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It was only banter!

“It was only banter!” is a line often given to justify or excuse having offended somebody. Regardless of whether the intent to offend is there, offensive comments are inexcusable in the workplace. A no tolerance policy is the best way of minimising problems with bullying and harassment, but there can still be times when employees take offence at certain remarks. 

Banter and The Law

One thing employers need to be aware of is the full legal definition of ‘harassment’, as it is often misunderstood or used as an umbrella term for anything that causes offence in the workplace. Discrimination lawyers know there’s a fine line between so-called ‘harmless banter’ and unlawful harassment. 

The legal definition of harassment under the Equality Act 2010, is “unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”.

Banter In The Workplace

In the context of discrimination, harassment can involve conduct of a sexual nature (sexual harassment), or related to one or more of the protected characteristics: age, race, disability, sexual orientation, sex, gender reassignment, religion or belief.

The Equality Act does not need the victim to show a course of conduct. The fact that the victim put up with the conduct for some time, or even appeared to join in doesn’t necessarily mean that the conduct is not unwanted.

The Consequences

The harasser and their employer face the prospect of litigation from acts of harassment which takes place in the course of employment. Tribunal litigation is typically risky, time-consuming and expensive. Even if these claims don’t reach the tribunal, allegations of discrimination alone can be enormously damaging to the individuals concerned, to staff morale, productivity and the wider reputation of a business.

How Can Employers Take Preventative Action?

·         Have suitable policies in place and conduct appropriate training to ensure appropriate behaviour at work

·         Establish appropriate channels, both formal and informal, through which employees can raise concerns

·         Ensure managers are alert to the risks of problem scenarios developing, so they can be addressed before they get out of hand

·         Act swiftly and proportionately to address problems when they arise, whether informally or through an appropriate investigation and potentially disciplinary action

·         Ensure that sanctions applied to those who act inappropriately are proportionate and consistent, taking into account all the circumstances

·         Have a consistent approach to internal and external messaging about this sort of issue both generally and when specific issues arise.

Training employees on equality and diversity is crucial.  The more staff understand the issues then the more your business is protected.  At Clever HR we can offer an Equality and Diversity Course which will ensure your staff are up to date on issues in the workplace.

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