Don’t issue blanket ban on mild ribbing banter in the workplace

When we decided to carry out a light-hearted survey about what physical characteristics are and are not acceptable to tease people about in the workplace, we anticipated receiving some frothy, witty replies. What we didn’t expect was to touch quite such a raw nerve among the 4,000 readers who took the time to complete our questionnaire. You shared page after page of insights into your thoughts on teasing, which ranged from outrage at people’s cruelty, to impatience with a politically correct world.

What is most astonishing about our Ugly Betty-inspired research is not that people with ginger hair and a regional accent are prime candidates for being teased in the workplace (and that many accept it as being a normal part of everyday life). Nor is it that so many people admit their appearance has been the butt of an office joke. The real eye-opener is the belief of HR professionals that the UK workplace is fundamentally ‘lookist’ – evidenced by some of the eye-opening verbatim comments about the questionable banter and behaviour of some line managers, who are prone to preferring ‘the norm’ to the unconventional.

The problem is that there is an extremely fine line between benign banter and spiteful bullying. How employees deal with being teased can depend on whether they’re having a ‘bad hair day’ or not: one day it may be consensual the next day it’s not.

Defining where that line is drawn often falls to HR. So where do you draw it? Ban all teasing for fear of triggering a tribunal claim and you’ll squeeze all the fun out of workplace life. Ignore it, and it risks getting out of hand.

The last thing HR wants is for diversity or equality policies and initiatives to become so po-faced that employees are scared of saying anything. Yes, we need to preserve people’s dignity – and to act when mild ribbing becomes malicious – but workplaces certainly don’t want or need HR going mad about political correctness.

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