Banter in the workplace – ten top tips for navigating the fine line between ho ho ho and harassment

4% of workers surveyed* have actually left a job because of negative banter, with women twice as likely as men to have been negatively affected.

**This blog is now a little old, if you’d like a more up-to-date article try checking out our latest piece on this topic**

We all like a good joke, and office banter is great for developing bonds between staff, especially over the festive period. A relaxed environment increases morale, which improves productivity and increased well-being of staff. However, something that one person finds humorous can be humiliating or harassing to others.

The impact of not treating others with respect

For the business… For the individual…
Absenteeism Stress
Resignations Avoiding work, fear of going in to the office
Grievances and harassment claims Avoiding colleagues
Decreased productivity Lack of motivation
Stress-related illnesses Low self esteem
Low morale Insecurity
Poor working relationships Impact on home life


So what constitutes a good joke? What can we say and what should we steer clear from?

Of course we shouldn’t say anything that we wouldn’t want repeated in a court of law or tribunal. Banter is no excuse for making inappropriate comments; it is extremely rare for a harassment claim to be rejected on the basis that the comments were “only banter”. In fact, general jokes linked to sex, race, religion, sexual orientation or age is the most common form of harassment in employment.

The basic rule is that any jokes, remarks or banter that might be offensive to another employee should be avoided. Staff need to recognise that their colleagues will have different views, feelings and levels of sensitivity about certain matters. If a particular turn of phrase or ways of discussing certain topics make someone feel uncomfortable, then their discomfort eclipses the speaker’s own assessment of what they’ve said.

Legally unacceptable                       Socially unacceptable
Age Social background (e.g. class, education, wealth, upbringing, home address location)
Race Department or work history
Religion or belief Job level
Disability Political orientation, sport team support, hobbies
Sex Thinking style, approach, communication style, noise levels, personality
Gender reassignment or sexual orientation Physical appearance and dress sense
Marriage and civil partnership Generational differences
Pregnancy and maternity Family size, choice to have a family
Being a fixed term or part-time worker Choice to engage in work social activities
Being or not being a trade union member Working pattern, arrangements

What is harassment?

Harassment under the Equality Act 2010 is a type of discrimination. Harassment is unwanted behaviour towards someone which can make them feel that their dignity has been violated in some way, makes them feel intimidated, humiliated and/or unsafe in their working environment. These effects need not be intended.

Harassment is usually thought of as being behaviour that is carried out over a period of time (such as a campaign of bullying). However, harassment can be a one-off incident such as making a racist comment.

Examples of harassment include:

  • Spoken or written words
  • 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
  • Making insults
  • Exclusion
  • Constant criticism

Ten top tips for handling banter

It can be difficult to get the balance right when it comes to banter, so here are our ten top tips:

  1. Examine your existing policies – be proactive and don’t just think that somehow over time this is an issue of working life that is going to fix itself. Appreciate that any negative banter leading to a loss of confidence and resignations has a real impact on the bottom line.
  2. Implement clear policies on bullying, harassment, equality, diversity and inclusion.
  3. Fairly and consistently investigate complaints of harassment.
  4. Along with a formal harassment policy, have a clear policy on workplace banter. If an employee feels that a conversation happening around them, or one they have participated in, is inappropriate, do they know it’s okay to raise such concerns? Who should they raise concerns with?
  5. Be aware that any unwelcome comments at work aren’t ‘just a bit of banter’ – they can form the basis of a legal claim. If an employee has not experienced something as a joke, then the environment can soon feel hostile for that person.
  6. Create awareness of workplace banter and what is good or bad right from the start at induction. Create a culture where people feel they can raise concerns and be seen to be inclusive and diverse.
  7. Hold inclusivity training and discuss what might be considered banter by some but leaves others feeling alienated.
  8. Training should also cover listening and communication skills; developing these within the team naturally instils mutual respect and understanding, thus encouraging a safe environment.
  9. Publicise your policies and training. Almost three-quarters of people* said either their company didn’t have a policy on banter or that they didn’t know if one existed.
  10. Remind staff of the do’s and don’ts in advance of any festive events… there’s no need to be heavy handed about it but staff should be clear about your expectations of their behaviour.

If you’d like help in reviewing your policies or further advice on this subject, contact us.

*Institute of Leadership & Management: Banter: Just a bit of fun or crossing the line?