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How to stop office humour being offensive

As with anything individuals harbour different tastes, which can affect what they may or may not find funny

In a possibly tense workplace situation it may be tempting to dissipate stress through humour, sometimes at somebody else’s expense; often the aim is to strengthen bonds and not to offend. But as business leaders and professionals, when is it time to step in and ensure banter isn’t offensive? And how can we ensure we don't render workplaces free of humour altogether?

The first step is to encourage a safe environment where team members can be open and honest with each other. A safe environment will engender feelings of mutual respect, encourage banter to be kept within social norms, alleviate power inequality between members of the team that can risk banter being or being perceived as bullying, and enable banter to be self-policing or policed by encouraging individuals to speak out immediately if and when boundaries have been or look like they are being crossed.

But how exactly is a safe environment best encouraged? When we study strong and highly-successful teams and groups to see how they tick, time and again we see common key skills and behaviours. Highly-successful groups, whether consciously or sub-consciously, tend to exhibit clear skills and behaviours that facilitate and encourage the development of safe connections. These skills and behaviours tend to include proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and constructive communication between all team members. In such groups banter and teasing can come quite naturally, and be used effectively to increase group cohesion, productivity and success.

While for some groups these positive behaviours may come naturally, for others conscious steps can be taken to role model and encourage the desired skills and behaviours. Training and assessment to develop good listening and communication skills will naturally instil mutual respect and understanding between team members and ultimately encourage a safe environment. This respect and understanding will not only encourage team members to be more open and honest with each other, it will tend to limit the opportunities for harmless banter to stray into undue offence.

There are, nevertheless, certain behaviours that will make it more likely that humour and banter will lead to offence. Obviously this will be the case where the humour or banter discriminates directly or indirectly on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, or which strays into harassment and bullying. Such conduct may not only trouble the lawyers, it will also destroy team cohesion and, in the long run, performance.

Humour or banter that might otherwise be considered acceptable may nevertheless become unacceptable, unhelpful or destructive to team cohesion as a result of the manner in which it is delivered or received.This might occur where, for example, the humour tends to be consistently directed at one member of the team, or if an individual is demonstrating signs of vulnerability. Humour falling short of a legal discrimination or bullying claim may also become unacceptable if directed (often repeatedly) at some physical or mental aspect of the recipient. It can also occur where there is a significant difference between the seniority of the joker and the object of the joke.

It is helpful to keep in mind that banter may also become unhelpful where the participants are strong characters but engage in it with such vigour that it is damaging and distracting not just for them, but also for other members of the team.

In all of the above situations, waiting for or even encouraging people to speak out when they are offended cannot be relied on. Junior and less resilient members of a team for example will naturally feel less able and less inclined to raise offensive conduct as an issue.

Instead it is incumbent on business leaders and professionals to step in, call out the behaviour and offer appropriate training where relevant. That training should cover listening and communication skills, as highlighted above, while also making the recipient aware of workplace policies covering diversity, discrimination and the like. Furthermore, team training in emotional intelligence can achieve surprisingly successful results.

Finally, a useful rule of thumb: team members would be well-advised to imagine their humour and banter being read out in a barrister’s crushing tones in front of a grimacing judge. Stripped of its context in the jokey back-and-forth between workmates, anything close to the knuckle is going to sound that much worse. Another good rule of thumb for written humour directed at others is for team members to consider whether they would be happy for the head of HR to be copied in.

Let’s hope that common sense will prevail and that constructive humour, banter and teasing are not to be banished from the workplace. If they were, not only would the workplace become a more sterile environment, the ability of team members to interact freely in a positive and cohesive way to the success of the overall enterprise would also be negatively affected. At its root, ensuring that banter does not cause offence is about using our emotional intelligence. Kindness is key. Try to prevent offence in the first place, but nevertheless be vigilant for it and nip it in the bud.

Harriet Heneghan is a director and executive coach, EMEA at Black Isle Group