Banter and Bullying: What’s The Difference?

In this post...

“It’s just banter.”

“Learn to take a joke.”

“Don’t be so sensitive.”

Bullying is already a hard to define term, especially since it is not considered unlawful in the workplace unless it is discriminatory or constitutes harassment. However, beyond those fine lines between bullying, discrimination and harassment, is the fine line between bullying and banter, which is often not thought to be the same as bullying but can lead to bullying behaviour, discrimination and harassment.

But what are bullying and banter, their differences and what can be done to make sure all forms of bullying do not happen in the workplace? This blog post will hopefully help you understand the two terms so they can be better managed should conflicts arise.

What is banter?

Banter is described as the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. This is often between friends who know each other well and are comfortable with one another to say things that could potentially be deemed offensive by others, especially if the joke is at somebody else’s expense.

Dealing with banter at work

There have been several high-profile cases of “banter” being taken too far by some colleagues in workplaces, particularly over WhatsApp groups where “jokes” were accused of being used to bully and discriminate people both in and out of the group. In fact, workplace banter lawsuits increased by 44% in 2021. One of the most preventative ways to deal with banter at work is to make sure bullying, discrimination and harassment are clearly defined to everyone first. If someone is hurt or offended by “banter” or the “joke” takes aim at a person’s look or protected characteristic such as age, disability, race, gender, sexuality or faith, that is bullying and discrimination.

What is bullying?

There are many different levels of and dynamics to workplace bullying. In the workplace one of the most common reasons for bullying is a power imbalance where the perpetrator is in an authoritative position above the victim, though this is not always the case. And sadly, many people do not realise or think that what they experienced before was bullying, though our research shows that 2 in 5 people have experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment at work.

A non-exhaustive list of what can constitute bullying includes:

  • Micro-aggressions
  • Name-calling
  • Ignoring or excluding someone and making them feel unwelcome
  • Disrespecting someone
  • Belittling someone and making them feel unimportant or inferior
  • Shouting at someone
  • Making someone feel bad or ashamed
  • Gossiping about someone or spreading rumours
  • Non-verbal behaviour (for example, dirty looks)

While these are perhaps the most common and known forms of bullying, there are others that can also be considered bullying, such as:

  • Deliberately overloading someone with work, knowing they may not be able to do it
  • Purposefully withholding information from someone
  • Constant non-constructive criticism and nitpicking
  • Undermining someone
  • Micro-management and excessive monitoring
  • Showing favouritism to others and treating someone else differently

How to deal with bullying in the workplace

  • Be clear about your policies

What does your policy say on how bullying, discrimination and harassment are dealt with and does everyone in the company know where to find it? Statistics show that 60% of people avoid reading employee handbooks and HR departments find it a challenge to get employees to do so as well. Employers are responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent incidents happening so constant reminders about the policies for people to read is one of the first and most important steps to prevention. Furthermore, how protective and supportive are your policies of the employees? What will you do to ensure their safety and maintain a positive culture?

  • Be clear about what bullying is

As we have done here, list examples of bullying behaviour and signpost further information on some of them so there is no excuse for people to not know. For example, what is a micro-aggression?

  • Be clear on how people can report it

Inform your employees on the ways in which they can report incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment and do so regularly. Offering an anonymous reporting platform and promoting it can provide a safe space for them to talk about what happened and be in control of what their employer knows and can do about it. This can often be so much more empowering to them than the traditional routes of reporting available because as we know there are a number of reasons why they wouldn’t normally use them.

  • Be clear on the consequences of bullying

This doesn’t just mean saying bullying accusations will be taken seriously and investigated or setting an example of what happens when it does, but also talking about how bullying affects the victim and the rest of the team. Often, encouraging people to empathise with those they are bullying or those who have been bullied is a good way to make them stop and think about their actions. And if the bullied person takes long-term absence or leaves as a result of the behaviour, what does that mean for the productivity, profitability and reputation of the team and company?

In addition, being clear on who is responsible for dealing with bullying is extremely important. According to the expert opinion of Alastair Swindlehurst – Founder of EZHR – and the other panellists from our recent anti-bullying webinar, the responsibility lies just as much with managers as it does HR and other senior leaders to understand what bullying is, how to deal with it and how to set an example of acceptable behaviours because as we have said, many incidents of bullying are top-down. They also agreed on it being down to everyone in the company having responsibility for making sure bullying, discrimination and harassment is not taking place and helping to create and maintain a safe and inclusive working environment for all.

Banter vs. Bullying

One of the biggest problems HR has when it comes to dealing with bullying allegations is when someone insists it is “just banter”. This then becomes an intention vs. consequence issue because while the perpetrator says they did not mean to offend, the receiver may be offended to a point that it affects their mental health and wellbeing, their ability to work, productivity, relationship with co-workers and even their desire to stay with the company.

Although you may be unable to prove someone’s intention, helping them understand why what they said was unacceptable and offensive is perhaps better than enforcing a zero tolerance policy. However, the consequence of bullying or anything that can be deemed as such should be the focus of HR, ED&I and senior leaders when it comes to trying to tackle and prevent bullying. How are your approaches to dealing with those issues affecting everything and everyone else?

The fine line between banter and bullying

Make that fine line a clear one by being as transparent as possible on the differences between banter and bullying as it is essential to help everyone understand what might or might not be acceptable. For example, reiterate that personally-aimed or protected characteristic-based jokes are unacceptable and constitute bullying as well as jokes where the victim is hurt or offended or the person or group to whom it is aimed at or about are also covered by the Equality Act 2010.


While no organisation wants to be seen as “policing” everybody’s behaviours, no organisation wants to gain a reputation for allowing offensive banter to be ignored and passed off as “the norm” either, when it might in fact actually be contributing to a toxic workplace and harbouring a culture of fear where bullying thrives, either on the downlow or overtly. If someone submits a report complaining about banter, treat it as you would do a bullying report. Read more here for tips on how to create a culture where employees feel they can speak up and contact us here if you’d like to speak to one of our dedicated specialist team members on how an anonymous reporting platform can benefit your organisation.

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Reach out to our dedicated team who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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