Office banter! What would the workplace be without it? A silent office can be a little creepy and off-putting. Banter, described as “an exchange of light, playful remarks and good natured teasing”, can add colour and interest, and promote a pleasant work environment. When done correctly, banter can ease work tension, boost team morale and put a smile on the face of a bad day.

However, there is a fine line to office banter: In the jokey back-and-forth between workmates, it is all too easy to go too far and cause offence. We don’t all share the same sense of humour and numerous discrimination cases have arisen because of it.

It is said that nothing makes an employment lawyer’s ears prick up like the word “banter”. “It was only banter!” or “I was only joking!” are lines often given by those on the wrong end of a discrimination or bullying claim to justify having caused offence to someone. To avoid an illegal situation, here are some pointers to help you navigate the potential minefield of office banter:

How much is too much?

  • Discrimination can be unintentional or subtle. It may involve nicknames, teasing or name calling which may not have malicious intent. Many comments in the form of jokes are not premeditated attacks, but this doesn’t change the potential for offence these comments have.
  • Tasteless jokes are often cited in discrimination claims. If your joke causes offence or gets taken the wrong way, you may have an illegal situation forming which could land both you and your company in hot water.
  • Good-natured ribbing can easily cross the line and become unacceptable harassment or bullying. If you’re about to comment on someone’s gender, race, sexual orientation, physical features, religious beliefs, disability or age in a flippant or negative way then alarm bells should be ringing.
  • Derogatory comments such as “If she’s pregnant she isn’t serious about a career” or “Why is he so angry? Must be short person syndrome!” can cause significant offence and may also lead to harassment claims.

So, how do we strike the right balance?

To avoid office banter going too far:

  • Be aware of how your comments could be perceived by others.
  • Be careful with mickey-taking – don’t make a habit of this style of joke.
  • Don’t make derogatory humour your default. Rather think of a different joke that doesn’t put anybody down.

No one wants to eradicate humour from the workplace, and banter is usually taken in jest. But it pays to be mindful of the power of words to harm as well as to heal.