Around a third (32%) of people in the UK have been bullied at work by comments disguised as banter.
According to a survey of more than 2,000 people by law firm Irwin Mitchell, banter bullying was most likely to affect those aged 45 to 54 and more commonly among women, as over 35% said they had experienced it in this manner.
The volume of bullying disguised as banter varied greatly by industry as half (50%) working in sports said they had experienced it, compared with 38% in accounting/finance and retail, and 39% in hospitality.
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Victoria Lewis, CEO of HR and employment law consultancy Byrne Dean, which focuses on workplace behaviour and dynamics said the trouble with banter is how to define it.
Speaking to HR magazine, she cautioned that different people will find different things funny.
“The fact that a person does not intend to cause upset or harm of course does not matter from a legal perspective, or an emotional one.
“And indeed, in my experience, banter is not usually a one-off. It has a cumulative effect. If someone has not indicated that they are uncomfortable with the banter, then the instigator will continue.”
As the survey found women were more commonly at the receiving end of bullying disguised as banter, Lewis said it would be wise of organisations to be mindful of the impact it has, especially in a male-dominated workplace.
She added: “It is not surprising that groups of men share banter and make each other laugh in workplaces, and it’s not necessarily wrong either.
“But where the environment is male-dominated, these informal conversations matter as banter can play a huge part in amplifying this imbalance.
“I have read countless grievances, over the years, which allege sexual harassment and I’d say that at least 90% of them paint a picture of what the culture is like, and they always refer to clear examples of banter of a sexual nature that went unchecked, leading to a sexist culture which, they argue, aided the harassment in question.”
Jo Moseley, employment lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said unchecked behaviour is where the risk lies for employers.
Moseley told HR magazine: “The tribunal won’t normally trouble itself about the reasons why someone made discriminatory remarks and will focus instead on the impact those words had on the person offended by them. And, an employer will only be able to defend a claim if it can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent harassment or discrimination.
“In practice, this requires a workplace policy, regular training and prompt action taken against anyone who oversteps the mark.”
Lewis also advised HR leaders to consider the role of bystanders and how colleagues can be more supportive of one another in the case of bullying or other negative dynamics.
She added: “We are in a better position to help regulate behaviour when we aren’t emotionally troubled ourselves. But it requires high emotional intelligence, awareness, and ability to stand in other people’s shoes.
“Being able to intervene, then and there, put a short sharp marker in the sand to indicate to the instigator that the banter may not be landing how they intended it, may be enough to swerve the conversation. Or it might need a more detailed one to one conversation- again focusing on the potential impact of the banter.”
Irwin Mitchell’s survey was based on a nationally representative sample of 2,179 people in the UK.