Enter the killjoy
It is no surprise that managers often do not know when to step in to a situation that is causing discomfort to a team member. And even when they have a sense that things are going too far, they don’t want to be seen as a killjoy.
Of course, banter can play a very positive role in creating a sense of camaraderie in teams, and we all need to be able to enjoy working with our colleagues and have fun at work. Nevertheless, there is a line that should not be crossed. Managers often get drawn into exacerbating the situation, however, in the belief that ‘ribbing’ someone else in the team can help to motivate everyone. If people laugh (including the person being ribbed) it must be having a positive effect, right?
Wrong. The trouble is, if managers leave these behaviours unchecked, uncomfortable situations can escalate. We worked with one organisation where the banter, and particularly the levels of swearing, had ramped up. Then, one day, an employee stood up and called a colleague one of the most offensive terms you can use – in front of the rest of his team. He was dismissed for gross misconduct, but it brought the department up short. The organisation realised that because managers had not stepped in earlier, the high levels of swearing and ‘one-upmanship’ had become normalised – to the point where someone felt it was acceptable to swear directly at a colleague in such an offensive way.
When banter becomes bullying
A more extreme case illustrates how uncomfort- able situations can be a precursor to bullying and leave a lasting impact on the person who is the butt of the so-called ‘joke’. Last year, four men were put on trial, accused of religiously aggravated attacks on their work colleague. They are said to have mocked his Christian faith by tying him to a make- shift crucifix and daubing crosses over his face and body. The perpetrators’ defence was that it was “just banter”.
The ‘line’ can be hard to determine – it is often different in different working environments. Still, one thing our survey shows is that once banter starts to become personal and it is directed at an individual, it is likely to make them feel very uncomfortable. And if that joke starts to run and run – a phrase we use to describe this is “something passing into folklore” (as it did with Sarah) – it can have a hugely detrimental effect. That feeling of being singled out or picked on, even when there is no malicious intent, is very excluding.
In a world where inclusion and inclusive lead- ership are much debated and aspired to, managers and organisations seem worryingly unaware of the negative effects that banter can have. Neuroscience tells us that feeling excluded (social pain) activates the area of the brain associated with physical pain. Think back to the sharp feeling of rejection associ- ated with being the last person to be picked for a school sports team, for example. We feel exclusion acutely and it shuts us down.
So what should organisations, HR departments and managers do to manage inappropriate behaviours? The first thing is to move beyond their policies. Many will have dignity-at-work policies or codes of conduct. But because banter situations are not clear-cut, people need to discuss them so that they really appreciate what is acceptable, what isn’t, and what part they play in it all.
A very simple, but effective, action is for managers to discuss with their teams what they think constitutes ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour in their particular working environment. This starts to raise awareness of how others might feel, and helps everyone to become more aware of the impact that their comments and humour can have on their colleagues. Using specific examples grounds the discussion in a day-to-day context, which helps people to be clearer about where that elusive ‘line’ is.
It is important to position these discussions positively. If people feel that they are being treated like naughty school children, managers will often get push back in the form of, “Can’t we even have a laugh now?” or, “This is political correctness gone mad!” Managers need to emphasise that it is absolutely OK, indeed important, to have a laugh – just not always at someone else’s expense.
Everyone should feel able to ‘bring their whole selves’ to work, but this won’t happen if people feel mocked for something they have said or done, or the way they look. Some simple discussions can help people to know where the boundaries are, and enable managers to feel more confident about step- ping in to nip things in the bud. That’s the start of building a genuinely inclusive workplace.
As a final thought, we did a piece of work with three London wholesale markets where we helped them to consider how to create a more respectful working environment. When we went back to evaluate the results, one unexpected benefit emerged. Besides people feeling happier and more comfortable that the levels of swearing had abated, one team member commented: “We have a better quality of joke now!”
This article first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of Edge, the official journal of the Institute of Leadership & Management.