Office banter: protecting your workforce and avoiding discrimination claims

26 November 2021

Several recent bullying and harassment cases have led to intense scrutiny of senior members of organisations for comments and behaviours initially described as ‘banter.’

‘Innocent’ workplace banter has a tendency to stray into uncomfortable areas, and organisations that fail to address this early could face workforce disengagement, costly discrimination claims and, in some cases, irreparable reputational damage.

What can employers do to protect their people and themselves from tribunal claims?

Implement effective policies and procedures

Employers should make sure they have in place appropriate policies that make staff aware of:

  • the culture of the organisation, including the attitudes and behaviours expected at work; and
  • the risk of discrimination claims, which can also be brought against individual employees.

We would recommend an equal opportunities or equality policy that both promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace and discourages discriminatory attitudes and behaviours. An effective anti-harassment policy should also be implemented so that staff are aware of acts the organisation considers to be harassment.

It is crucial to ensure these attitudes and behaviours are embedded across the organisation. Employers may also soon have a legal obligation to demonstrate what active steps they are taking to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. A policy and regular training will be critical in meeting this obligation.

Staff who feel they have experienced harassment should be encouraged to raise this with their line manager and their concerns should be dealt with via the company’s disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Provide staff training

Regular training on equality and anti-harassment policies will ensure that employees understand both their own and their employer’s rights, duties and obligations. Employees in management positions should be given specific training so that they fully understand how to deal with any issues early, before they escalate into harassment or discrimination claims.

It is good practice for equality and anti-harassment training to form part of all workers’ induction procedures. This will give staff clear expectations at the outset of the workplace behaviours expected.

Appoint workplace equality champions/guardians

Employers can appoint workplace equality champions who can also offer support to employees who have suffered discrimination or harassment. In some cases, victims of bullying, harassment or discrimination may fear speaking up against the perpetrators. As independent and impartial sources of advice, guardians can give employees in those situations the confidence and support to speak up.

How RSM can help?

Our People Advisory Services team can support employers with:

  1. Drafting equality and anti-harassment procedures that fit the needs of your organisation.
  2. Reviewing and updating related procedures, such as disciplinary and grievance procedures and whistleblowing policies.
  3. Delivering training for your staff and/or management on equality and diversity, including how to navigate the legal risks.
  4. Undertaking an independent review of your organisation’s workplace culture.
  5. Providing an independent third-party advisory service should your organisation require an investigation into allegations of potentially discriminatory or bullying behaviour.

Please contact Jennifer Mansoor or Kerri Constable for further advice.