No Offence Intended

We all like to have fun at work.

Let’s be honest, we are there for long enough that anything we can do to raise a laugh and help pass the time must be a good thing, right?

Well, up to a point.

Because there is a point at which humour, banter and the like can cross a line and become harassment. And it’s a line all companies must know how to tread for both their own good and that of their staff.

The issue here is one of subjectivity. One person’s joke can easily be another’s tasteless, hurtful or oppressive remark. And if one of your staff considers that things have got out of hand, it can be you as the employer who ends up in hot water.

That’s because the Equality Act 2010 allows employees to launch claims of discrimination and harassment against their employer for any banter they consider to have overstepped the mark. The remarks don’t even have to have been aimed at the person complaining – just overhearing them is enough to launch action.

So, if you have a large open-plan office with little hope of privacy, this can be a particularly pressing issue, with big fines and the accompanying damage to your firm’s reputation in the event of any successful action.

So what can you do to protect yourself as an employer?

The starting point is to understand the law. Here it is the claimant’s point of view which is crucial, rather than that of the person who made the remark in question. So, anybody who heard the comment – whether it was intended as a joke, light-hearted banter or office chit chat – and considered it offensive can bring a claim against their employer.

It does not matter what the person making the remark intended – or even if nobody else in the office was offended. If just one person takes offence they can legitimately bring a claim and set the legal wheels in motion.

For that reason, it’s vital that your policies are clear and up to date on matters such as anti-harassment and equal opportunities and that your staff know and abide by them.

It’s not enough just to have a handbook stuffed into a filing cabinet somewhere, make sure that your staff are given regular training in this area. It’s the companies who think it couldn’t happen to them who more often than not end up on the wrong side of the law.

Clear guidance over what is – and what is not – acceptable will help set boundaries and remind all staff of their responsibilities, and, should the worse happen, mitigate in your favour. Set all your policies against a backdrop of respect and inclusivity and you will have helped even further.

And make sure all your employees know the consequences of overstepping the mark. By having clear disciplinary guidelines in this area, you can help convey just how serious an issue a mis-placed joke can be.

Because one thing is for certain. A legal claim for office banter is never a laughing matter.

Don’t forget, if you need help with any of the issues covered here, we offer a free consultation and specialist advice tailored to your company’s needs. Just click the button to find out more.

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