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Last updateFri, 13 Oct 2017 2pm

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A joke too far?

Workplace banter can be quite usual in the workplace. But how do you know when the joke has gone too far? When does banter become harassment? If you don’t know where the line should be drawn, you could end up in an Employment Tribunal.

So how much do you know about this subject? Do you think the following could amount to harassment? 

“You're a stroppy little teenager!”

Yes! This was actually said by a manager to a young worker. It may sound innocent enough but when put before an Employment Tribunal, it was held that the manager was guilty of harassment on the basis of age.

Gossiping to a colleague questioning the paternity of an employee’s unborn child.

Yes! This could amount to harassment on the grounds of sex.

Asking an employee with a sight impairment “How many fingers I’m holding up?”

Yes! Asking personal questions about someone’s physical or mental impairment may constitute disability harassment.

Saying to a male colleague “You’re such a drama queen!”

Yes! This type of comment could be considered sexual orientation harassment.

Repeatedly asking an employee if they want a sausage roll when you know they are Muslim.

Yes! This could be construed as harassment on the ground of religious belief.

What is Harassment?

Under the Equality Act, harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating and intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”. The protected characteristics are as follows: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. 

Harassment in your workplace

If you have a diverse workforce, you need to ensure that they are not subject to racist, xenophobic or discriminatory name-calling or jokes. If your workplace is mainly of one gender, then you need to ensure that workers of the other gender are not subject to any form of harassment.

Remember that anything that an employee does during the course of their employment will be deemed as having been also done by the employer, irrespective of whether the employer knew or approved the action or comment constituting harassment. In simple English, if an employee is found to have harassed an employee, the employer will be held responsible. To avoid this, you must be able to prove that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing harassment in your workplace.

How do I prevent harassment in the workplace?

A good starting point is to develop and promote a working environment where employees are encouraged to report any cases of harassment. Employees may be reluctant about coming forward for many reasons, such as they feel embarrassed or are scared of what the consequences will be. Therefore, it is critical that employees believe that their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with in a sensitive and confidential manner.

You should remind your employees that it is their responsibility to ensure that their behaviour does not cause offence and to stop immediately if they are told that it is unwanted or offensive. Employees need to be aware of the people around them and how their comments may affect the feelings of others. You should also make them aware that all allegations will be investigated and disciplinary action will be taken when required.

It is always helpful to have documented policies and procedures, detailing what your standards and expectations are in this regard and, where possible, to train managers and supervisors to identify concerns.

How do you deal with a complaint of harassment?

Once you have received a complaint about harassment, you must investigate the matter promptly and thoroughly. The key question to ask is “could the comment or action be reasonably considered to have caused offence?” If no reasonable person would be offended, then no sexual harassment has occurred.

Please note that an Employment Tribunal will look at a number of factors when considering whether the act is a form of harassment, such as the employee’s perception, the circumstances of the case and whether or not it is reasonable for the actions to be deemed as harassment.

The way you resolve an issue will depend on the merits of the case, but it could include an informal discussion, counselling, mediation or going through formal disciplinary procedures. In very serious cases, it may result in dismissal for gross misconduct.

Don’t leave yourself open to claims. For further advice on this topic, please contact the British Sandwich Association Advisory Service on 0845 226 8393 and quote “British Sandwich Association” and your membership number.  Alternatively, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .