Banter, The Unspoken Path To Harassment.

Banter, the unspoken path to harassment.

As we reflect on a week which has seen much discussion on the impact of people’s behaviour and sexual harassment within society, it feels apt to reflect on the role employers can play in tackling harassment in the workplace and wider society.

If we are to tackle the big issues, such as harassment towards women (and in fact all people) we need to open up the conversation and amplify everyone’s voice so we can learn, reflect and make changes for the better. Whilst harassment is a wider societal issue it is an important matter for employers to consider and each and every employer has a responsibility to their employees to protect them from harassment.

When we consider the topic of harassment in the workplace the one word that springs to mind, that we have heard as a line of defence many times, is ‘banter’. Many businesses see banter as an important part of the workplace culture and, yes, the ability to bring humour to the workplace can be important but not at the expense of others. Banter like this has to go. Behaviour matters; how we treat each other matters and has a significant impact on people. We have delivered training around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for many years and have talked about the role banter plays; a point we always make is that even if someone is laughing along or even joining in, you don’t know how the conversation is making them feel emotionally and what impact it is having on their mental health. 

Workplace culture and wider societal culture are built on small day to day interactions including verbal and non-verbal communications. Within these interactions are often the comments and jokes that become the norm, that become accepted by virtue of silence and may seem ‘harmless banter’. Soon there becomes the implicit unspoken assumption that as no one speaks out it’s okay and has now become normalised within the culture of the workplace. The new unspoken values become set and if anyone challenges this in the future, they become the outsider and a challenger to the group identity. Furthermore, the risk is, that as this becomes the norm, people within the group will test the boundaries and, if the group does not speak up, what starts as slightly edgy banter can very quickly normalise into quite extreme harassment that can turn a workplace toxic with employees scared to speak out against the group as its ’just banter and the work place norm’. This behaviour can ripple out from the workplace into wider society. 

Several years ago, we investigated a case in which a male employee complained of the banter he was witnessing from his male colleagues about women. The banter was derogatory to women however the defence was that the banter was between all men with no women were present, the employees felt that as no women had overheard the comments no one was hurt. 

The employee felt strongly that it was not ok, stating that he had a wife, daughter, sisters and that he would not like any of them to be spoken about in this way. This is not ok in any workplace; employers need to actively stop this behaviour. It is not about what we do when someone is watching, it’s what we do when no one is looking. In this case, regardless of whether any women were present, clearly the comments made were not acceptable and had to stop. This is the danger of banter to workplace cultures. Banter has in the past been used as an excuse and as a ‘safe’ form of harassment, it is not. 

The best way to challenge these behaviours is through the culture of an organisation and the values it expects from its employees. So, we invite you to reflect on this in your organisation:

– What banter is present in your business and could that be hurting someone?

– What can you do to challenge everyone to be respectful to each other?

– How can you support your employees (female and otherwise) to feel safer? For example, when I worked at one employer who was located in a part of a town that was not well lit and generally felt unsafe, we were issued with personal alarms. What else can you do?

– How can you stand up against harassment?

If you would like any support in looking at your culture, we do a full culture diagnostic in which we help you to understand where you are now, build a vision of what you want to create and help you to take the steps to deliver that. 

For help or chat about your own experiences please get in touch with us at Sparkle for a conversation on how we can help businesses drive cultural change via inclusion. We would love you to come join our sparkle inclusion circle to help grow the conversation.

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