Harassment in the Workplace and the Perils of ‘Workplace Banter’

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HR Harassment

Mistreatment in the workplace and harassment have rarely been out of the news over the last 12 months, with the focus being very much on sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly against women. However, harassment in workplace situations takes many forms and can prove very detrimental to businesses. Here we look at what harassment is, how often the unwanted conduct masquerades as ‘workplace banter and the steps companies can take to prevent and deal with it.

What Constitutes harassment at the workplace and workplace bullying?

Harassment at the workplace or workplace bullying is unwanted behaviour towards someone that can make them feel like their dignity is violated in some way, making them feel intimidated, humiliated and unsafe in their working environment.

What Are Examples of bullying in the workplace and workplace harassment?

Below is a brief list of just some of the unacceptable behaviour that can get considered to be workplace harassment and bullying in the workplace.

  • Physical threats or abuse
  • offensive emails, tweets or comments on social media
  • physical behaviour, including physical gestures and facial expressions
  • jokes, teasing and pranks
  • Spreading rumours
  • Insulting behaviour
  • Exclusion
  • Constant criticism

Workplace Harassment, Workplace Abuse and Unlawful Discrimination

If someone is the victim of workplace harassment due to any of the following, then this is a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and will amount to unlawful discrimination:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Harassment in the workplace usually gets thought of as something carried out over time, such as a long and deliberate bullying campaign. That is not always the case; workplace abuse and harassment can be one-off incidents such as making a racist comment that some try to pass off as ‘work banter.’

Workplace harassment can, in certain situations, amount to criminal behaviour depending on the circumstances of the bullying. At workplace settings, for example, sexual harassment can be in the form of suggestive remarks, circulating pornography, or making offensive jokes of a sexual nature. However, employee harassment and inappropriate touching of a sexual nature without consent will constitute sexual assault.

I expect my employees to behave like adults; surely, as an employer, I can’t be held accountable for employees not getting on being oversensitive to ‘ workplace banter?

You can expect your employees to behave like adults; inevitably, some employees will not get on. However, you have to provide a non-offensive environment and a safe working environment. It does not only include your responsibilities regarding health and safety by way of workplace hazards but also ensures employees are not subjected to a hostile working environment that harassment in the workplace and workplace bullying can create.

Banter is commonplace and usually not a problem, but it is also often the source of harassment allegations.

Do I Ban ‘work banter’ And Ask My Employees Not To Interact to avoid an employee reporting harassment at work?

No. It would be unreasonable to ask employees not to talk and have ‘work banter’ as it’s a natural part of working with others in a work environment. It would also be impossible to police and cause more problems than it aims to solve by creating a hostile environment. Employees need to work in a pleasant atmosphere to be productive, but also feel that employers will take anyone reporting harassment at work seriously and will listen to any complaints.

What Can I Do About Bullying In The Workplace?

Be proactive rather than reactive about bullying in the workplace. Get advice from our experts on ensuring that you have the best policies and procedures to ensure that your employees know your standards on harassment. At workplace gatherings or in the workplace, employees need to know how they raise any concerns and how they will deal with the situation.

I already have procedures in place, so if one of my staff does make a workplace harassment complaint, whether it is emotional harassment or workplace violence, that means the company is protected, doesn’t it?

Not necessarily. A workplace bullying and harassment or grievance procedure in an employee handbook that does nothing more than gather dust is the same as not having policies in place.

Take the opportunity to redistribute harassment in the workplace policies regularly and ensure that those responsible for managing people know how to act and seek advice immediately should workplace abuse or bullying behaviour occur.

Also, as a business owner, prevent bullying by setting an example for your staff by keeping your own behavioural standards high.

Employment Law-Harassment in the Workplace Case Law:

In Basi v Snows Business Forms Ltd, the employment tribunal awarded an employee who worked in sales over £2,000 for office banter that spilt over into racial harassment.

The tribunal accepted that the office environment was one where they used ‘healthy work banter’, but the claimant, a Sikh of Indian origin, was harassed when he was called a ‘monkey’ during a golf match at which they discussed business matters.

The employer did have an employee’s mistreatment in the workplace policy in place, but there was ‘no satisfactory guidance, training, monitoring and policing of this policy.

This case spotlighted workplace harassment as a one-off event and shows how harassment can also be discriminatory. It also illustrates the problems of failing to deliver the policies in place effectively.

REMEMBER- In employment law, harassment and discrimination compensation awards are uncapped! The cost of getting this wrong is higher than getting the advice you need from our experts.

SUMMARY- Harassment in the Workplace and avoiding a work harassment complaint in your Business

We can see that harassment in the workplace takes many forms; it can be carried out over time or be a one-off incident. The impact can be costly in terms of tribunal claims for constructive dismissal and/or claims of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

Where workplace harassment exists and goes unchallenged, you will find yourself with lost productivity from employees, a lack of respect for management and poor working relationship, poor morale and a high staff turnover.- It can be very costly for your company and lead to a work harassment complaint. You can’t afford not to take this seriously.

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Elena Boura