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​Navigating the Fine Line Between Workplace Banter and Bullying

​Navigating the Fine Line Between Workplace Banter and Bullying

Posted by Emma on 4th Dec 2023

A light-hearted joke with colleagues can often be a part of everyday work life in the professional environment. However, there's a thin line where casual banter can cross over into workplace bullying. Unfortunately, this transition can be subtle and is not uncommon in various industries, especially in hospitality. According to law firm Irwin Mitchell, a staggering 39% of workers in the hospitality sector have reported experiencing bullying masked as friendly banter. But how does one differentiate and deal with such situations?

Understanding the Legal Framework

The Equality Act 2010 offers a clear legal perspective. This Act safeguards individuals against discrimination based on nine protected characteristics: age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, religion, belief, sexual harassment, and race. Any unwanted conduct in the workplace that relates to these characteristics and violates an individual's dignity or creates a hostile environment falls under harassment. Importantly, even those who don't personally possess these characteristics can be protected under this Act.

Expert Insights

The term' banter' often surfaces in harassment claims. While many perceive it as harmless, the reality in a work setting can differ. Intention isn't the sole criterion; the impact on the recipient is what truly matters. Employers should educate their teams that humour can be subjective and personal comments or jokes, especially those based on physical appearance, beliefs, or abilities, can be offensive.

Actions Employers Should Take

  1. Clearly define unacceptable behaviours and the consequences of breaching workplace standards, usually outlined in a policy and reinforced through training.
  2. Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting uncomfortable interactions or jokes.
  3. Address reported bullying promptly, whether it involves jokes about age, race, sex, or other personal attributes. If necessary, remove the perpetrator to resolve the issue.

Employees' Checklist

  1. Speak up if a joke or comment is uncomfortable; sometimes, it's just a matter of raising awareness.
  2. Act decisively on any bullying reports. Ignoring the issue can escalate to legal complications.
  3. Understand that unaddressed bullying can lead to 'quiet firing', where employees feel compelled to leave their jobs due to negative behaviour from employers.

The Extent of the Issue

Irwin Mitchell's research indicates that bullying in the form of banter is more prevalent in the hospitality industry compared to the UK average of 32%. The most affected demographic includes those aged between 45 and 54, particularly in the north-west region. Furthermore, over 35% of women in UK workplaces have faced similar challenges.


Both employers and employees must recognise the boundary between harmless banter and bullying. Not only does this awareness foster a healthier work environment, but it also protects businesses from legal repercussions. As a reader, have you encountered such situations in your workplace? How were they addressed? Share your experiences and insights in the comments below.


40% of hospitality workers suffer bullying disguised as banter

Wake up call: When does workplace banter become bullying?

Equality Act 2010