When Does Banter Become Bullying?

BlogHR Advice Posted: Tuesday 24th October 2017 by

England Women’s Football manager, Mark Sampson, who was sacked last month after his bosses learned of inappropriate relationships in his previous job, is hitting the headlines again following MPs investigations of racism and discrimination brought against him by Chelsea Ladies striker, Eniola Aluko.

One such accusation of racism stems from when Aluko is said to have told Sampson that her family was flying in from Nigeria to watch her play at Wembley, to which Sampson remarked that he hoped they didn’t bring Ebola back with them.

Just days after first making claims of bullying and discrimination against her boss in 2016, Aluko was dropped from the England squad. Sampson continues to deny the allegations.

Although a high-profile case, it acts as a stern warning to employers across the UK that workplace bullying and discrimination is never acceptable. Banter is often used in the workplace to justify ‘tongue in cheek’ remarks that often quite cruel or discriminatory to those on the receiving end. Cases of misguided workplace banter will continue to hit the employment tribunal until a zero-tolerance culture is widely adopted.

Naturally, some level of banter in the workplace is always to be expected and encouraged, as it can go a long way to building bridges and solidifying relationships between colleagues. However, when banter crosses the line to bullying and discrimination, employers need to react swiftly and appropriately.

With this in mind, how can managers and HR teams help?

Have regular discussions with your staff

By holding regular meetings with staff individually and as a team can help you to determine if anyone is having anxieties or relationship problems at work that could stem from being singled out or bullied.

Never stop training

Although some training sessions may seem pointless to your managers and employees, regular training and updates on case law regarding bullying, harassment and discrimination at work is never a bad thing. Training sessions will help your employees to learn the difference between banter and bullying and will go a long way to make them aware of when it is simply not acceptable.

Follow the procedure

If an employee makes a complaint that workplace banter has gone too far, as a responsible manager you should immediately follow the procedures laid out in your bullying and harassment policy or company handbook and identify a way forward. Dealing with the situation swiftly and sensitively will go a long way to restoring harmony and ensuring the victim feels safe and secure in continuing to do their job.

Build a culture

Employers with an open-door policy and a transparent approach to zero-tolerance and employee counselling services will go a long way to protecting themselves and their employees at a tribunal hearing. All complaints, no matter how trivial they may seem, should be investigated and proper disciplinary action taken against those found to be at fault.

In 2015, a female banker was awarded £3.2 million in payout from Sberbank CIB in London after being driven to a mental breakdown by workplace bullies.  She was falsely accused by colleagues of being cocaine-dependent and told she was only hired because of the way she looks.

The tribunal ruled that she had suffered disgraceful gender-based harassment and awarded her for lost earnings, hurt feelings and aggravated damages. The CEO of the London office, who did not discipline the tormentors, was found to be guilty of unlawful victimisation and yet still remains in his post.

Most victims do not feel they are able to make a complaint and will, therefore, suffer in silence. It is up to employers to recognise the signs and put a stop to it.

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