Overt or covert | Can your employees tell the difference between banter and bullying?

Can your employees tell the difference between banter and bullying?

Nearly a third of UK workers have experienced bullying thinly veiled as ‘banter’ by the perpetrators, a study has found.

Leading law firm, Irwin Mitchell recently conducted a nationally representative study into workplace behaviour. The recently heightened awareness of quiet firing led the firm to investigate how workers feel they are treated in the workplace.

After surveying 2,179 people, Irwin Mitchell found:

  • 32% of the UK have experienced bullying disguised as banter

  • 45-54 years olds are the most likely age group to have experienced this type of bullying

  • Workers in the North-West are the most likely to have experienced bullying disguised as banter (37%)

  • Over 35% of women in the UK workplace have experienced bullying disguised as banter

This poses serious concerns around whether employees can identify unlawful behaviour in the workplace which gives them the right to bring employment claims such as discrimination and constructive dismissal claims.


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Irwin Mitchell wants to raise awareness of the impact such bad behaviour can have on employees and the important measures managers should put in place to safeguard their staff.

Further stats demonstrate that certain industries are more widely affected by bullying in the workplace disguised as banter:

  • 50% of people in the sports industry have experienced bullying disguised as banter

  • Nearly half of all people working in fine art have experienced bullying disguised as bullying

  • Those who studied music/arts are most likely to experience bullying disguised as banter when they start work (53%)

  • 38% of people working in accounting/finance have experienced bullying disguised as banter

  • 39% of people working in UK hospitality have experienced bullying disguised as banter

  • 38% of people working in UK retail have experienced bullying disguised as banter

Deborah Casale employment partner at Irwin Mitchell had this to say about the findings: “There really is no excuse for treating employees in this way. Whilst some may consider banter to be light-hearted, making jokes at the expense of an employee or making inappropriate comments, can lead to staff feeling uncomfortable in the workplace and in the worst cases make them feel that they have no choice but to leave their position.

“If an employee is being made to feel they’re not wanted and resigns as a result of an employer’s behaviour, this could be considered ‘quiet firing.’

"This can form grounds for constructive dismissal if it breaches the implied term of trust and confidence in the employment relationship and the employee has more than two years of service. If the comments are discriminatory, two years of service are not required. Employees should be aware of their legal rights in these situations and should take advice at an early stage to protect their position – ideally before resigning. Likewise, employers should ensure that staff are properly trained as to what could constitute inappropriate behaviour.”


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Jo Moseley, specialist employment lawyer at Irwin Mitchell adds: “Harassment of a worker occurs when a person engages in unwanted conduct which is related to one of the seven protected characteristics and has the purpose or effect of violating the worker’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that worker.

"Unwanted conduct covers a wide range of behaviour, including spoken or written words or abuse, imagery, graffiti, physical gestures, facial expressions, mimicry, jokes, pranks and other physical behaviour.

"The conduct may be blatant (for example, overt bullying), or more subtle (for example, ignoring or marginalising an employee). The word ‘unwanted’ means essentially the same as 'unwelcome' or 'uninvited'. ‘Unwanted’ does not mean that someone must object to the conduct first. Some types of conduct will, self-evidently, be unwanted."



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