As the years go on I see more and more people embrace the concept of inclusive language within the workplace, but one area which doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves is the concept of office banter. With staff now returning to the office, here are my thoughts on the matter.
Office banter in general can be a tricky subject to speak about publicly because opinions are often split. You sometimes encounter people who sit on opposite ends of the spectrum like the extremely risk adverse people who want to restrict all forms of office banter just to be safe, and then those who hand out the “banter license” for the fun of it where anything goes without repercussion.
I believe the sweet spot is less to do with where you sit on this spectrum but more to do with your mindset, that is, how you proactively or reactively think about what is being said on a regular basis and the impact it can have on others. I tend to learn from real life examples, so here are three non-inclusive scenarios that I’ve witnessed in my career.
The first incident was about age. I worked in a department where the kindest person in the office was also the oldest. In almost every single meeting somebody would mention their age and they’d always be the butt of the joke. They laughed it off every time and embraced it as banter, but as time went on it started to become uncomfortable for everyone present. To link age to ability or character via banter can be very dangerous as it creates unconscious bias. Eventually this was raised by those who knew this behaviour was not right and it slowly came to an end.
The second incident was about religious attire. I worked with a colleague who wore a religious head covering and another member of staff always seemed to bring it up whenever they made a joke, whether it was in the office or at a social event outside of work. The majority of people at work didn’t notice but it got to the point where my colleague who wore the head covering challenged them directly and it eventually stopped. It really didn’t have to get to this point, but sometimes we can be so oblivious when we’re caught up in the moment. Imagine how long this would have gone on for had it gone unchecked?
The third and final incident is about fat shaming, and I’m embarrassed to say that I was the perpetrator. I worked in an office where the banter was wild. People would make fun of me being a vegetarian and I’d make fun of others wherever I had the chance. Office banter was how the team bonded and every single member of the team committed to this. One day a colleague had just come back from lunch and I noticed their belly was sticking out a little, most likely because of the big meal they just had, so I made a comment in passing. They did not speak to me for a week. This really confused me because physically they were in great shape, why did they get so offended?
Later they told me how many years ago when they were a little heavier someone had called them fat and it made them very upset, so my tongue in cheek comment just brought up needless trauma. Office jokes that revolve around someone’s weight or appearance are especially dangerous, because they are things they have little control over.
After this incident I started to think very consciously about what I said to people, making sure I never spoke about their weight or shape unless THEY wanted to talk about it. I remember one specific incident where someone posted a joke on a Workplace group which said “gained too much weight on holiday, need to call in sick to work!”. I challenged this for obvious reasons.
I took to LinkedIn to explore this topic, and received an especially insightful comment from Keith Hatter. If you’re unsure about whether or not your joke will cross the line, put it through Keith’s three tests:
Everyone directly involved in it is willingly taking part (including the “target”) and genuinely enjoying it. Banter requires a wilful exchange.
The only people who can hear the banter are those bantering.
The banter topic would not be found offensive by anyone in the organisation if they were to hear a recording of it.”
Unfortunately, many of us will learn the lesson the hard way but by openly discussing this topic we can learn from other people's mistakes without ever having to make them ourselves. If we aren’t self critical of ourselves or shy away from challenging the behaviours of others, then nothing will ever change. The key to having a light hearted joke without crossing a line is to think about where you are, who you are speaking to and what you are saying.
Office banter can be a slippery slope to discrimination or bullying if left unchecked. I truly believe there is room for office banter within the workplace as it's not always bad, we just need to be careful it's not being made at the expense of others.