Why workplace banter isn’t ‘just a bit of fun’

5 Jul 2018 By Kate Cooper

As a new report reveals that people are quitting their jobs over ‘banter’, Kate Cooper outlines what HR professionals can do to stop the line being crossed into harassment and bullying

Workplace banter is a part of everyday life that can have a positive effect on bonding and creating a fun workplace. Indeed, there is much to gain from having a relaxed environment, as increased morale leads to improved productivity and enhanced wellbeing among staff. 

But a new study into banter by the Institute of Leadership & Management shows that banter needs to be addressed by employers as much as full-scale harassment and bullying does. The Banter: Just a bit of fun or crossing the line? report surveyed more than 1,000 people and found that 4 per cent have actually left a job because of negative banter. 

This is huge in terms of recruitment budget: hiring a new member of staff can cost as much as approximately £30,000 for some senior workers – an expensive consequence of what some describe as ‘a bit of fun’.

The report also found that women are twice as likely as men to have been negatively affected by workplace banter, with one in 10 women citing it as a cause of mental health issues. And despite the recent heightened media awareness over inappropriate behaviour at work, such as the global #MeToo movement, when the line is crossed women are still less likely to challenge inappropriate behaviour than their male colleagues, with only 55 per cent of women compared to 73 per cent of men saying they would directly challenge banter.

The study revealed that it is those at the midway point in their careers (31-40 years old) who are most affected by banter and suffer poor mental health as a result. Younger workers are also suffering, with graduate trainees most likely to avoid work socials than any other group to escape bearing the brunt of inappropriate banter. So what can employers do?

Dos and don’ts guide for handling banter

Getting the banter balance right is tough, so it’s important that employers recognise the serious impact it can have and put robust measures in place to make sure banter is kept within appropriate boundaries:

  • Examine your existing policies – be proactive and don’t just think that somehow over time this is an issue of working life that is going to fix itself. Appreciate that any negative banter that leads to a loss of confidence and resignations has a real impact on the bottom line.
  • Have clear policies on bullying, harassment, equality, diversity and inclusion. This is critical for employers that can be held liable for the actions of an employee.
  • Along with formal bullying policies, have clear policies on workplace banter. If an employee feels that a conversation happening around them, or one they have participated in, is inappropriate, who do they go to talk about it? Do they know it’s OK to raise such concerns?
  • Be mindful that any unwelcome comments at work aren’t ‘just a bit of banter’ – they can sometimes form the basis of a legal claim. If an employee has not experienced something as a joke, then the environment can soon feel hostile for that person. 
  • Create awareness of workplace banter and what is good or bad right from the start at induction. Create a culture where people feel they can raise concerns and be seen to be inclusive and diverse.
  • Hold inclusivity training and discuss what might be considered banter by some but leaves others feeling alienated.
  • Publicise your policies and training. Almost three-quarters of people said their organisation did not have a policy on banter or didn’t know if one existed.

Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management

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