Pranks and banter in the workplace

Pranks and banter in the workplace - is it dead, or does it build teams?

Some people consider office pranks and banter harmless fun. However, there is a fine line between harmless fun in the office and behaviour that is entirely inappropriate for the workplace. Unprofessional behaviour can potentially lead to harassment claims and grievances, which you as an employer will have to address. A good workplace should be a safe and inclusive environment for employees, not somewhere they fear being pranked or teased. But is there room for office banter on any level? This article will discuss if office pranks, and banter still have a place in the workplace and the potential risks or benefits to your business.

Is there a place for banter in the workplace?

Unquestionably, harmless office banter still has a place in most organisations. Defined as ‘conversation that is funny and not serious.’ It can make the work environment a more enjoyable place to be and is an integral part of socialising and celebrating with our peers and an excellent way to build rapport within teams. It’s also linked with increased productivity and morale in the workplace. We all want to feel relaxed and happy in our professional lives, and some harmless chat and banter helps us get through the day. However, it’s crucial that any banter doesn’t cross a line and puts anyone in a position where they feel harassed, victimised or humiliated at work, even when this was not intended.

Pranks to understand the difference can be defined as ‘a trick that is intended to be funny but not to cause harm or damage’ whilst pranks can indeed be harmless and fun, they can escalate to a point where employee’s feel harassed, victimised or humiliated as a result, generally in a place of work pranks are less acceptable than office banter. We recently carried out a survey on LinkedIn in January 2022, where we asked ‘What your thoughts are on office pranks?’ The results were as follows and show the majority of people believe there is no place for pranks at work:

No place for pranks at work  71% 

Nothing wrong with pranks  13% 

Can bond people teams together  15%

When we work with other people, we accept that we are all unique and will behave differently depending on the situation. Each person has a level of comfort when it comes to jokes, pranks and banter, and our sense of humour can differ wildly. Whilst one colleague may find something hilarious, another may find it insulting or uncomfortable. Ultimately, we don’t know what the colleague next to us has experienced in their lives that may trigger or upset them to the point that they are left feeling harassed or bullied. The adverse effects of office pranks or banter can impact your business and the affected employees in many ways. For example, a staff member humiliated by a particular conversation may feel:

  • Stressed
  • Unmotivated
  • Lacking in motivation
  • Their self-esteem is damaged
  • Insecure at work
  • A desire to avoid work/coming into the workplace.

The line between banter and harassment can sometimes become blurred. In some situations, these boundaries are clear; at other times, they can fall into a grey area.  An employer needs to draw a line to ensure any banter that breaks the 2010 Equality Act’s protected characteristics, such as comments around sex, race, or sexual orientation, is treated as unacceptable and will not be tolerated, even in the name of banter. The grey areas can create some hazards for small business owners, and it should be clear in any discrimination policy that any unkind or rude comments that are not linked to a protected characteristic may still provide the basis for a claim.

What are the risks to the business?

Whatever your views on office banter and pranks, they risk causing damage to your business and the people within it if you do not have clear policies and procedures in place. In a tribunal situation, using banter as a defence in a discrimination case is rarely accepted. This is because one person’s interpretation of a joke or comment may be entirely different for the person on the receiving end. You also have to consider how the banter may affect people who overheard the conversation and not just those directly involved, as they can also be offended.

When workplace banter or pranks cross a line, they can negatively impact the business. It’s not just grievance, and harassment claims that you have to be concerned about. An employee who has been the victim of inappropriate office banter may decide to resign from their post, leaving you short on bodies, suffer from stress which leads to absenteeism and be less motivated and productive in their job. It’s likely also to damage working relationships meaning that team members do not work together as collaboratory as they should due to the office banter culture within the business.

In businesses where workplace banter is a known problem, higher staff turnover rates and lower employee productivity are common issues. Victims of any banter they view as discrimination or harassment can sue their employer for damages under vicarious liability and failing to provide a safe working environment. These lawsuits can be financially costly and hugely dent your organisation’s reputation when you consider public relations implications surrounding your business. This is why all companies must take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from carrying out acts of discrimination to limit their liability in any legal case that may arise.

How to limit your risk in the business

To mitigate the risk of workplace banter damaging your business, it’s essential to have up to date and comprehensive written policies in place which cover anti-harassment, bullying and equality, diversity and inclusion. 

However, simply having written policies is not enough. These policies need to be communicated to team members at all levels and any other related third parties such as contract workers. In addition, training on the subject to raise general awareness is critical to making sure everyone within your organisation understands what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviours regarding discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Training on acceptable banter vs harassment

Any training should include examples of what does and does not constitute acceptable banter and how an individual’s perception of the banter or humour can vary so widely. This training should be introduced and updated throughout an employee’s career with you. For example, during their initial induction and any internal promotion or as and when the policy is updated. It’s crucial that the training materials are made available on an ongoing basis and that employees fully understand the disciplinary consequences for non-compliance should they overstep the mark and break the rules of the policy.

While office banter still has a place in the workplace and can boost morale, increase productivity and help team bonds, the issues around workplace banter will not go away on their own. Therefore, as a business owner, it’s essential that you take steps to protect your business and your employees against any unacceptable banter and pranks in the workplace by taking positive action.