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, Dispute Resolution

Jane specialises in commercial litigation and employment law acting for both employers and employees in both contentious and non-contentious matters. She has also over recent...

Partner, Dispute Resolution

Jane Crosby

Jane specialises in commercial litigation and employment law acting for both employers and employees in both contentious and non-contentious matters. She has also over recent years carved out something of a niche in the field of mobile homes legislation acting for an owner with a number of sites.

Having studied geography at University College London Jane worked for a number of years in the aviation industry which has given her a real insight into the challenges faced by most businesses. Jane qualified as a Solicitor in 2004 before joining Hart Brown in 2011 and becoming a Partner in July 2018. Not only is Jane our specialist in employment law but she is also a prolific blogger within Hart Brown. You can find many of her articles on the 'News' section of the website.

Jane often receives praise from her clients:

“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”.

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