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Is your workplace banter acceptable?

Posted on 5/05/2020 by Nicky Sinclair

Virtual call


Good old Banter…the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks.

Having recently participated in a webinar (Banter – Balancing wit and wisdom conducted by Inclusive Employers), it was a good time to think about banter in our own workplace, particularly now that everyone is working remotely full-time.

So many of us have been thrown into the deep-end and learning as we go with regards to working remotely.  We are working through the current challenges whilst trying to keep connected with our colleagues by utilising a variety of platforms and apps such as Zoom and WhatsApp.

Whilst these are amazing tools, these facilitate additional ways in which we can experience and partake in banter, such as through email and text.  We would usually be sitting amongst our colleagues, potentially being more aware of our environment and who is around us, at home, we may be more susceptible to dropping our guards and being more casual, even risky in our banter.  We could also be dressed less formal, maybe even sat in a polka dot onesie, however this should not alter our professional approach or attitudes, the healthy and respectful relationships we have developed with our colleagues should continue to grow and strengthen through positive communication and even banter.

Banter can be an extremely positive aspect of an organisations culture and there are many benefits to banter, if it is done in a respectful and harmless way, it can strengthen bonds and friendships amongst colleagues and lift morale, particularly during stressful times.

When it comes to banter, there needs to be a balance, so people can enjoy their colleagues and working environment and feel as though they are able to have a laugh, which often leads to an increase in productivity.

Banter can have a positive influence on the working environment, it can allow people to be their authentic selves whilst enjoying some innocent fun and exchange of jokes so long as you always maintain respect for the people around you.  Banter at times can also be negative, this can happen if you make jokes or comments linked to a persons’ protected characteristics.

Consider everyone around you when you say something out loud, particularly to a group as there could be an individual who may be affected or offended by your jokes.

When it comes to banter during work, it’s important to remember that you are a representative of your organisation and that you won’t always know everyone’s backgrounds or personal stories. We are all equally responsible for positive role modelling, particularly if you are in a position of management and need to set examples.

Banter which might otherwise be considered acceptable may become unacceptable, unhelpful or destructive to team cohesion as a result of the way it is delivered or received. Something which may be intended as a harmless, throw-away comment can quite easily turn into a serious grievance. When it comes to banter, the intent is irrelevant once you have upset or offended someone.

When banter goes bad:

Banter can unfortunately cause people to feel excluded, vulnerable, ruin professional relationships amongst colleagues and can cause a decrease in productivity due to wanting to constantly get one up on your colleague. Unwanted banter can cause an employee to withdraw and become less productive and ultimately it can cost you your job.

Always be aware that the person you are having banter with might not be offended, but someone listening might be.  Individuals taking part in banter must ensure their conduct does not have the purpose or effect of violating one’s dignity, or is intimidating, offensive or humiliating.

An as employer is it important to get the balance right and this can be difficult.  There are measures you can put in place to assist you with forming appropriate boundaries and you should take reasonable steps to evidence that you have prevented unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

It is recommended that you examine your existing internal policies which could include policies around bullying, harassment, equality, diversity and inclusion.  Ensure they are easily accessible, up to date and signed by all staff.  Ideally there should be training provided around these topics and a clear awareness and understanding around banter in the workplace and what your organisation determines as appropriate banter.  Banter can lead certain people to feel excluded, inclusivity training can help people to understand how and when this can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation.

Additional tips for employers:

  • Training covering listening and communication skills, as well as training in emotional intelligence can also be of huge benefit to all employees and have surprisingly successful results.
  • As an employer, your training records must be able to prove that your employees have received adequate training in these areas and that you have taken all reasonable steps to teach your employees about what is acceptable behaviour. 
  • Ensure you have given your management team training on how to recognise unwanted banter and how they can go about having courageous conversations in order to address and resolve it.
  • Deal with any complaints raised by an employee promptly and thoroughly, in accordance with internal disciplinary and grievance procedures. (ACAS provides free guidance on disciplinary and grievance procedures.)

Overall, banter can make your work life more enjoyable, make you more productive and may even influence your sense of belonging and loyalty to an organisation. 

Just remember to be respectful and appreciate that everyone is different and wishes to be treated accordingly. 

Have fun and be kind.