“It’s just banter. Can’t you take a joke?”

We’ve all heard that one.

Banter is common in workplaces and banter isn’t always “bad”; it can be an effective way to build relationships and grow camaraderie.

But, there is a very thin line between banter and bullying, harassment or discrimination. Left unchecked or not taken seriously, you have a potent ingredient for a toxic workplace.

So, what exactly is banter and how can you stop it from getting out of control?

Banter is laughing with someone – not at someone

Banter is intended to be a playful exchange of teasing remarks between friends. Perhaps you mock-argue with a colleague over who supports the best football team or a friend makes a light-hearted comment about your bold-coloured jumper that makes you laugh – it’s mutual, affectionate and a sign that people feel comfortable together.

But, it’s down to how remarks make people feel as to whether they cross the line into something more serious. If comments are aimed squarely at personal insecurities, are one-sided, are critical, make someone feel humiliated and undermined, or are just downright mean, they’ve moved into the realms of bullying.

If comments are centred on a protected characteristic as defined by law, such as age, sexuality or race, then you could be looking at a complaint of harassment or even a claim of discrimination if the behaviour leads the victim to be being treated unfavourably at work.

Commonly, those people dishing out banter will defend their comments as “just having a laugh” or by telling you that the complainant is being “overly sensitive”.

Calling bullying or harassing behaviour “banter” is an effective way to shut down criticism and silence those on the receiving end of unacceptable behaviour, making them less likely to raise their voices.

But the jokes will be on them and you as their employer if banter that crosses the line is not taken seriously.

In 2021, an employee at Barclays bank won a sex discrimination case against her boss for repeatedly using the expression “birds” in the workplace.

In the same year, Yorkshire County Cricket Club came under considerable public fire when it was revealed that a player initially avoided disciplinary action for using a racial slur against a fellow British Asian player because it was “friendly banter”.

How do I stop banter from getting out of hand?

Friendly and playful communication between colleagues – even if not work-centred – can be beneficial for raising spirits, keeping morale high and keeping boredom at bay.

Here’s what you can do to prevent banter from taking a nasty turn.

  1. Set the tone

Take steps to promote an inclusive and welcoming workplace culture from day one. Set the tone by making it clear to all new employees within their induction the values of your company and expectations for workplace behaviour. This should include a clear statement that malicious jokes and banter, especially when it relates to protected characteristics, are unacceptable and the defence of “I was only joking” will not hold up.

  1. Keep policies up-to-date

As well as robust anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination policies, it’s worth compiling a Dignity at Work policy to make sure everyone is aware of what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable conduct. This should be reviewed and updated frequently, as well as communicated to all employees regularly either through periodic training, employee events or internal comms channels.

  1. Offer opportunities to report unacceptable behaviour

Policies should also include ways people who are victims of or witness unacceptable behaviour can report their experiences. This could either be through a line manager, a HR professional or an anonymous employee hotline. Encouraging people to speak up allows leaders to examine the effectiveness of their policies and procedures and prevent further complaints in the future.

  1. Provide training

Training should be offered to all employees on bullying, harassment and discrimination, as well as equal opportunities and diversity. Meanwhile managers should also be fully briefed on their responsibilities in regards to these and how they deal with complaints when made.

  1. Deal with issues promptly

It is vitally important that all complaints of bullying are taken seriously. Do not ignore them in the hope they will go away. It’s common that those who overstep the mark with banter are not aware that their behaviour has caused hurt. In those cases, you may wish to speak to the perpetrator informally or offer mediation. Where it appears the behaviour is malicious, investigating through a formal grievance procedure may be the best action.


Dignity and respect are integral to creating and sustaining an inclusive workplace that is free from bullying, harassment and discrimination. Tell Jane offers a programme of ED&I training, as well as options to create a tailored package of learning for your organisation and your people. Get started by emailing hello@telljane.co.uk.

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