One person's harmless banter is another person's harassment

Don't let banter in the office get you into trouble
Barry Shannon

Ulster football just can't seem to stay out of the news. A few weeks ago Ballybofey hosted two competitive, combative even, matches with little quarter given or asked.

The aftermath of Donegal v Tyrone Ulster preliminary match up (both senior and minor) was split between praise for the passion, grit and steeliness displayed by the players and outrage at the ???sledging??? that (allegedly) occurred on the pitch.

The Donegal minor manager threatened to resign over comments (again allegedly) made by Tyrone players to his captain (whose father had tragically passed away), while the Tyrone county board strenuously denied this occurred, following an internal investigation. The seniors too appeared to have plenty to say to one another, although specific details were less forthcoming.

While a referee can apply a sanction during a match, the worst that is really likely to happen is a ban for a number of games, after which the culprit can carry on playing.

In the workplace it's quite a different story. Here, the word 'sledging' is replaced by 'banter', and rather than face a couple of days on the sidelines, the culprit can find themselves losing their job.

Ask a random sample of 100 employees on the streets of Belfast and you would probably find it difficult to get anyone to say they don't enjoy having a bit of craic with their colleagues at work. It helps to get the day in and the workplace would be a hell of a lot duller without it. And are we not famous in the north for having a very quick wit and a very dry sense of humour?

But when you hear that referring to a male member of staff as a 'fruit' and coming out with comments such as 'some people in here should come out of the closet' contributed to one company paying out ??45,000 compensation, it might focus the mind a little more. Remember too what happened to Ron Atkinson, Richard Keys and Andy Gray.

'It was just a joke'doesn't cut any ice in court.

The difficulty is is that one person's harmless banter is another person's harassment or bullying; and it's often not easy to see where the line is. Comments that are acceptable to one person can be seen as offensive to another and not everyone has a thick skin.

And therein lies a key point; the most important consideration will be how comments are perceived, not how they were intended. So what you and your friends may see as perfectly acceptable has potential to be offensive to others, even if the comments were only overheard in passing.

That???s not to say that absolutely anything you utter can be construed as inappropriate; there is an obligation to determine if whatever was said could ???reasonably??? have caused offence, however the sensible thing to do is sense check what you intend to say to see if it has any potential to embarrass or offend someone else and when in any doubt; err on the side of caution. Think too about your surroundings; the more people present, the more chance there is that someone could take offence.

For employers it's essential that they have an up to date policy and procedure in place to cover banter. They should ensure that employees are regularly given training covering what is and what is not acceptable and actual examples are given to help staff understand where the line is.

Equally important is that employers make it clear how staff may raise a complaint and what will happen if employees are found to have overstepped the mark. It's worth noting that as well as the employer, individual employees can also be sued, in cases of harassment, bullying or discrimination and explaining to your loved ones why you have to pay out thousands of pounds and have just lost your job over an ill advised comment may not be the most appealing of scenarios.

At this point it is also worth noting that wherever possible it is always preferable for the offended party simply to make it clear to their colleagues that they find their behaviour offensive in the first instance and ask them to stop, as educating colleagues can often be more useful than applying heavy sanctions. Admittedly this is not always possible however, and in that event there should be a clear avenue for employees to raise concerns to someone neutral, usually a line manager or HR department.

The bottom line is that banter at work in some shape or form is highly unlikely to stop, and from a social integration and engagement perspective it can be very useful; the key is to think first and apply an internal, objective test of reasonableness.

Think about what you are going to say, where you are going to say it, who is within earshot and the type of relationship you have with the recipient before speaking. It just might save your job.

  • Barry Shannon (barry.shannon@ capita. is head of HR business development at Capita HR Solutions in Belfast (www. capitahrsolutions.

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