Banter and bullying: Managing the fine line at work

When does ‘banter’ become workplace bullying? As a people manager, could you recognise the signs and do you know how to tackle it compassionately and legally?

That’s the question Spire HR are asking this Anti-Bullying Week, which has a core theme of ‘Choose Respect’.

“There’s a very fine line between what can be seen as ‘office banter’, where team members in high-intensity environments are genuinely seeking to introduce some relaxation into the workplace – perhaps to lift morale or to cope with their own responsibilities – and what goes beyond innocent banter into something much more serious,” said Ellen Parkin MCIPD, Managing Director of Spire HR.

“The impact that bullying can have on someone’s mental health can be truly life-changing, with long-term repercussions. In the workplace, bullying can lead to high sickness absenteeism, low production and a toxic environment. Such an environment can begin to effect other staff members, which is why it’s so important to educate managers to look at the wider issues. A situation that may involve only a couple of people to begin with can become more far-reaching if the team environment isn’t effectively managed.”

Spire HR offers training to managers through a ‘Dignity at Work’ toolkit, which educates people on signs to look out for, as well as what constitutes bullying. The training is centred around understanding the perception of the individual who is bringing an allegation of bullying forward and what it is they are feeling.

“There’s always going to be office banter, but it’s about looking at it from the other person’s perspective and how it may be affecting them,” explained Ellen. “Our ‘Dignity at Work’ training is geared around learning to avoid these situations, so everyone can be happy and productive at work.”

Unwelcome remarks, unwanted physical contact, shouting and persistent unwarranted criticism are just some of the typical examples of the harassment and bullying behaviours which can occur in the workplace. The CIPD has highlighted research that shows affected employees are more likely to be depressed and anxious; less satisfied with their work; have a low opinion of their managers; and want to leave the organisation.

“Bullying can, of course, lead to a high turnover of staff if the situation isn’t dealt with,” added Ellen. “If the environment becomes overwhelming for others, they could look for employment elsewhere – leading to another issue to handle. We offer exit interview advice in any event of an employee wishing to leave, but in cases where bullying is the root cause, we are especially skilled in providing the relevant advice – delivered in a compassionate, understanding manner.”

Education is key to the whole scenario, so businesses are advised that having a specific bullying and harassment in the workplace policy – which Spire HR can provide – is the best way to educate staff and promote a positive working culture.

“There is more awareness on the issue of bullying and how to tackle this head on – especially in schools – which is a hugely positive development; however there is still a long way to go. Anti-Bullying Week is an opportunity to reflect on what needs to happen to promote a culture of respect in the workplace,” concluded Ellen.

“We want to give people who have experienced bullying a voice and to empower them to speak up; no-one should have to suffer in silence.”

Useful Resources

Request Spire HR’s ‘Dignity at Work’ toolkit: telephone 01925 626253 or email

Find out more about Anti-Bullying Week – organised by the Anti-Bullying Alliance.