Office banter: it’s a polarizing topic. One person’s idea of a harmless joke could very easily be another person’s idea of harrassment. So, how and where can employers draw the line?

On the one hand, colleagues interacting and socializing is a positive thing. It can build team morale, encourage team working and can increase engagement levels. How often do you hear that people love working for a company because of ‘the people’. And getting to know each other is part of that. The addition of humour is a natural social progression, in the same way that friendships outside of the workplace develop, nicknames pop up and a certain degree of cajoling becomes de rigueur.

Office environments have become increasingly informal, in terms of dress code, flexible working and even the way that colleagues address each other: there aren’t many people you can’t address on a first name basis anymore. Social media has only added to this in that the lines between work and personal lives have become more blurred. Employees may be tweeting or Instagramming on their personal networks, but this is only an extension of their work persona. Or vice versa.

This is not to say that there is a lack of professionalism, just that the formal distinction between work and personal worlds is no longer so clear cut. This is mirrored in the development of relationships at work. The way that employees interact with their peers has evolved and whether it’s in the office or at the pub after work, colleagues might want to lighten the load of the day and have a few laughs.

It all sounds innocent enough. But behind the façade of ‘office banter’ lie some more dangerous undertones. The problem being, where do you draw the line? What is classed as ‘banter’ to one person may be bullying or discrimination to someone else. Banter is subjective, open to interpretation and that, in essence, is where it becomes problematic.

A Tribunal case from 2015 took a firm stance on ‘office banter’ and offers a stark warning to employers: a female banker was awarded £3.2 million after ‘office banter’ from her male colleagues was interpreted as sexual discrimination and harassment, at such a level that it drove her to have a mental breakdown. The CEO of the bank was also found guilty of unlawful victimization for failing to investigate her complaints (Personnel Today 17 April 2015).

It’s not just sexual discrimination that employers need to be aware of. Any ‘banter’ that could be interpreted as discrimination on any grounds could land employers in hot water. And failing to do anything about it will be viewed by legal eyes as condoning discriminatory behaviour.

So what can employers do to ensure that office banter doesn’t get out of hand?

1) Education
Taking a proactive approach to training employees and line managers in acceptable standards of behaviour can be a huge step in the right direction. This should be training that everyone in the company attends in order to build consistency in office culture.

2) Put in place some robust policies
Clear policies outlining the Company’s stance on equal opportunities and harassment should be issued to everyone, as part of an Employee Handbook or on a company intranet or another public source of information. There should also be a policy available for anyone who feels that they have been discriminated against or harassed so that they know who to approach and what the process is to make a complaint.

3) Ask for feedback
Using tools such as an employee survey can be vital in uncovering festering problems within the employee population that you may not otherwise become aware of. This is particularly useful if feedback can be given anonymously for those who may not feel comfortable coming forward or who want to report on behavior that doesn’t affect them directly.

Beware though. If you ask for feedback, you must be prepared to manage negative comments and to take action where necessary.