Office banter is no joke

9 Oct 2017 , 8:35pm

Companies need to take steps to ensure that policies are in place to deal with office banter which goes over the line, says Donna Martin of Mackrell Turner.

When office ‘banter’ jeopardises reputation

High end sports brand Jaggad faced an unfair dismissal and sex discrimination case initiated by a disgruntled ex-employee. The former general manager, Ms Mo, alleged that she was dismissed as a result of her pregnancy and that staff were routinely sexually harassed, bullied and abused. Whilst this is an Australian case,  it serves as a reminder to all luxury brands that bitter legal disputes with employees can have disastrous implications for brand reputation. In this article we look at what is appropriate in the workplace and the measures that should be in place to prevent sex discrimination claims and uphold equality.

The Jaggad case

Ms Mo was employed by Jaggad as general manager in July 2015; after commencing employment she took a period of maternity leave and, on returning in January this year, was made redundant.  Ms Mo is claiming that such dismissal was unfair and resulted from her taking maternity leave, amounting to sex discrimination.   A number of examples have been given describing the working environment and how the business partner of the owner of Jaggad, Steve Greene, would allegedly speak in Ms Mo’s presence.  The claim alleged that Mr Greene regularly used sexual language, threatened employees with dismissal, yelled at employees and threw objects around the office.  Worthy of note is the fact that Ms Mo claims that she raised complaints regarding Mr Green’s behaviour to the board and that nothing was done to assist. Whilst the outcome of the case is not yet known, the press relating to the case is likely to have a significant impact on Jaggad’s reputation whatever the outcome.

Office ‘banter’

There is an extremely fine line between office banter and discrimination; where a comment made relates to an individual’s sex, is unwanted and creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating environment then it is likely to amount to harassment.  The same applies whether such comments occur in the workplace or outside.  On the basis that policies are in place and training is offered an employer should be in a good starting position to defend a claim.

What can be done to protect an employer from a discrimination claim?

It is not simply enough to have an equality policy in place which prohibits discrimination or harassment; if faced with a claim an employer will need to show that they strictly implement such policies and offer training in relation to equality and discrimination in the workplace.  Businesses often think that by including an equality statement in a 100 page staff handbook they are adequately protecting themselves, this is not the case. All employees, managers and agents of the company must know about the anti-discrimination policies and they must all have been trained in connection with the policies. Training will not be deemed sufficient if it is offered just once, for example as part of a general induction, it must be regular and offered after any update.  All training must be recorded so that if faced with a claim a clear, up to date record for all personnel can be disclosed. 

Action must be taken

If inappropriate behaviour is complained of or if you witness a breach of an anti-discrimination policy, action must be taken whether that is via the grievance procedure (when dealing with the victim) or the disciplinary procedure (in relation to the perpetrator). Under no circumstances should any complaint, whether formally or informally raised, be brushed under the carpet, instead it should be dealt with without delay. It is imperative that a consistent message is relayed to all employees; all complaints must be treated in the same manner and allowances should not be made for some and not others even when dealing with a senior business partner.