Employment tribunals relating to 'banter' rise 44 per cent in a year

Workplace ‘banter’ lawsuits increase by 44 per cent in a year: Number of staff suing their bosses after being mocked or abused at work soars

  • Figures show definition of ‘banter’ is increasingly becoming a matter for judges 
  • Cases are particularly common for remarks about race, sex, nationality or age 
  • Number where workplace banter was cited rose from 67 in 2020 to 97 in 2021 

The number of employment tribunal cases brought by workers suing their bosses over alleged discrimination or harassment dismissed as ‘banter’ rose by 44 per cent last year. 

The figures, uncovered by London employment law firm GQ Littler, show the question of what constitutes merely teasing or harmful bullying is increasingly a matter for judges. 

Legal battles are particularly common for remarks that touch upon legally protected characteristics such as a someone’s race, nationality, age or sex. 

Sikh office worker Kieran Sidhu, 36, sued his employers after a sustained campaign of racist abuse by colleagues. He told a tribunal they considered their abusive comments ‘funny’ 

The number of cases in which workplace banter was cited rose from 67 in 2020 to 97 in 2021, the Financial Times reported, citing GQ Littler’s research. 

Sikh office worker Kieran Sidhu, 36, is among those who have filed lawsuits against their employers. 

He is seeking £6.6million in damages after being mocked as an ‘Arab shoe bomber’ in a sustained campaign of racist abuse excused that his colleagues ‘thought was funny’. 

The British-born salesman, who is of Scottish and Indian descent, was told he was the ‘only ethnic on the team’, and called a ‘temperamental Syrian immigrant’ who was ‘f***ing for Isis’.

He has already won claims of race discrimination, racial harassment and constructive dismissal against tech company Exertis.  

Last September, female Barclays banker Anca Lacatus sued Barclays after manager James Kinghorn repeatedly referred to women as ‘birds’, even after she made it clear it was making her feel uncomfortable. 

Mr Kinghorn defended his actions as ‘light-hearted banter’, but the East London Employment Tribunal ruled the term is ‘plainly sexist,’ and it was ‘foolish’ to think anyone would find it funny. 

Judge Crosfill said that Mr Kinghorn did not set out to deliberately offend Ms Lacatus but that he used the word more often than he was prepared to admit.

Earlier this year, a veteran plumber was awarded £25,000 after bosses dubbed him ‘Half-dead Dave’ because of his age.

David Robson, who was 69 at the time, was regularly called by the ‘derogatory’ nickname by colleagues working on site in the Isle of Wight, before his bosses then also began using it, an employment tribunal heard.

They claimed it was simply ‘banter’ but the tribunal heard it left Mr Robson feeling ‘saddened and embarrassed’.

‘Humour in the workplace is important — it can help boost morale and reduce stress. However, employees should be wary of making jokes that stray into offensive territory,’ said Lisa Rix, a senior associate at GQ Littler 

Bosses argued the nickname was used years before his sacking – and said they more often referred to him as ‘Disco Dave’ instead.

But the tribunal ruled Mr Robson had been both discriminated against due to his age and unfairly sacked, and awarded him £25,000 in compensation – £7,000 of which was awarded purely for the ‘name-calling’.

In another case, a tribunal ruled it was harassment to say that a woman battling cancer was having ‘cosy days’ when she worked from home.

HR worker Ranjit Panesar said she was ‘looked down on’ by members of her team for being away from the office while she was undergoing treatment.

She said she often received demeaning comments as there was a ‘widespread’ perception that her working from home amounted to ‘idle or inactive’ days – with her boss telling her that her health had not ‘helped’ her.

And the colleague who referred to her remote working as ‘cosy days’ even tried to claim it was just ‘banter.’

An employment tribunal dismissed this defence, ruling that ‘all but the most insensitive’ should have understood that Mrs Panesar was a sick employee who did not welcome the comments. 

GQ Littler said companies could be found vicariously liable for any discriminatory remarks by staff ‘made in the course of employment’ – even if they were made outside working hours. 

‘Humour in the workplace is important — it can help boost morale and reduce stress. However, employees should be wary of making jokes that stray into offensive territory,’ senior associate Lisa Rix said. 

Tribunal claims for alleged discrimination do not always succeed. 

In 2018, salesman David Evans claimed he was called ‘a fat ginger pikey’, a ‘salad dodger’ and ‘fat Yoda’ by colleagues at software firm Xactly, but he lost the case after a London tribunal ruled he had not been harassed and had been an ‘active participant of the culture of banter’.

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