The fine line between 'harmless' banter and harassment in the workplace

January 18, 2024
Man in office

In light of the news that a Conservative councillor is to be allocated a "behaviour mentor" after he mimicked a colleague’s Irish accent, Partner Susan Thompson examines the fine line between 'harmless' banter and harassment, in City A.M.

"The line between ‘harmless’ banter and harassment is a difficult one to tread. It can be a minefield for employers and employees alike, as it isn’t always easy to define.

"Banter suggests humour between colleagues which is reciprocated and appreciated by all, including those not just participating but also listening. When this veers into comments based on a person’s race, sex, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic, this can be considered harassment - a stand-alone claim under the Equality Act.

"While a joke may genuinely be meant to be amusing, and not cause offence to others, it may be considered harassment if it causes humiliation, intimidation or hostility. It is entirely possible, therefore, that mocking or mimicking someone’s accent could be reasonably perceived to be offensive or humiliating, and constitute harassment.

"The fact that an act of harassment may occur outside of the workplace or outside of working hours will not be relevant if it occurs in an extension of the workplace, such as an offsite training course, work party or even amongst a group of employees at the pub.

"Regular diversity training for all employees is vital so that colleagues know what can amount to harassment, and crucially, what to do if they are suffering from it in the workplace."

Susan's comments were published in City A.M., 18 January 2024, and can be found here.

Susan ThompsonSusan Thompson
Susan Thompson
Susan Thompson

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