Diversity and Inclusion Week: Banter, harassment and inappropriate behaviour

We all have the right to work in an environment free from harassment and bullying, and to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. Harassment and bullying cannot be tolerated as they undermine confidence, can affect mental and physical health, erodes morale and can damage team cohesion, productivity and effectiveness.

A fine line can exist between a light-hearted atmosphere among a happy productive team and employees overstepping the mark and leaving the business open to claims. However, it is clear that any workplace culture or office banter must not offend or isolate members of staff and that any jokes, nicknames or conversations must not relate to any protected characteristic (age, disability, gender identity, pregnancy, race, religion / belief, sex, sexual orientation). The Assembly has a Dignity at Work policy that has a zero tolerance approach to such behaviour.

What’s the difference between banter and harassment?

Banter could be defined as good natured teasing, joking or repartee that doesn’t offend anyone. Harassment is unwanted, distressful and hurtful words or behaviour. It is unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating an employee’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It is important to remember that harassment includes conduct that may not be intentional but nevertheless has the effect of harassing an individual. The fact that an individual did not intend to cause offence or hurt is not an acceptable excuse.

Common sense, context, good taste and individuals’ relationships with each other will normally dictate which remarks are, and which are not, enjoyable and acceptable.

Sometimes good friends and colleagues can build up relationships which involve constant mickey-taking of each other. But don’t let this style of humour become your default. It’s often a natural instinct for someone to laugh along and pretend they’re not bothered, when really they are.

Whilst often the harshest of banter may occur between the closest of friends, always stop to consider whether it may cause offence to someone else who may have joined the conversation at a later stage, or someone who may be within earshot.

Often teams of employees have been together for a long period of time and have developed a culture of good-natured ribbing or humorous insults. If any of these comments is objectionable in tone and aimed toward a protected class, you may have an illegal situation forming in your workplace.

Are you displaying inappropriate behaviour?

Is it possible that you are unaware of the effect your behaviour has on others? The following are examples of phrases that should not be used to excuse, or hide, behaviour that, in reality, constitutes bullying:

  • ‘Strong or robust management style’.
  • ‘A personality clash’.
  • Describing someone as ‘oversensitive’ or ‘unable to take a joke’.
  • A manager who does ‘not suffer fools gladly’.
  • A ‘hard task-master’.

Consider the position of the other person: are they more junior than you? Have they recently joined the team? Are they in a minority in the team, e.g. a women working in a predominately male environment? All these things may make them feel more sensitive to comments, and less able to complain about it.

Think about the rest of your team. Any comment you make doesn’t exist in isolation, it also contributes to an environment where that type of humour is accepted. You may only make one joke, but if you are the tenth person to make a similar of joke that day, the recipient’s sense of humour will wear thin pretty quickly. If one person always seems to be the butt of office jokes, don’t wait for HR to tell you to cut it out.

Be especially cautious of email. It’s all too easy to forward a “hilarious” joke or video to several recipients at once, but if some of them find it offensive then it’s not much of an excuse to say that you were just passing it on. We have special rules about use of IT systems, plus there will be a paper trail showing exactly what you sent. If you wouldn’t be happy to copy in the head of HR and the head of IT, then don’t click send.

Here’s a good rule of thumb – imagine your comment being read out in a barrister’s withering tones in front of a scowling judge. Stripped of its context in the jokey back-and-forth between workmates, anything close to the knuckle is going to sound that much worse.

If your boss takes disciplinary action against you for comments you’ve made; it’s usually best to apologise, promise to be more sensitive in future. This puts the ball back in their court and will usually stand you in better stead that insisting that you haven’t done anything wrong because it was all “just a joke” – remember, this is no defence!

What can you do if you witness or experience inappropriate behaviour?

The Assembly Commission’s Dignity at Work policy has the following principles in place:

  • Employees should be encouraged to raise their concerns with management either informally or through a formal grievance.
  • Employees should be left under no illusions that any banter or conduct which is deemed to be unacceptable will result in disciplinary action.
  • Managers must not stand by and tolerate clearly offensive conduct but take steps to prevent it. Managers who overhear or witness any potentially offensive conduct must take steps to address it or ensure it is not repeated
  • Inform your entire team of the difference between workplace banter and actual verbal harassment. Don’t accept excuses like, “It’s just a joke” or “We’ve always talked this way.” Demand a zero-tolerance culture in your workplace, and inform every person on your team of this policy.
  • Challenge inappropriate and unacceptable language and behaviour. TO not challenge, could be seen as condoning the behaviour.
  • Investigate any accusations of harassment immediately to make sure of all the details. If you find an employee that has been harassing others, take appropriate steps to rectify the situation immediately.

Sources:

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/difference-between-verbal-harassment-workplace-banter-35576.html

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/legal-guide-workplace-banter-crosses-7659431

http://www.cityjobs.com/cityblog/2013/04/17/avoid-office-banter-harassment-workplace/

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