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Bin the ‘banter’ for a stress-free working environment

Unwanted behaviour is better prevented than defended
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Unwanted behaviour is better prevented than defended
Sandhya Iyer - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells by Sandhya Iyer - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells
Director - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells

Situations can so easily escalate at work – one minute, employees can be laughing amongst themselves, the next, there’s a real sense of being intimidated and humiliated. So, what can you do to ensure your staff never feel this way? Sandhya Iyer of the HR Dept explains how prevention is better than cure.

Banter within its wider context

Banter may be something you perceive as harmless, but to understand why it’s something that needs managing in the workplace, we have to put it into its wider context. And unfortunately, what may be harmless ribbing to one person, may be bullying to another. So, before we get onto defining banter, we need to explore harassment and bullying and their implications for your business.

In a nutshell, both bullying and harassment are unwanted behaviours within a workplace; as with everything related to HR, they are better prevented than defended. Bullying itself (very surprisingly!) is not against the law, but harassment is. However, to ensure both that your business is a positive place to work – enabling you to attract and retain the best staff – and also that you can concentrate on running it, rather than defending tribunal claims, you therefore need to make sure you have an effective HR framework of policies and procedures in place that address bullying and harassment.

The definition of bullying

There is no set definition under the law for bullying. However, it is perceived as persistent, offensive, intimidating and humiliating behaviour, targeted at one or a group of individuals, thereby making them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable at their workplace and undermining their position. This means it can be any unwanted behaviour or ‘banter’ targeting any one of the following:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Religion or belief
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Gender reassignment
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation

The definition of harassment

Harassment is defined as any unwanted behaviour that causes offence to, and affects the dignity of, an individual or a group of individuals. The key here is that an act is deemed to be harassment if the person at the receiving end is left feeling offended, insulted or disrespected, irrespective of whether or not this was the intent.

Examples of bullying and harassment could be:

  • Gossip
  • Spreading rumours
  • Denying an individual training opportunities without clear business reasons
  • Deliberately picking on an individual or undermining their position within the company
  • Posting inappropriate messages on social media about a colleague

So what, then, is banter?

Banter is anything that is perceived by most workers as friendly chatter because there is an assumed level of rapport between colleagues. Sometimes, though, this slips into territory that could make a person feel uncomfortable. However, they may choose to ignore it because of an underlying or assumed level of rapport.

When left unaddressed for a period of time, however, it may prove to be annoying or offensive to individuals, at which point it may fall into the category of harassment. Determining much of what could be construed as harassment is a matter of common sense. For instance, seemingly innocuous flirting with a colleague because there is an assumed level of rapport could lead to a sexual harassment claim. Similarly, a throw-away comment could lead to discrimination claims.

As with the definition of harassment, it does not matter whether the person initiating the comment intended to cause offence. Instead, it is dependent on whether or not the recipient is left feeling offended.

Managing banter, bullying and harassment in the workplace

So what can be done to avoid and/or address banter, bullying or harassment in the workplace? The following pointers should give you an idea:


Harnessing a culture of trust and openness ensures that any unease around banter is nipped in the bud. Workers should feel confident that their concerns will be taken on board and that every effort will be made to address them, irrespective of their position within the company or that of a colleague.

Equally important is a culture of respect. While the manner of showing respect could differ between individual cultures, every worker has an obligation to be sensitive to each other’s culture. Independent of culture, respect is defined as being sensitive to a colleague’s personal or work situation and strictly avoiding anything that could be perceived as gossip or spreading malicious rumours.

Having a code of conduct that addresses dignity at work could be a proactive approach to sending strong and clear messages about the culture of your organisation.

Policies and Procedures

As with everything HR, it is imperative that if you employ staff you have a redressal process in place; doing so will enable you to address effectively any of the issues mentioned above as soon as they crop up. Having to address a situation of negative banter, bullying or harassment can be very stressful in itself, but will be worse if you are caught out with no company policies or procedures established to deal with it.

A grievance and disciplinary process is the bare minimum you need to have in place to be able to address any escalations effectively. Basic guidelines are available as a starting point within ACAS . Every employee or worker has a right to be informed of where the company disciplinary and grievance policy and procedures may be accessed. It is advisable to have a company-specific policy and procedure outlining who should be approached if and when there is an issue, with details of the process that will be followed.

Train, train and train

Cultural change and learning do not happen overnight – nor do they happen automatically. Training your staff and managers is part and parcel of a day’s work. Training does not always have to be within a formal classroom set-up, especially as it may not always be feasible due to operations. In any case, regular reinforcement of the organisational culture and values tends to have a better impact compared to annual training sessions. Any training that is offered should have a top-down approach, whereby organisation values are disseminated within smaller groups on a regular basis – this is especially true for small and medium organisations, which are relatively more informal in their structures.

Failing to tackle and prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace puts employers in breach of the law, as addressed under the Health and Safety at work Act, 1974 . Anything to do with bullying and harassment is extremely stressful for all parties involved, and of course it is also an employer’s responsibility to manage employee’s stress at work proactively.

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Sandhya Iyer is the director of the HR Department , helping small- and medium-sized businesses in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, Kent.  A graduate member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development , she works with business owners, entrepreneurs and managers to prevent people problems and help them get the best from their staff.