When does teasing or joking at work become bullying or harassment?

by ContactLaw on November 25, 2011

Teasing and joking at work become bullying if the recipient of the jokes or teasing feels humiliated or anxious as a result. The Advisory, Conciliatory and Arbitration Service (ACAS) describes bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour. Offensive jokes or remarks made in jest may not be received as such and may be construed as bullying. Legal advice should be obtained from an employment solicitor to ensure that all practical steps are taken to prevent these incidents in the workplace.

ACAS also classes abuse or misuse of power that is intended to undermine, humiliate, degrade or injure an employee as bullying. Behaviour becomes bullying if an employee feels intimidated or embarrassed as a result, or if it was the person’s intention to intimidate or embarrass someone. A solicitor should be consulted by anyone that is suffering bullying at work. Employment law does not recognise bullying, but a claim of harassment could be made.

ACAS describes harassment as unwanted conduct that affects the dignity of an employee. Teasing and joking at work become harassment if it is unacceptable and demeaning to the recipient. Harassment can also occur in the workplace because of an employee’s race, religion or beliefs, sexual orientation, age, gender etc. Harassment that occurs due to a discriminatory reason is unlawful. Harassment and bullying do not have to be done face-to-face. They can be carried out via e-mail, gossip, or the telephone. Anyone suffering harassment is advised to obtain the help and representation of an employment solicitor.

Sexual harassment differs from harassment based on gender. Sexual harassment occurs when an employee receives unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It can be in the form of unwanted contact or remarks. Lewd or explicit jokes can amount to sexual harassment, as can teasing an employee about their appearance. All these instances could be grounds for a claim of sexual harassment. In these cases the advice of an employment solicitor is vitally important to obtain.

Requesting sexual favours as a joke can be construed as sexual harassment. If an obscene or offensive image is displayed in the workplace, or sent in an e-mail as a joke, this can amount to sexual harassment. Teasing and joking in the workplace of a sexual nature is only sexual harassment if it is unwanted and the recipient views it as sexual harassment. Again, anyone suffering this kind of sexual harassment at work is advised to contact an employment solicitor as soon as possible.

Examples of when teasing and joking become bullying or harassment in the workplace include the spreading of malicious rumours, if the behaviour causes an employee to be blamed for something they did not do, if the employee is constantly the subject of teasing or practical jokes, or if it has a negative effect on their performance at work. If an employee is forced to resign due to bullying or harassment in the workplace, they may have a claim for constructive dismissal in an Employment Tribunal.

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