanted and resigns as a result of an employer’s behaviour, it could be considered ‘quiet firing’. This can form grounds for constructive dismissal if it breaches the implied terms of trust and confidence in the employment relationship,” she said. 

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According to the survey, 45-54 year olds were the age group most likely to have experienced bullying masked as banter, with workers in the north west of England being most likely regionally (37 per cent).

Sharing her professional experience, Helen Astill, HR services director at HR Solutions, said: “I have investigated many complaints of bullying over the years and unfortunately as soon as the words ‘it was only a bit of banter’ are uttered, it usually means that the individual has acknowledged that they did indeed make the comments alleged.”

While understanding that managers are not going to want to stamp out all interactions with colleagues, Astill advised that when a manager senses that some staff are feeling awkward or “they start thinking that new recruits need to be ‘robust’ to work in a particular department because of the nature of the interactions in that team, they need to think instead about how to make the environment safer”.

People Management reported last year that the number of employment tribunal claims citing allegations of bullying increased by 44 per cent (from 581 to 835) between March 2021 and March 2022, reaching record highs. At the time, Fox & Partners, which carried out the research, dubbed the findings a “canary in the mine” moment for many organisations, noting  the rise of virtual working could have led to new patterns of harassment.

Similarly, the CIPD’s ‘Harassment and bullying at work’ factsheet pointed out that employers should be especially aware of cyberbullying, since detrimental texts sent via mobiles, or images of work colleagues posted on external websites following work events, could amount to bullying for which the employer could be liable.

Greg Ogle, operational excellence manager at whistleblowing hotline Safecall, said the firm receives a large number of claims of bullying through its hotline and website contact, with employees using the service as a third route if they feel “ignored” by HR or managers.

Reports about bullying “can be down played in their seriousness or disregarded by management as ‘banter’ among staff, leading to a large number of bullying reports through whistleblowing channels independent of the company”, Ogle said.

Sarah Williams​, head of employment at Taylors Solicitors, warned that “even if workplace banter is not linked to a protected characteristic, banter about everyday life, such as football or social activities, can still cause offence and result in complaints of bullying and harassment and constructive dismissal claims if action isn’t taken by the employer”.

She said that, to manage such situations, businesses should have very clear disciplinary and equality policies. “Good policies are important, and these must be backed up by training. A policy without training is useless and will not help an employer defend a claim,” she said.