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Workplace Harassment Is No Laughing Matter

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Workplace bullies defend their behaviour by laughing off hurtful comments as jokey banter. This behaviour is being swept under the rug too often.

What’s Wrong With a Bit of Banter?

Recent investigations into London’s police force have unearthed the scale of the damage caused by systemic workplace harassment and bullying. Perpetrators tend to excuse their harmful words by maintaining the argument that it's all just “banter” — light teasing meant to be taken as a joke.

This argument places the blame on the victim by faulting them for not being able to see the humour in things. It's a subtle form of gaslighting from one colleague to another, and this overused term, “banter”, is the key. It suggests that whatever was said was light-hearted, regardless of whether it offended someone. But causing offence should never be accepted as light-hearted, especially when the offence is systemic, normalised within a workplace, and inescapable for employees.

Could You Be Complicit?

Reporting these offences, however, is easier said than done. A company culture of inaction will lead perpetrators to develop a kind of impenetrable confidence. Companies that continue to ignore harassment within their offices and online workspaces are complicit in sending out the message that there won’t be any consequences for those who repeatedly harass others.

More often than not, the people who engage with this kind of behaviour are the ones who rarely receive backlash for their actions. This group normally constitutes majority members of workplace communities that have always felt welcome and safe to say and do what they like without being challenged or disciplined. For those who feel at ease within their workplace, it doesn’t take much to cross the line from acceptable comments to harassment, as they’ve never been pushed to learn the difference.

What begins as subtle digs can snowball into other examples of workplace harassment, such as the use of slurs, threatening behaviour, attacks on someone’s character and expressions of disgust.

Maybe you’ve even been the cause in the past and not known it. But ignorance doesn’t excuse these actions. It’s up to you to know when banter becomes bullying.

The Consequences of Inaction

It can be desirable for workplace leaders to establish a more relaxed social culture within the office, where light teasing or office in-jokes are accepted, but without enforcing a limit and defining that limit to staff, jovial company cultures can quickly devolve.

Those on the receiving end can wind up leaving the company, damaging the company’s reputation, or seeking compensation. Often, the fallout affects those in positions of leadership who are culpable for ignoring previous complaints or for not shutting down the hurtful behaviour. So, even if a victim seeks compensation, those responsible for causing the hurt never feel the consequences of their actions.

Solving Harassment Permanently

Some workplaces have attempted to solve the issue by setting up anonymous tip lines for victims to report incidents without feeling unsafe, but while these are better than nothing, they don’t target the source of the problem. Employees want assurance from their workplace leaders that they can focus on their jobs without fear of being harassed in the first place.

On the other hand, keeping records should be seen as a step in the right direction, as it ensures that any repeat offenders stand out to whoever monitors the records. If leaders choose to set up a record system, this should be communicated clearly to all employees so as to create a reliable database.

It's common for staff to not know how to recognise whether something qualifies as harassment or not. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of workplace leaders to train their staff in both recognising harassment and in taking the subsequent steps to combat it. Some offences still go unpunished because victims or witnesses fail to provide evidence. Therefore, it is not enough to give a seminar on recognising harassment — staff must be made familiar with the processes needed to report the offence as well. Everyone should know how to and feel safe when reporting harassment at work.

Finally, those in leadership positions or positions of influence within a company must recognise their responsibility to speak up for less powerful employees. Harassment incidents are often witnessed by multiple people, but because they weren’t the direct target these people step back and say nothing, not wanting to involve themselves in the conflict. This kind of attitude does little to foster supportive office environments, so it's advisable that staff be additionally trained in handling workplace conflict.

Once the majority of staff in a company feel empowered to challenge these bullies, the offenders become isolated and more aware that their actions could be met with real, permanent consequences.

Ask yourself what you can do to help raise awareness of the problem to others, or educate yourself and your team on the difference between light humour and harassment. And don’t forget to check in on your colleagues. You share a responsibility with them to listen to and support one another.

Reach out today, if you haven’t already, and let your colleagues know you’re there for them if they need you.

Author Bio

Madeleine Green is a freelance writer, and an intern for The Industry Leaders. She graduated from university in 2020 with a degree in education, and her interests include sociology, literature and current affairs. Connect with Madeleine on LinkedIn.

Main Image: Priscilla Du Preez


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