When does banter become bullying?

What constitutes bullying

Banter is commonplace in many workplaces and can help to build relationships and break up the working day. However, sometimes it can go too far.

What is banter to one person could be seen as rudeness or even bullying to another. As an employer, it’s impossible to predict what one employee may say to another – so the best way to avoid an escalated situation is prevention, rather than cure.

To understand when banter becomes bullying or harassment, first it’s important to know exactly what we mean by bullying and harassment.


What is bullying?

Bullying can be difficult to define. Acas describes it as a “range of behaviours under the banner of ill-treatment, interpersonal conflict, or unacceptable and unwanted behaviours.” Obvious examples are:

  • Threats of or actual physical violence.
  • Unpleasant or over-repeated jokes about a person.
  • Unfair or impractical work loading.

You should also be especially aware of cyberbullying. Unpleasant texts or images of work colleagues posted on external websites following work events could count as bullying that you, as the employer, could be liable for. CIPD research found that cyberbullying is more common than inappropriate behaviour at a work social event, with one in ten employees reporting that it happened.

You should also be aware of the potential for the bullying of remote workers and the challenges of managing this – read more about this here.


How is harassment different from bullying?

Bullying can lead to a variety of legal claims, including an employee claiming that they have been bullied out of their job and therefore bringing a case of unfair dismissal.

Harassment is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010. This is when the unwanted behaviour is related to one of the following:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

The CIPD’s ‘Managing conflict in the modern workplace’ research found that employees were almost twice as likely to have experienced bullying than harassment at work in the previous three years. Additionally, in a 2020 survey, 23% of British workers said they’d been bullied at work, and 25% said they’d been made to feel left out.


How to prevent banter becoming harmful

As an employer, you’re responsible for preventing bullying and harassment and you’re liable for any harassment suffered by your employees. Anti-bullying and harassment policies can help prevent problems.

Banter can lull employees into a false sense of security and risks employees having a lapse of judgment on what is (and what is not) appropriate to say. Also, if relationships sour then employees will be more willing to call out inappropriate banter that they may have previously ignored.

You should have a very substantial equal opportunities policy and bullying and harassment policy. Not just this – you should make sure all employees are aware of these policies and have read and understood them.

They mustn’t just be slotted into your handbook – you should train employees on them, ideally when they start with the company, and give refresher sessions as you see fit or when any updates are made. Employers should promote a culture of respect and treating people correctly, with everyone from the senior managers down putting these principles into practice.


What to put in your bullying and harassment policy and how to deal with an incident

In these policies, it should be very clear what is and what isn’t acceptable. If things do go too far and you receive a complaint, or you witness an incident yourself, then you should start your disciplinary procedure, conduct an investigation meeting, and make sure the offending employee is aware of the bullying and harassment policy and that they are in fact breaching it. Depending on the severity of the incidents, such cases could even lead to dismissals for gross misconduct.

That’s why it’s very important make sure you have a bullying and harassment policy in place and that employees are aware of it and trained on it – because, if the worst happens, this goes a long way to proving that you have met your responsibilities as an employer.

In your bullying and harassment policy, you should encourage employees to report incidents to their line manager or another manager. Sometimes the employee may want to approach the person that made the remarks and of course this is their prerogative, but they shouldn’t feel that they have to do this. Also, as an employer, it’s very useful to know what is going on in terms of colleague interactions

Once you’re aware of the incident, a grievance procedure can be carried out if this is what the employee wants, but certainly the incident must be investigated. This could be slightly different depending on the nature of the incident, so it’s best to contact us to discuss how to go about the investigation – and the disciplinary action, if necessary.

For a quick and easy way to create a comprehensive bullying and harassment policy, download our free template below.

Discrimination and harassment policy templates

Your free guide to bullying & harassment

Download the guide

Tackle bullying in the workplace with Citation

Banter and bullying will always be sensitive subjects, so making sure you can manage any accusations right the first time is really important.

If you need help managing workplace conflict or putting together a robust workplace bullying policy and communicating that out to your whole team, our HR & Employment Law experts can be by your side for support.

If you’d like the backing of our team, give us a call on 0345 844 1111 to chat to our team about your business’ needs. And remember, if you’re already a Citation client, you can call our advice line 24/7 on 0345 844 4848 for support and guidance.


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