Banning the Banter – Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Banning the Banter – Political Correctness Gone Mad?


Banning the Banter – Do we need to reassess or have the ‘fun police’ gone too far?

For many, when we hear about banter being inappropriate at work, we might wonder where the line is, how do we even know? We often hear flippant comments about whether it is safe to say anything anymore?

At a recent event, fellow leadership trainer and Director of Focal Point Training, Stella Chandler, shared some thought provoking insights on banter, our involvement, and its impact on teams and organisations.

Here are some of the key points from that presentation, my observations, and the group discussions:

Banter – the good stuff

Yes, humour and joking can absolutely create a fun workplace, bring people together, barriers come down, and it can create a sense of belonging. It has its place and there is no suggestion that humour should be removed by the ‘fun police’.

Banter – where it can go wrong

We  often think of banter crossing the line when comments, nicknames, and jokes are taken to extreme levels. Unacceptable behaviour hidden behind the guise of ‘banter’ or a ‘joke’. Used as means of bullying, or where there is the inclusion of excessive or offensive terms, or indeed discriminatory behaviour or sexual harassment. However, in fact it can be far more innocent in its intention and can go unnoticed.

In this presentation, the focus was in fact on what might be termed ‘typical banter’ which we may consider the norm. We are often likely to still be engaging in it, and as already mentioned, it can even go unnoticed, until we become aware of how it has made us feel in the past, or indeed others.

Have you ever?

We were invited to reflect on our own experiences. Have you ever?

– been the butt of an ongoing joke

– been given a nickname you didn’t like or want

– done something that ‘passed into folklore’ that was still regularly referred to

– been introduced to someone new with a nickname or by reference to an ‘in joke’

How many did you say yes to?

Most had experienced one or all of them at some point. We can probably even recollect how we felt (or feel) about it. Upset, frustrated, fed up, like we still had to laugh and smile, excluded, or even defensive.

We were also invited to consider examples of where someone is being constantly reminded of something they would very much like to forget, whether an incident, or a physical or personality related factor. This might be as a ‘joke’ or as part of their ‘nickname’.  Delegates shared some of their personal stories, which brought home the message of the impact it can have.

This type of behaviour doesn’t create inclusion or bonding, it does the opposite. It puts up barriers. It isn’t fun, it is upsetting. And it isn’t productive. It may even make people uncomfortable about making a mistake or having the attention turned on them, for fear of being the focus of such jokes.

One point was made clear .There is often no intention to upset or offend.  Quite the opposite sometimes. Further, it need not include an offensive term or swearing for  a joke, or ‘banter’ to have moved into inappropriate behaviour, that is having a negative impact.

Whether the impact is someone being briefly unhappy at work, through to more serious mental health issues or legal claims (for example sexual harassment, discrimination, personal injury, constructive unfair dismissal) none of us want to be a party to causing this, enabling it, or permitting it. Even without legal claims, productivity, cohesiveness, and organisational culture will suffer.

How does unacceptable ‘banter’ impact on the ground?

From a 2016 study, run by Focal Point of 250 employees, they found the following behaviours had made people feel uncomfortable at work:

  • 70% reported one-upmanship and point scoring
  • 60% were working with an unwanted nickname
  • 66% complained about offensive jokes
  • 62% were the butt of an ongoing joke

If we consider that this is over half of our workforce, it cannot be overlooked.

In addition one in four said that this type of inappropriate ‘banter’ negatively impacted on their communication, one in five were demotivated by it, and one in ten said it crossed the line at least once every day!

What about us?

We were invited to consider if we had ever perpetuated the ongoing joke, a folklore story, or a nickname.

Most of us had, done so, and without ever fully considering the potential impact on the other person, until we had a new awareness. It was also reflective of what had been said, that it was not done with the intention of offending, upsetting, excluding, or wanting to wear-down an individual. It had been done in ‘good humour’, to encourage inclusion, and with positive intentions.

My further personal observations, from the discussions, was that in fact most people were saying that they had been, or were uncomfortable with the level of banter in their work places. Whether they were the subject of the ‘jokes’ or not. As such, it appeared to me that it might be that many people are engaging in banter, enduring it, or encouraging it, thinking that everyone else is enjoying it, and in fact no one else is either!

No more nicknames?

Does this mean no-more nicknames? No not at all, humour still has its place, and if someone would prefer their nickname to be used, and it is appropriate, then that is fine. The point is checking with them individually that they do genuinely enjoy the nickname (not out of peer pressure or to be liked) and the context in which they are happy to be referred to by that.

My experience outside of serious situations of harassment or discrimination, from an employment law context, is that it was often ongoing ‘banter’ that led to relationship breakdowns and tribunal claims. Including as set out above, the same ‘jokes’ or types of ‘joke’ being repeated over and over. It often also tipped into bullying in its nature, and intention, where relationships were not positive or had deteriorated.

So what can we do?

It remains clear that we all have our part to play in letting go of nicknames, ongoing jokes, and consider the impact of  inappropriate behaviour that might be disguised as  a joke or banter. Likewise, we can still enjoy a fun and lively workplace.

Here are some of the tips shared:

a) review policies with everyone so that they can understand the purpose behind them, rather than focusing on them only being used when something becomes serious. Include examples of where banter can be inappropriate and unhelpful (and ensure policies reflect this). (I have personally found this useful for many policies, including absenteeism where line managers then genuinely understand the helpful nature of those initial communications where patterns are triggered, to support their team vs it being an administrative or disciplinary exercise).

b) nip banter in the bud quickly if it lightly crosses the line or comes close to it. Where it isn’t over the line, or needing a one-to-one or more serious response, a quick ‘okay let’s move on’, or ‘that was yesterday’s joke, today’s a brand new day’ can be simple ways to move it on.

c) stay aware and trust your intuition. If your ‘antennae’ is picking something up, others in the room or team are likely to as well. Address it.

d) undertake an inclusivity survey of your staff and consider training, if appropriate.  Help to ensure managers feel more competent, and confident, in identifying inappropriate behaviour where it comes close to crossing the line, be able to explain inappropriate behaviour, and be able to nip it in the bud soonest as it arises.

e) develop team or workplace charters and create an understanding that everyone is equally responsible for the culture and behaviour in the workplace. Ensure staff are genuinely able to speak up about any worries or concerns and get support, that it is not lip-service.

In conclusion

It was an interesting session exploring banter from different levels. The tips and insights were welcomed by the many delegates in the room.  Observations around how some organisations even ask at interview how comfortable potential employees were with banter were interesting. As were many of the examples shared, as to how we have either been impacted by, or involved in perpetuating some of the ‘jokes’.

In terms of takeaways, many decided to go back and either take a formal or informal review of what was happening in their workplace. Others were determined to take action around some nicknames that, on reflection, they suspected were not genuinely wanted. Some were committed to making changes to their own participation and doing more towards creating an inclusive, productive, and positive workforce.

Perhaps on reading this, you have decided to implement some changes, or have some tips of your own from work you have done in your workplace. Feel free to share your comments, it is great to hear them.


About Simona Hamblet

Simona is a specialist coach & hypnotherapist, working with lawyers for the past six years helping them to create the firms & lives that they want. Simona also has over 20 years of experience as an employment solicitor & partner in a dual-office law firm (focusing on staff development & business growth).

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