White paper with the words bullying written on it in black ink. The paper is being torn in half by two hands

Office Banter or Bullying at Work?

When people complain about workplace bullying, it is sometimes disregarded as office banter. Is it a case that people can’t take a joke or is there more to the story?

Failing to deal with reports of bullying negatively impacts both the individual and the team. Data shows that the risk of suicide death or attempt is higher in individuals who experience workplace bullying. (Source: The Lancet)

This is one powerful reason to address bullying at work and fulfil a Duty of Care.

Banter or Bullying

It’s great when someone makes you smile, lifts the spirit of the room and brings fun to the workplace. As such, having a bit of a laugh can build employee relationships and help the team cope with challenges. That is if the humour is genuinely amusing to everyone.

When individuals become the butt of the joke, it is referred to as banter. This can be light-hearted give and take, however, it can easily escalate. When the power starts to shift and the behaviour is unwanted, it is bullying.

What Defines Workplace Bullying?

There is no legal definition of bullying, however, ACAS describe it as:

‘Unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting. It is an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates or causes physical or emotional harm.’

Being the target of bullying can take many forms. The bullying can impact the target’s confidence, capabilities, well-being, motivation and life through actions including:

  • Constant criticism or put-downs
  • Ignoring the target’s opinion, interrupting or talking over them
  • Unfair distribution of work
  • Exclusion from social activity, projects or development opportunities
  • Engaging others with rumour spreading, avoidance and disrespect
  • Threats, intimidation, hurtful comments or harmful actions

These actions can be undertaken by an individual or a group and are damaging to those who are victimised, as well as negatively impacting the workplace culture.

An Employer’s Duty of Care

A CIPD survey* identified that 15% of the UK workforce had experienced bullying between 2016 and 2019. In addition, 47% of employees had observed bullying at work and a quarter stated that issues raised were ‘swept under the carpet’. This shows the scale of an unacceptable problem.

As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees. No employee should be at risk of harm, intimidation or coercion from line managers, peers or customers.

If a bullying complaint is raised, it should not be ignored or disregarded as banter. In fact, either of these responses compound the issue. Therefore, whether the complaint is raised by the target, another employee or an outsider, it must be handled in a fair, sensitive and confidential manner.

Firstly, listen without interruption, distraction or judgement. An open mind and open questions will help you to understand the situation and impact from that individual’s perspective.

Secondly, take the complaint seriously by taking actions, which can include:

  • Conversations with others who are said to be involved
  • Observation of team behaviours and dynamics
  • Asking the person who reported the bullying to record any future incidents

It is important to ask the target what actions they would like you to take. In some cases, you may agree to handle the complaint informally, by addressing issues directly and widely raising awareness, with discrimination and inclusion training. However, in some cases, when the nature of the bullying and its impact is severe or informal actions haven’t solved the issue, a formal grievance policy must be followed.

A comprehensive Guide to Handling a Bullying Complaint is provided by ACAS.

Stand Up To Bullying

Thursday 14 September is Stand Up To Bullying Day, a prime opportunity to speak up about unacceptable words and behaviours that have no place in a professional work environment.

If you or a colleague are being alienated, victimised or insulted, stand up to bullying and seek support. If there is no one at work that you feel able to talk to, contact the National Bullying Helpline 0845 2255787 or ACAS on 0300 123 1100.

As an employer, stand up to bullying by taking complaints seriously. Your actions could prevent an employee from considering suicide as the only way to escape.

* https://www.cipd.org/uk/about/press-releases/bullying-harassment-overlooked/