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WHEN IS BANTER NOT BANTER?

office banter

With the news shining an unflattering light on the workplace in the entertainment industry lately, barely a day passes without a famous name bringing a claim of alleged misconduct – usually sexual in nature, and often dating back years.

The question follows quickly:

why didn’t these women report their harassment at the time?

Firstly, the answer is that the entertainment industry is not like other industries. Most work is on a contract basis (an actor gets paid for one film role at a time, rather than having a fixed yearly salary). This means there isn’t a normal company structure, with policies and procedures and someone to report to. Also, actors might figure that it’s not worth causing a fuss during a six-month contract.

Then there is the issue of power. Directors and producers have enormous power over careers, so many women say they kept quiet for the ‘greater good’ of their career.

But there is a wider cultural issue. Some workplaces thrive on ‘banter’ between employees, but what happens when that banter is offensive to one member of the team? Actresses not only complain of direct physical harassment, but insidious remarks about weight, age and appearance. Joking between friends on these matters is often acceptable, but when it spills into the workplace it’s easy to overstep a line.

Often, women report that as the only female in a male dominated workplace they experience many crude, sexualised remarks. Now some women are more than capable of holding their own in such environments, but they key point is:

they should not be expected to ‘hold their own’

Banter is fun, but not when it is at the expense of somebody else’s genuine feelings. That applies not just to gender, but also race. Religion. Sexuality. Age.

Now, the hard part is knowing when ‘banter’ has crossed that invisible line and what to do about it.

The first thing is to set in stone, via policy, that your business is inclusive of all and that you will take reports of offensive behaviour seriously. That should inspire confidence in your team that they will be listened to if they speak up.

But for that to work, you must back it up with action. If someone reports that they feel harassed by somebody else’s ‘banter’ you must listen to them, and evaluate what they say with an open mind. It isn’t good enough to dismiss words as “harmless office jokes” if they are genuinely distressing to someone.  Remember, it’s the impact the remark has on the individual it was made to – not the intension.

As always, evidence is important, so find out the facts.  Interview all parties involved, including anyone who witnessed the discussion.  Do this without jumping to the defence of either party though – you’ve got to be impartial.  You will then need to weigh it up as you may have a situation of ‘he said, she said’.  This isn’t a court of law so you don’t need to have hard evidence, you just need to identify what you reasonably believe has happened and be able to justify why you feel that way.

If you do find that banter has overstepped the mark consider how this can be resolved.  Informal routes are always advisable if at all possible – getting the individual to apologise and/or mediating between the parties.  If that fails the formal disciplinary route is next.

Now – as with all HR issues – you might find it difficult to confront these matters if you don’t have an in house HR team. As always, I recommend that you pick up the phone and get in touch to see how I can help you deal with excessive banter and make for a happier, more inclusive team culture.

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