Offensive behaviour: what to do when office banter has gone beyond a joke

Have you heard the one about the gay Welshman, the transgender taxi driver, and the psychiatric patient? Well you might if you’re a devotee of Little Britain or The League of Gentlemen.

But are stereotypical jokes OK? Has sexist humour become acceptable again? Do I detect a swing in attitudes towards the humour that ‘alternative’ comedians of the 1980s rejected, or did it never really go away? Perhaps I am the only dissenting voice in the village?

Alarming disregard

Certainly the survey published earlier this month by insurance firm Hiscox suggests that office culture remains firmly rooted in the 1970s, drunkenly heckling at a set from the late Bernard Manning. The report suggests that staff laugh at sexist and racist jokes, and think nothing of partaking in sexual banter. A poll of almost 800 managers and staff revealed an ‘alarming disregard’ for office behaviour. Hiscox said its study found that two-thirds of workers swear while more than one in three laughs at sexual innuendo, or regularly hears jokes of a racist or sexist nature.

All those learned legal articles postulating the demise of the ageist birthday card, following the implications of the Age Discrimination Regulations, have really missed the plot. Thirty years of employment law prohibiting sexist and racist behaviour at work have, the Hiscox report would suggest, simply failed to prevent such behaviour.

So what should be done, or do we delude ourselves when we think that such socially proactive laws can change anything about such human behaviour? Is banter that embraces sexist, racist homophobic or ageist humour acceptable? Is the imposition of policies that prohibit it, in the words of the tabloids, “political correctness gone mad”? What kind of workplaces are we creating if staff aren’t free to share a joke?

No joke

If you’ve dealt with the consequences, you will know the reality is very different. Superficially well-received banter can conceal real hurt. Often this is in situations where the victim is in a position where they are simply not empowered to express their unhappiness about the behaviour.

Even taking a less principled and more pragmatic approach, an employer’s potential exposure to discrimination claims in the employment tribunal and its vicarious liability for claims of harassment in the workplace under the Protection from Harassment Act, make it a commercial as well as a social imperative to prevent such behaviour at work.

Of course, most employers will have policies that prohibit such behaviour. But if the Hiscox report is even partially correct, there would seem to be a wide gulf between the possession of such well-crafted policies and their implementation.

Unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is only likely to be stopped if staff believe that such conduct will be punished. No employer would hesitate to take steps against an employee who took money from the till, so how is it different if an employee exposes their employer to significant financial risk while at the same time potentially harming their fellow staff?

If the consequences were seen to have an impact – particularly a financial one – there would be powerful motivations to change their behaviour. And this need not be limited to the implementation of disciplinary procedures. If, for example, an employer made it clear that it would seek to recover the damages for which it had become liable, behaviour would be modified.

Tribunal and civil court procedures enable employers to pass liability back to the perpetrators. So, culturally acceptable or not, hasn’t the time come to get tough on ‘ist’ workplace banter?

Key points



  • Misplaced workplace banter may expose employers to liability for harassment.
  • Liability may arise under the various forms of anti-discrimination legislation and the Protection from Harassment Act.
  • Prevention requires not just the existence of dignity-at-work policies, but a clearly expressed intent to enforce them.
  • Employers that become liable for acts of harassment may consider passing on the liability to the worker for whose acts they have been found liable.

What do you think? E-mail dawn.spalding@rbi.co.uk

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