Workplace Banter or Workplace Bullying
Tullett & Tokyo Liberty, a brokerage firm in Britain had an office tradition, that if a staff member turned up late for work, they were given a fancy-dress costume to wear. The wardrobe of costumes had been assembled to reflect and lampoon the personal characteristics of the staff. A Welsh employee had to wear a Bo Peep costume, a Northern Irish protestant employee had to dress up like the Pope, and a Jewish employee was given a Nazi costume to wear, and had to place a yarmulke (skull cap) on top of the office TV whenever a Jewish person appeared on CNN.
Unsurprisingly, the Jewish employee, Laurent Weinburger raised a grievance. The firm claimed that the practice was merely light-hearted fun and that the employee had not been singled out.
Clearly, these employees had strong grounds for complaint. I like to think very few New Zealand employers and managers would allow office banter to become so distasteful. But, how far is too far? It does depend on the nature of the workplace. Workplace banter that would be fine in a forestry or shearing gang would probably not be fine in a bank or government department. Staunch robust banter can make a workplace more collegial and welcoming. By contrast, overly genteel and prudish workplaces can be deeply oppressive. It is not the banter itself, it is the way it is making people feel that matters most. If some staff are not enjoying the joke, appear discomforted, or avoid the situation, there is probably a problem. Things are much less likely to get out of hand when a workplace has a culture where people feel confident, safe, and able to speak up for themselves and others.
When someone reports an incident of harassment or bullying, it is essential that the complaint receives respectful and prompt attention. Swift action is called for if an employer wishes to minimise risk and damage, should the complaint prove well founded. Under the Health and Safety legislation, bullying is considered to be a health and safety risk. Worksafe NZ has this to say, anyone conducting a business "must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, and that other persons are not put at risk".
Tullett & Tokyo Liberty ended up paying Mr Weinburger more than £100,000 in an out-of-court settlement and it suffered colossal reputational damage along the way. Whilst NZ settlements do not reach such dizzy heights in dollar terms, the penalties for breach are considerable, and now extend to officers such as company directors and chief executives. Having appropriate policies and procedures in place to mitigate and manage risks, and reviewing them regularly is a good place to start.
Bullying is intolerable. Do not tolerate it. If you are an employee being bullied and you have gained no traction by raising it through proper channels at work, seek professional help. I like to think that there are few in employment law who would not feel privileged to act for you in such circumstances.