It’s part and parcel of office life, right?
Who doesn’t engage in a bit of light-hearted teasing and joking with their colleagues from time to time? The 9-5 would certainly seem a lot longer without it.
Fair enough – up to a point. Nobody wants to work in the sort of sterile environment where conversation becomes almost impossible for fear of causing offence.
But there is never an excuse for going too far and crossing the line which separates harmless fun from workplace harassment or bullying.
And the consequences for any employee of doing so can often be swift and painful – including losing their job.
Banter is often the first defence someone utters if they’re accused of bullying, being overly aggressive, or even taking part in unwanted sexual behaviour.
It implies that the accused has done nothing wrong and it’s the victim’s fault for being over-sensitive to what was merely a bit of ‘fun’.
That’s not just lazy and complacent, it’s downright dangerous.
What’s more, it carries little weight in an industrial tribunal as a defence when the target of the banter can show their dignity was undermined by inappropriate behaviour which actually constituted bullying or harassment.
Early in October 2017, Lisa Vickers, a factory worker from Ashton-under-Lyne, won £10,000 in compensation after her manager wrote a lewd comment in her 40th birthday card, humiliating her.
The manager subjected many of the workers to daily comments of a sexual nature, though Vickers described him as aiming an ongoing campaign at her in particular.
When Vickers saw the birthday card comment, it was the final straw. So she took the employer to an employment tribunal.
He defended his comments in the manner you might expect: he blamed banter. Not only that, he said Vickers actually joined in with it.
The tactic didn’t work, and she successfully claimed sexual harassment and won huge damages for injury to feelings.
So how can you, as an employee, protect yourself?
Well, your workplace should have a set of policies on what is – and is not – acceptable in the office. Make sure you read it and understand it.
Managers and staff should also be given training in this area. If you have any concerns, talk to your line manager and make sure you know what the rules are and how they are being applied. It’s worth making sure you know what sanctions your company has in place both for your own benefit and protection.
And try to think of your colleagues at all times. If a comment – even a joke - is likely to undermine another member of staff, bite your tongue. Think how you would react if it was said about you.
There are obvious areas to avoid. Jokes about race, religion, sexuality and disability are always likely to cause offence – and for good reason. Often, they are a cover for none-too-subtle bullying. Even if they are meant in all innocence, they are likely to be in bad taste at best.
But even less obvious areas can be dangerous. Targeting your colleague for their political views – such as backing Brexit – can amount to bullying and intimidation if is carried out on a regular, sustained basis.
So do yourself a favour next time you can see office banter getting out of hand. Take a deep breath, bite your tongue and try to get all your colleagues to do likewise.
That way the joke won’t ever be on you.