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  • Giles Woolfson

Workplace Banter: Crossing the Line

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Workplace banter can be a problematic area. Different people have different views about what is acceptable. Words which would have gone unchallenged in the past, and which many people may have viewed as "banter", in a number of cases will now be almost universally unacceptable.

The problem can be that sometimes people are not aware of changes in what is acceptable. This can result in comments, perhaps intended to be humorous or lighthearted, but which cause a great deal of offence. Examples can include comments which are sexist or which relate to a person's sexual orientation or disability.

To the person who is on the receiving end, this is not only unacceptable, but perhaps even inexplicable. How can that other person think this might in any way be appropriate? They may believe that the words are being spoken not only deliberately but maliciously, and are designed to hurt. This could carry on for months or years and reach a point where the person raises a grievance or is absent from work with stress, or even depression. They may refuse to return to work until such time as the other person is dismissed. And that is often the only outcome which is perceived to be appropriate.

But, what if the other person did not realise the impact of his or her words? What if they (mistakenly) believed that what they had said was taken in good humour? What if they did not appreciate a change in what is considered to be appropriate?

What if, after understanding the impact, they are willing to apologise? Could they be given a chance to put things right?

If the organisation decides to give this person a second chance, how will they explain this to the colleague who has been at the receiving end? Mediation may be considered. However, asking that colleague to take part in mediation will often result in a look of dismay and wonder. Can you really expect that person to sit down and talk with the other?


In a case such as this, it is likely that a grievance and/or disciplinary process will have been concluded. A warning may have been issued. It may be there is no other area of the business to which the person who has been disciplined could be moved. Therefore, if there is to be any realistic prospect of the two employees working together effectively, workplace mediation can provide a good opportunity for this to happen.

There is one essential reason which can lead to mediation being successful in cases such as this: the independence and impartiality of the mediator, with whom the employees speak in confidence.

The employee who has brought the complaint is speaking with a person, unconnected to the organisation, who they trust will listen carefully and show a high degree of understanding, which has often been lacking in the past.

They will see someone who is respectful and takes nothing for granted, and who will help to ensure that what needs to be said is said, and also understood.

Importantly, independence means the mediator will show the same respect and understanding to the person who has made the offensive remarks. At first glance, you may think this would cause concern to the first employee. However, the opposite is true. Employees, even those who have been at the receiving end of inappropriate conduct, respect the role of the mediator as independent, and as a result trust his or her integrity.

As a result, the person who has been at the receiving end of the offensive comments is likely to be willing to listen to what is said by the other person, and judge for themselves whether what they now say is said honestly and genuinely.

They trust that the mediator will ensure key issues are addressed. However, the mediator will not force through a particular solution or way forward. This will be determined by the employees themselves who, through the process, will work out what needs to happen next.

This could include agreement on a range of matters, such as:

- levels of supervision,

- methods of reporting,

- the involvement of HR,

- frequency of meetings,

- review of the working relationship at regular intervals.

The mediator will help to draw out points of agreement and ensure these are properly and accurately documented.

There are likely to be very real concerns moving forward, and the mediator will ensure these are also reflected in the agreed written outcome. Problems can be anticipated and addressed here and now.

This document will become a point of reference for the future, for both of the employees and also management, as it is likely that confidentiality will not attach to the document which sets out what has been agreed.


Every situation needs to be considered in the light of its own circumstances. If in a particular case an organisation wishes to give somebody a second chance (and often a final chance), there is likely to be a colleague who is deeply upset at what has happened and may resent the prospect of the other person remaining at work. This creates a highly challenging situation and one which is not easy to resolve.

It may not work in every case, however mediation can certainly be considered as a process which provides at least a realistic prospect of finding a way forward.

Please contact our mediator for more information about what is involved in workplace mediation.

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