Workplace banter: how to walk the line

By Danielle Ingham

Cases involving workplace banter continue to be fertile ground for embarrassing employment tribunal cases and negative headlines. When one person’s harmless fun can be another’s bullying or harassment, it can be hard for employers to manage.

Last week, Stena Line Irish Sea Ferries hit the press when one of its former dock workers, Martin Sheil, was awarded £45,000 compensation after being dismissed for reacting to homophobic abuse. A Northern Irish tribunal found that Mr Sheil had been unfairly dismissed and had also been the victim of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. As part of its decision, the tribunal found that Stena Line had ‘adopted a far too passive approach to unpleasant banter’. The banter in question reportedly included quips such as ‘some people in here should come out of the closet’ and derogatory references to Mr Sheil as a ‘fruit’.

Clearly, some degree of banter in the workplace is to be expected and can help to build closer relationships between colleagues. But it is vital for employers to recognise that, in some cases, banter can cross the line from office camaraderie into something more damaging…

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