When workplace banter stops being a laughing matter

Wirral transformational coach, Alison Blackler of 2minds, on how there is a fine line between good-natured humour at work and causing offence

workplace, office, people
Workplace ‘banter’ can be help colleagues to bond but causing offence is always a risk


Workplace ‘banter’ is a part of everyday life that can have a positive effect on bonding and creating a fun workplace.

Indeed, there is much to gain from having a relaxed environment, as increased morale leads to improved productivity and enhanced wellbeing among staff. 

It is, however, a real minefield. There is such a fine line between good-natured humour and causing offence. This is an issue for companies and organisations looking to create a happier working environment. They have learned that a happy team is a productive and an unhappy team disengaged and ineffective.

Creative insults

In any place of employment workers will interact with each other on some personal level. When people work together long enough, they may form a bond of friendship that allows playful banter to be exchanged between them.

In some places creative insults are considered humorous and an acceptable behaviour. They indicate a level of acceptance between members of the team and are relatively healthy. The fine line is when comments stray into certain areas that are then considered to be distasteful. There is even a legal aspect of what is acceptable.

According to the Equality Act 2010, behaviour will potentially amount to harassment if it is unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of either violating a person’s dignity; creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

Different sensitivities

Something else that is interesting and makes it a minefield is that some people may be offended when others aren’t. You can never guess whether a humorous comment is going to be taken as intended.

It is not as easy as saying that some people are more sensitive than others. We are all unique and a comment can trigger something very deep and personal within a person. If an employee has not experienced something as a joke, then the environment can soon feel hostile for that person and will affect their performance.

Alison Blackler of 2minds
Wirral transformational mind coach and therapist Alison Blackler of 2minds


A new study into banter by the Institute of Leadership & Management shows that banter needs to be addressed by employers as much as full-scale harassment and bullying does The Banter: Just a bit of fun or crossing the line? report surveyed more than 1,000 people and found that 4% have actually left a job because of negative banter. The report also found that women are twice as likely as men to have been negatively affected by workplace banter, with one in 10 women citing it as a cause of mental health issues.

How to spot it

Often teams of employees have been together for a long period of time and have developed a culture of good-natured ribbing or humorous insults. It may include comments about physical features, speculations as to the sexual preferences of certain team members or stories of physical encounters.

If any of these comments is objectionable in tone and aimed toward one person or a group of people, you may have an illegal situation forming in your workplace. Even in a single-gendered office, comments about sexual preference can be illegal, as can any other comments including sexual details.

What can businesses do?

Inform your entire team of the difference between workplace banter and actual verbal harassment. Don’t accept excuses such as “it’s just a joke” or “we’ve always talked this way”.

Demand a zero-tolerance culture in your workplace and inform every person on your team of this policy. Investigate any accusations of harassment immediately to make sure of all the legal details

If you find an employee that has been harassing others, take appropriate legal steps to rectify the situation immediately. Failure to do so can open yourself and your business up to legal consequences.


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