The death of office banter?

“Are jokes now banned in the office?”: one of the most common questions we hear when we’re training people in the new Discrimination Law in Jersey. There is a real fear that the ‘fun police’ have won the day and we’re now better off keeping our heads down in quiet, sterile rooms, free of any atmosphere.

Of course, that isn’t the case but, because there is no hard and fast rule as to when the ‘banter’ goes too far, it can be confusing and frustrating for people.

However, there are some basic rules that you can apply to make sure you stay out of trouble.

In a nutshell, if a comment that relates to race, sex, sexual orientation or gender reassignment is likely to offend someone, then it’s not worth saying. And it doesn’t matter if you know that your intended target won’t be offended. It could be the person sat across the room who takes offence, and the law protects them, too.

And it doesn’t matter where you are. Here at Law At Work, we’re obviously interested in the impact of the law in the workplace but it’s worth emphasising that a firm’s responsibility doesn’t stop with their own staff or office – it includes your relationship with clients, a social in the pub, out-of-office meetings, off-island trips, Christmas parties etc.

So, the secret is to engage your brain before you speak or act. The primary test is: “Could I offend someone?” If a joke is inoffensive then there’s no issue. Of course, it’s a fine line so if you’re still unsure ask: “Is it worth the risk, in case someone does get offended?” The chances are, you’ll stop yourself before saying something inappropriate.

And don’t forget about social media. Our advice is to pause and think about how comments could be perceived by others, especially when putting comments in writing. Emails, texts, Facebook updates and Tweets are permanent and can always be recovered.

It is important that an employer doesn’t just ignore things – they may be seen to be tolerating or encouraging offensive comments. Sometimes a quiet word will suffice but, in more serious cases, employers shouldn’t be afraid to use disciplinary processes. With current and even former employees, where there is a regulatory or governing body, the employer may also feel it is their duty to report any issues to them.

It is advisable for an employer to have an internal policy on equal opportunities and diversity, setting out what is acceptable and unacceptable conduct. That policy should be communicated clearly to all staff so that they are clear of the conduct and/or behaviour expected of them.

An effective way of communicating a policy is to hold staff training on diversity and equal opportunities, at least once a year. This has two main benefits – it educates staff and will hopefully improve behaviour and, also, if things end up in an employment tribunal, it will help the employer’s defence if they can show that they held such training.

Having covered above what you can do to keep your business out of the tribunal, it is up to you. If you think that risky office banter keeps your employees happy and contributes to a productive workplace then you now know how much it could cost you – a maximum fine of £10,000 (for each offence) if the tribunal finds you or one of your employees have behaved in a discriminatory way.

So, “No, jokes are not now banned in offices” but you need to ensure that if you or one of your employees ‘say it’, you are prepared to also ‘pay it’.

If you are interested in the eqaulity and diversity training options that we provide, please email:

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