Office banter could cost business billions, says A&O report

An Allen & Overy (A&O) report has warned that office banter could cost UK businesses as much as £292bn in tribunal claims in 2013.

A&O asked more than 1,000 office workers whether they could easily draw the line between “banter and bullying” for the report and found that 80 per cent thought they could. But follow-up questions to respondants proved otherwise, according to the firm, which warned that “language, laws, diversity, cultural mores and office practices are not static; they’re constantly changing”.

Giving examples, the report states that although 46 per cent of survey respondents believed that it was not unlawful to display a calendar of semi-naked models, some people could feel that it creates an “intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive workplace environment” and lead to harassment claims with a potential £135bn cost to UK businesses.

Likewise, although 59 per cent of respondents said they did not think it was unlawful to swear, A&O said that in certain circumstances – when the swearing was based on a legally protected characteristic, like gender – it could lead to a discrimination claim, the likes of which could cost UK businesses between £114bn and £292bn in 2013.

A&O litigation employment partner Karen Seward said: “There’s a fine line between friendly, acceptable banter and unlawful harassment or discrimination…Time and time again, workers throw advice in this area into the political correctness box, not appreciating the litigation risks or the impact on individuals.”

The report is the first in a series of reports on the nation’s workers’ knowledge of workplace discrimination to be published by A&O. Reports on protected characteristics under discrimination law and workplace bullying will follow.