Oops, I went too far – a story of workplace banter

29 July 2016
By Nicola Lintott, Equality Diversity & Human Rights Lead for St Andrew’s Healthcare

Banter is quite a British thing and, in some workplaces, it’s everywhere – even in email. An ingrained part of our culture, it is a form of bonding, getting to know people and even establishing social hierarchy. Banter can be healthy, good for morale and a form of release or coping mechanism for difficult jobs in fields such as emergency services or healthcare. It can also be dangerous, costing you friendships, your job or even a law suit. In my role as Equality Diversity & Human Rights Lead for St Andrew’s Healthcare, I aim to help people strike the right balance with banter so that it doesn’t cross the line and become harassment or discrimination.

I have seen many instances of ill-received banter during my career. The unfortunate reality is that something which may be intended as a harmless, throw-away comment can quite easily turn into a serious grievance. When it comes to banter, the intent is irrelevant once you have upset or offended someone.

A case in point occurred during one of my previous roles in a busy and, what seemed at the time, quite progressive workplace. Banter was an openly accepted part of office life, and even found its way into email chains. A colleague of mine perhaps thought nothing of sending out a picture of a scantily clad male to a group of her female colleagues, as well as a select number of males. Unfortunately it wasn’t ‘nothing’. In fact, it was quite upsetting to someone who felt it an attack on their sexual orientation. The offending former colleague was promptly dismissed - a confronting scenario for what had, until then, been a Laissez-faire style of culture.

Working in a secure healthcare environment brings with it entirely different challenges. While there is little opportunity for the aforementioned digital banter, the intensity of the ward based environment brings with it a whole gauntlet of chitchat related issues.

Long, irregular shifts with a revolving cohort of colleagues and a generally difficult working environment are made bearable by friendly banter. For some, that is. For others, banter may come across as a form of exclusion or personal criticism, in fact any unpleasant or negative remarks can constitute as harassment. In the worst cases, banter will spiral into discrimination such as racism or homophobia. This is the point where ‘I was only joking. Having a laugh!’ can turn into a court case.

As part of my work I have tried demystify this elusive subject which seems to have penetrated British culture so deeply, that people do not like to feel as if this ‘right’ is being policed. This is how my workshop ‘Oops I went too far’ came about – an attempt at lightening the mood as we talk about what feels like a fundamentally sensitive topic all round.

A snapshot from this course, these are my tips for differentiating the good banter, from the bad.

Good banter:

  • Is your authentic self, treating others with respect
  • Is having innocent fun and a laugh with your colleagues
  • A form of pulling together as a team after difficult times

Bad banter:

  • Is linked to sex, gender reassignment, race, age, disability, marriage or civil partnership sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, or religion/belief.
  • A joke told to a group but has upset one – you shouldn’t have said it and need to apologise
  • Is held in an open environment – if someone’s in earshot and it upsets them, they are entitled to report it. 

When it comes to banter, it’s important to remember that you’re at work in an environment where you don’t know people’s background or personal stories. We are all equally responsible for positive role modelling, particularly if you work around patients. In order to make sure you are force for good, you need to treat people as they want to be treated.

If you are a person who has found themselves negatively affected by banter you need to raise it with the people who upset you. If it concerns you, you have a right to bring it up and tell them how it made you feel.