Latest Blog Posts

Harassment or Banter: What is the Difference?

We all love a good laugh and some playful teasing among friends, colleagues, or even acquaintances. Banter can be a way to build camaraderie, share inside jokes, and add a sprinkle of humour to our daily interactions. However, there comes a point when the line between harmless jesting and harmful harassment gets blurred, and it’s essential to recognise when the line has been crossed.

Firstly, it would be good to look at the definitions of both harassment and banter.

Harassment: The Equality Act 2010 provides a definition of harassment; it is ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’.

Banter: Is light-hearted, friendly, and playful exchange between colleagues. It involves teasing, joking, or witty remarks that are consensual and meant to foster camaraderie. Banter can be a healthy and enjoyable part of office culture when it’s respectful and doesn’t cross boundaries.

Based on the above definitions, can you identify which exchange is banter and which is harassment?

Exchange 1:

  • Colleague A: “I can’t believe you drink that fancy caramel macchiato every morning!”
  • Colleague B: “Well, I can’t start my day without it! But hey, at least I’m not addicted to triple-shot espresso like you, am I right?”
  • Colleague A: “Haha, touche! Coffee rivalry it is!”

Exchange 2:

  • Employee A: (making derogatory comments about Employee B’s religion) “Your beliefs are ridiculous and very woo woo; why don’t you follow a real religion?.”
  • Employee B: (feeling uncomfortable and offended) “Please stop making those comments about my religion. It’s inappropriate, and I find it offensive.”
  • Employee A: “Oh, come on, don’t be so sensitive. I’m just speaking the truth. You should toughen up.”

Did you manage to spot the difference? The second exchange was unwanted by Employee B, and they thought A’s comments were offensive. Exchange 2 was also based around the protected characteristic of Belief. Clearly, Exchange 2 was harassment.

As employers you may think that the difference between harassment and banter does not matter; however, getting the balance wrong can have massive effects. In the case of Miss M Hunter v Lidl Great Britain Ltd, the Claimant told her line manager that a colleague had made inappropriate comments. The manager laughed and said he was not surprised. Comments that were directed at Miss Hunter included: ‘that jumper really brings out your figure’, ‘how was your shower?’, ‘do you shower alone?’, and ‘what did you do in the shower’?

The respondent who made the comments did not intend to cause offence by his comments; he did not realise that they were offensive. The tribunal found that the respondent ‘was reflecting the culture within the store.’ He said in evidence he wanted to lighten the atmosphere and that workplace banter was not uncommon; they were like a big family’. What was the result? Miss Hunter (claimant) was awarded the sum of £50,884.62.

We now know where the line is between banter and harassment and how important it is to get that right. But what is the takeaway for you?

Develop a Climate of Respect

The CIPD note that employers should promote a positive climate at work for everyone based on personal respect and dignity, this will help to prevent inappropriate behaviour starting. Importantly, the culture should be lead top down, senior leaders and managers need to take a zero tolerance approach to harassment. This approach should not get in the way of banter, because we know where the line is drawn.

If your organisation is yet to create values, we suggest you do so. Using employee voice mechanisms, ask your staff what they want the values to be, and have them live by these. The Harvard Business Review notes: ‘having employees buy in to change doesn’t simply make implementation easier, but rather forges an immutable and reciprocal relationship which pays infinite dividends’.

Create Strong Policies

Creating policies helps with a variety of concerns. It aids employers by ensuring legal compliance, mitigating risks, promoting a positive workplace culture, clarifying expectations, maintaining consistency in responses, supporting victims, educating employees, empowering management, and demonstrating due diligence, all of which collectively contribute to a safer and more inclusive work environment.

We recommend updating or creating an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policy, ensuring it includes harassment. Once created, do not stop there, train managers on the policy ensuring they fully understand the document, as well as the legislation that surrounds it. Moreover, the document should be kept up-to-date with the latest developments.

Provide Training

Training is key to promoting a culture of respect. Training should not just happen annually as a tick box exercise rather it should be included within induction but also provided when occasions arise. All colleagues should receive the training, including managers and the senior leadership team. As we said before, the SLT need to promote the zero tolerance policy.

In summary, it’s crucial to distinguish between harmless banter and harmful harassment in the workplace. While banter can be a fun and camaraderie-building part of the workplace culture, harassment is unacceptable and can have big consequences.

If you would like help in creating an EDI policy or want training, the trained professionals at View HR would be happy to help.