Working Transitions

From Banter to Bullying

In early October, Hollywood was rocked by accusations of sexual harassment and bullying when the New York Times published an article detailing decades of allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Since then, the story has snowballed and the floodgates are open with many women – and men - reporting widespread and historical harassment and bullying via the hashtag #metoo. The spotlight is now on Westminster with disturbing allegations about a culture of bullying and sexual harassment showing no signs of slowing down.

What is bullying and harassment?

According to, bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended.  It’s often not obvious to others working in the same organisation – or even the same department - and commonly happens without an employer's awareness, making it a minefield for HR.

Harassment is a form of discrimination – bullying on the grounds of protected characteristics including race, sex, disability, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity. Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

From banter to bullying

In many workplaces ‘banter’ - the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks - is a core part of the culture.  Having fun in the workplace is something that is highly valued by many employees.  A survey conducted by TINYpulse showed the number one reason cited for loving a job was co-workers and the camaraderie and bonhomie generated by having a laugh and joke with the team.  And indeed, having fun at work through jokes, playful teasing and storytelling is proven to have substantial effects on workplace productivity.  But sometimes what some people regard as "just banter" is not considered so funny by others.

The problem with "banter" is that it can be used as an excuse to say something unpleasant whilst absolving blame.  The recipient can be left feeling that they are being too sensitive because they fail to see the humour in the banter.

There are some tell-tale signs that banter has crossed the fine line into bullying:

The banter is ‘one sided’

Genuine banter should be reciprocal. If the comments are directed at one individual and are not being returned then the chances are that it is not appreciated.  If the alleged perpetrator suggests that what they are saying is not offensive as it’s just ‘banter’, recipients may not want to raise the issue due to worries that they are being overly sensitive.

Negative behaviour is targeted at one individual

Is everyone at the receiving end of the joke, or is it just one individual?  If it’s just one person, who is a consistent target of nasty comments at work, then it’s not a joke. Workplace bullies intentionally single people out for abuse. The effect can be isolating and hurtful and can be detrimental not only to the individual but to the team as a whole.

The jokes are personal

Genuine joking or bantering behaviour is not intended to cause harm.  If comments are directed at an individual’s appearance, personal traits or any kind of perceived weakness it’s bullying.   Any effort to mask it as ‘banter’ should not be tolerated.

With context, relationship and intention all impacting on the interpretation of behaviour,  it’s more important than ever for HR professionals to know how to determine banter from bullying  and how to deter and manage such situations to avoid their organisation facing disputes, low staff morale or, at worst, a tribunal.

What can HR do?

When it comes to bullying or harassment, prevention is often better than cure.

Nicky Atkins, a Working Transitions Coach told us: “many employees do not have a clear enough understanding of what bullying and harassment are.  Whilst a policy may be in place, many employees do not know where to find it and have almost certainly never read it. Make sure it is up to date, clear, written in plain English and is easy to find!  Managers should ensure that their teams are aware of the standards for acceptable behaviour – this should not be a one off exercise but something that is repeated at least yearly given the ever changing nature of teams”.

Create a supportive team culture from the top down.  Adam Print, a Working Transitions coach is an advocate of authenticity “As a leader, be authentic.  Care about people, put them first and value their opinions and well-being.  This will create employee engagement and set the scene for an open and honest culture where individuals are not afraid to speak out.”

Adam also advises that ‘HR issues’ are never seen as time stealers or interruptions to the working day.  “They should be valued as an opportunity to exercise due care, solve problems, support colleagues and improve culture by putting people first”. 

Coaching Support

Coaching support can be invaluable to the creation of an open, honest culture that does not tolerate bullying or harassment and to support all parties should an incident occur.

For Managers

Nicky Atkins told us “Managers may need support to handle difficult conversations so that situations can be addressed early on before they escalate.  Alleged perpetrators can often be strong individuals and managers need to have both the confidence and know-how to deal with issues in the right way.’

For the Alleged Perpetrator

It is important that support is provided to those accused of bullying. Some people are so driven by the task in hand that they are unaware of their behaviour.  A lack of emotional intelligence, an autocratic management style or knee jerk reactions when under stress may all contribute to negative behaviours  - an accusation of bullying can come as a shock.

Gaynor Elliott, a Working Transitions Coach, is experienced in supporting Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace and is regularly commissioned by HR Heads to investigate and independently report on alleged victims and alleged perpetrators. She told us “The key to good support is to ensure the accused individual/s has an opportunity to give their account without judgement. Recording the details of that conversation and gaining agreement on its content is vital. Taking out the emotion and recording facts to clear and concise questions is equally important”.

Adam Print confirmed that, as a coach, you are not able to change a person but you can influence a change in their behaviour and understanding.  “Providing direct feedback can be useful in certain situations but facilitating learning to help individuals make realisations about themselves and become more self-aware is vital for change that sticks.  It invokes empathy in people and helps to develop emotional intelligence.   It can be useful to utilise ‘Intention, Perception and Personal Impact’ as the key discussion points to drive the situation forward:

Ask the individual to explain their INTENTION – this opens up the mind to allow an objective review of the situation

Asking about how another may PERCEIVE a certain behaviour or situation opens up the door to greater self-awareness and develops empathy

Asking about the PERSONAL IMPACT they have had on another person helps the perpetrator to put themselves in the shoes of the other person”

For the Victim

One to one coaching can be invaluable in helping an individual to come to terms with the bullying and move forward with confidence.  Coaching can support individuals with issues such as lack of confidence and low self-esteem.  Encouraging individuals to have the confidence to speak up can ensure that future incidents are ‘nipped in the bud’ before they escalate.

To find out how Working Transitions can support your workforce with expert coaching services call 01604 744101 or visit


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image of an unhappy female worker with three other staff members pointed and laughing at her.
Working Transitions
14 November 2017
Supporting effective and successful organisational change


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