Future of work, Diversity & Inclusion, HR Help

3 things you should know about ‘office banter’

Lydia Watson

Ribbing. Joshing. Kidding. Teasing. Razzing. Whatever you call it, you’ll be familiar with the concept of ‘banter’. It’s about lightheartedly poking fun at each other – and it’s something that, in the workplace, only really works in an in-person setting. 

For some, it’s the main highlight of returning to the office. Getting to be around your work mates again, in a high energy environment, swapping jokes and mild insults, and generally having a laugh. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

What does banter look like? 

Banter is often designed as a witty back-and-forth, an exchange of playful jibes between two or more people. Maybe someone wryly ‘compliments’ someone’s outlandishly bright t-shirt and the other swipes back at their choice of trainers. 

Or it could be based on an ‘in joke’ formed from a shared experience, like recalling the time they spilt their coffee over their laptop and crying “watch out!” whenever they’re holding a drink. That’s the innocuous end of the scale, but banter can go badly. So here are three things to be aware of.

1. Office banter can be a positive thing

First thing first, your best bet is not to ‘ban banter’ – and 73% of workers agree. In its proper form, it helps people build healthy relationships through an equal exchange of jokes. And that element of socialising can be key to a positive employee experience – with 77% of those satisfied in their jobs saying getting on with colleagues is the biggest reason why.

It can be good for business too, helping employees be more creative and innovative when brainstorming – as they don’t feel as constricted by social etiquette

2. ‘Banter’ can also be offensive, exclusionary, or discriminatory

Research suggests that ‘banter’ is often used to get away with discriminatory speech, from racist remarks to sexist language. It can become a disguise for bullying or sexual harassment – one that is hard to challenge, with 28% of British workers reluctant to report it in case it damages their career or make worklife uncomfortable.

When it goes to extremes, this can be highly damaging. 4% of employees surveyed had quit because of hurtful banter. Of those, women were twice as likely to have – unsurprising, when 21% of UK staff say their work culture is so masculine that it’s hard for women to progress. It’s not just bad for employees, and your overall turnover. It can affect an organisation’s reputation too, leading to legal battles that – successful or not – put employers in a bad light. 

3. Our data shows workplace ‘jokes’ are a big issue – especially against women 

When we measure inclusion, we ask this question: “Can you describe a time when you felt uncomfortable or witnessed something inappropriate at work – what happened?”. And from all our data, the second most discussed issue for employees was ‘comments/remarks’. 

Digging deeper, we identified that these reports of negative comments were overwhelmingly linked to the themes of ‘gender/sexism’ and – distressingly – ‘managers’. We could see that women spoke more about being on the receiving end of negative comments, and that managers were often involved. 

That suggests that banter too often is going too far, under the guise of jokes or ‘laddish’ comments about women – and that it goes right up the chain of command. 

What can (and should) you do about office banter?

  • Recognise that impact matters more than intent 

“It was just a joke!” isn’t a great defence if you’re outside of the school playground. If someone’s upset, insulted, or angry about a comment made about them, that matters more than the intention the person had when they said it. Full stop. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean disciplinary proceedings, but it does mean encouraging staff to apologise and take ownership of their impact on other’s feelings. 

  • Warn against jokes about protected characteristics

The Equality Act protects certain characteristics – like sex or ethnicity – and employees should be aware that, when it doubt, avoid teasing people on the basis of these things. Calling someone a ‘girl’ as an insult for not lifting a heavy box, for example, reinforces negative attitudes – and even if the recipient themselves isn’t insulted, someone else could be.

  • Understand the context of structural inequality

It may seem like ‘political correctness gone mad’ to some people, but it’s important to remember the perspectives of people traditionally discriminated against. Structural inequalities and negative social attitudes towards certain identity groups do exist, and often play out in the rhetoric people use subconsciously.

  • Lead by example if you’re in a position of power 

One of the downsides of becoming management is separating yourself from the staff you used to joke around with. Because that seniority matters, when it comes from separating ‘banter’ from abusive behaviour. Not only can you avoid it yourself, but you can make yourself responsible for calling it out or questioning it when it happens around you, when others can’t.

  • Don’t take silence for acceptance or compliance

It can be hard for people to speak up for themselves, or for others, if they are junior in the team, or see themselves as a potential target. They might want to avoid seeming like a spoilsport, or being accused of being overly sensitive. So don’t assume that there’s no problem, just because you haven’t heard that there’s one. 

  • Use surveys to identify if its a problem as you return to the office

The return to the office opens up the ‘banter’ debacle again, as many are excited to dive back into the jovial atmosphere they’re used to. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as inclusion issues are being exacerbated by thoughtless remarks. 

Using our surveys and language analysis tech, you can identify if discriminatory comments are becoming a problem – and work out who they’re usually directed at, and from where. That means you’ll have a clearer way to tackle the problem. Find out more:

Faster, simpler surveys – free for 21 days

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