When ‘Banter’ crosses over into abuse

“It’s just bants, mate! Just bants!” If you work in any kind of environment, from an office to a building site, you’ll be familiar with the term ‘banter’. It’s that humorous back and forth we all use to make the day a little brighter, to have a joke and a laugh with our colleagues, and to generally brighten up what can be a mundane working environment. But is it ‘just bants’, or could it be something more sinister, and more harmful?

Workplace banter has its place. However, the term ‘banter’ should never be used as an excuse to humiliate, upset or abuse someone else. What may seem like ‘bants’ to one person could be deeply offensive or upsetting to someone else. Suggesting that the person who has been upset by a bit of banter should accept it as a bit of ‘light-hearted fun’ is a classic case of blame shifting in what could be a deeply intimidating and demeaning situation.

Victims of workplace banter that goes too far are often reluctant to do anything about it. This is when banter has definitely crossed that line into abuse and bullying. Anyone who feels that confronting this behaviour could be detrimental to their position, or fears repercussions, may be the victim of workplace bullying. If someone feels intimidated, berated or humiliated then that ‘having a joke’ or ‘just a bit of banter’ has stopped being funny.

What can you do?

The first thing to do is to talk to the person rationally, and explain to them why their ‘banter’ isn’t as funny or harmless as they think. If they don’t take on board your concerns then you can escalate the situation by taking it to a manager.

The trouble is that there are a lot of ‘grey areas’ when it comes to the definition of what is reasonable or appropriate behaviour, and that includes banter. The Equality Act 2010 says that a complainant’s reaction to what is termed ‘unwanted conduct’ (which includes verbal banter) has to be reasonable. So in this instance, context is very important. For example, if you overhear a remark about religious beliefs that isn’t directed towards you, but that comment still makes you feel uncomfortable, then the comment doesn’t automatically fall into the harassment or workplace bullying category.

You have a right to state that the comment has made you feel uncomfortable and that it’s behaviour that shouldn’t be encouraged, but whether your employer will act on that will entirely depend on the nature of the comment, and its context. It will also depend on the policies and procedure of the company and how they define workplace bullying.

What employers can do is ensure that equality and diversity awareness training is implemented, and that everyone understands what constitutes acceptable behaviour within the confines of the workplace. That includes stopping ‘banter’ that attains to things such as a person’s appearance, religious beliefs, sexuality or any other personal issue.

When banter becomes a bully’s tool

Banter can very easily turn into bullying, especially if it’s relentlessly targeted at an individual. Once others join in, this mob bullying can become not only deeply upsetting but frightening and intensely intimidating. If that is the case then what may have started out as a bit of banter has most definitely crossed the line. In this case, the victim has the right to go to a senior manager, their union representative or HR department and register a complaint or grievance.

In extreme cases where an employer has failed to respond to this level of bullying, there is the option of pushing for a tribunal hearing. Every employer has a duty of care to ensure the welfare of their staff. It’s also important that employers ensure that the working environment doesn’t become toxic for workers because of a misunderstanding of the line between ‘a bit of banter’ and workplace bullying.

Sometimes, though, a joke is just a joke, and a one-off incident of light-hearted mockery may be perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the law. In that instance, the best thing to do is to ignore it. If, however, that one-off joke turns into a campaign of abuse and bullying, then it’s time to stamp it out.

If you feel you’ve been the victim of workplace bullying, talk to a legal expert in employment law who will be able to help you decide on your next step.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.


Jane Crosby

Partner, Head of Dispute Resolution & Accredited Mediator

Jane is a Partner based in the Guildford office and she is also Head of the Dispute Resolution team here at Hart Brown. Jane specialises...

Partner, Head of Dispute Resolution & Accredited Mediator

Jane Crosby

Jane is a Partner based in the Guildford office and she is also Head of the Dispute Resolution team here at Hart Brown. Jane specialises in employment Law and commercial litigation and brings more than 15 years' experience to her role.

Prior to entering the legal profession, Jane was employed in the aviation industry. This experience is appreciated by many of Jane's clients who note that she is able to take a commercial and pragmatic approach to any legal issue that they face.

Jane acts for a wide range of individuals and businesses and her areas of specialism include aviation, property related industries and IT. Jane regularly advises on aspects of employment law, such as settlement agreements, employment contracts, policies and procedures, redundancies, equal pay, data protection, issues arising from TUPE and reorganisations, the calculation of holiday pay, bonus and commission payments, disciplinary and grievance issues, dismissal and termination issues, the protection of confidential information and the enforcement of restrictive covenants. Jane gets involved in GDPR training for her clients and she is able to deliver tailored employment law training sessions upon request.

As a commercial litigation lawyer, Jane also deals in shareholder and directors disputes, commercial contract disputes and the enforcement of restrictive covenants.

Jane has been involved in successful high value commercial litigation for clients in the High Courts, she is an accredited mediator and she is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association.

Jane is often asked to write for a number of well known publications, including The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Week and she has been interviewed on BBC Radio 4.

Here is small selection of the feedback that Jane has received:

“Jane, I cannot sincerely thank you enough for your wise counsel and am delighted to have made your acquaintance. If I am blessed with a new position somewhere I will hand over my contract in the first instance to you. Likewise, any of my friends, peers, romans and countrymen wanting advice, I will point them in your direction.”

“Jane, you have been most resilient on my behalf for which I sincerely thank you for all your endeavours. I have a tremendous working relationship with Hart Brown and you have undoubtedly compounded this further."

“I appreciated the clarity of advice given at a stressful time”.

“A sensitive and highly professional approach and efficient work in the interests of the client”.

“Your advice, conduct and assistance have been indeed outstanding and very professional but also – and most importantly – very humane”.