Does 'bar banter' count as workplace harassment?

Employers need to step up against bad behaviour even outside the workplace

Does 'bar banter' count as workplace harassment?

Small talk and jokes at the pub or at after-work activities can be taken as a form of sexual harassment against a colleague – even if they are unintended.

A letter from Rebecca Hilsenrath, who heads the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK, warned 400 organisations about the possible breaches of their personnel during after-office hours.

Such questionable behaviour includes jokes, pranks, mimicry and social media banter targeting staff members even when they are outside of the workplace.

“It’s been two years since #MeToo forced sexual harassment to the top of the agenda,” Hilsenrath said. “[If] we are going to create working environments where no one is ever made to feel unsafe or threatened, then we need a dramatic shift in workplace cultures.”

READ MORE: Is HR doing enough to navigate the #MeToo world?

The commissioner recommends employers train their staff on the risks of interacting with colleagues in a casual setting. The types of risky behaviour outlined in the letter include:

  • Giving “suggestive looks, staring or leering”
  • Performing unwanted physical advances, i.e. touching, hugging, kissing, etc.
  • Spreading gossip about a co-worker’s sexuality
  • Asking questions about a co-worker’s sexuality

Hilsenrath places the onus on employers to take action against negative behaviour and to protect their staff from forms of harassment which fall “within the course of employment”.

Organisations are also expected to define instances of workplace harassment more clearly in their employee policies and to enforce sanctions – including termination – against those proven to have violated the rules.

“Recent high-profile cases have shone an important light on the continued harassment many women face in the workplace and showed that we still need to do more to modernise working cultures,” Hilsenrath said.

Most employers have committed themselves to change, but others need to follow suit, she noted.

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