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Office banter: How to draw the line

The law has plenty of grey areas. Phrases such as 'reasonable' and 'appropriate' can be interpreted in many ways, which means that context and circumstance can be everything in some cases.

The grey area between office banter and bullying or harassment is the kind that some employers might be concerned about. It's rare, but a worst-case scenario could be a high-spirited exchange between colleagues taken out of context by another and ending up as a harassment claim.

Such a case recently surfaced at the Employment Appeal Tribunal in which an employee said his colleague's coarse language had offended his religious beliefs. Having complained and failed to get what he felt was a satisfactory response from his employer, he raised a claim for harassment. The case was dismissed without a hearing because although crude, the comment had not been found to be malicious and that a 'reasonable person would have understood that and made allowance for it'.

The Equality Act 2010 says that a complainant's reactions to unwanted conduct have to be 'reasonable', and employers should be reassured by that. But context is crucial in these cases, so it's as well for employers to play it safe and try to head off trouble before it arises.

Equality and diversity awareness training could reduce the risk of potentially offensive remarks being made in the first place. A fair and effective internal grievance procedure could also save employers the expense and disruption of being taken to a tribunal, as happened above.

Acas offers comprehensive information on harassment issues in its pdf  Advice leaflet - Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers [164kb] and can provide practical training on Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010. Acas can also help your organisation develop effective grievance procedures, and develop your managers' skills when handling Discipline and grievance issues

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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