“It was only a joke”
“I didn’t mean anything by it”
“Just our normal office banter”
“Do we have to be humourless in work now?”
Over the last 12 months, the issue of harassment has come to the forefront of business, with issues such as Harvey Weinstein, and the Presidents Club. Only this week, business leader and TV personality Lord Sugar got into hot water for issuing a (now deleted) tweet about Senegalese footballers. His response – that it was a misguided attempt at humour – is a common one when individuals are confronted with inappropriate comments. In fact, the comments above are the usual reaction when a complaint is made.
If you run or manage a small business, you may be faced by an allegation of harassment and you need to take it seriously. Dismissing claims as merely ‘banter’ can be both expensive and damaging to your business reputation, as this car dealership found out this week. Investigate all allegations properly and – as importantly – make it clear that inappropriate comments are not acceptable.
It doesn’t matter if the comment was not intended to be offensive, or that you can’t see anything wrong with it – in law the main concern is the perception of the individual. This doesn’t mean that every instance of an ill-judged comment is necessarily racist or sexist – case law is very clear that “it is… important not to encourage a culture of hypersensitivity or the imposition of legal liability in respect of every unfortunate phrase” – the point is that an employer must investigate a complaint properly.
And if you aren’t sure, take advice. There’s a world of difference between referring to a colleague as “The Producer” (because she is constantly telling her team that “she’ll put them in the picture”) and referring to her as “Sugar Tits”.
Humour is important in the workplace. Harassment isn’t. And remember, as I was once told by an Employment Lawyer, “Banter isn’t an excuse – it’s an admission”. If you need more information, this piece may help you