By Mark Richards.

The office party season is fast approaching. What can you say at the party? Your witty banter might be deeply offensive to some of your work colleagues. Unsurprisingly, employers are getting worried – and starting to take action.

It is November 23rd this morning. If you have any energy left after the ‘Black Friday bonanza,’ then you might have worked out that there are only four more working weeks to go until Christmas. Four weeks today it is December 21st and – for most of us – that will signal the start of the Christmas break.

It also means that sometime in the next four weeks many of us will be going to the office party. In the old days, of course, the office party was simple. You had slightly too much to drink, you took a picture of your bottom on the office photocopier, followed it with two Alka Seltzer the next morning and that was that for another 12 months.

No doubt a few inappropriate things had been said, perhaps even a few inappropriate suggestions made. But, well… it was the office party, wasn’t it? And it was only once a year…

Fast forward to the office party 2018, and things are rather different. People may still have too much to drink but using the photocopier for an exciting selfie is long gone. Selfies? I suspect there will be plenty of firms with a ‘no phones’ rule at the office party this year.

Never mind selfies: what can you say?

But even more crucially, the definition of what can and cannot be said – not just at the office party but throughout the working year – has shifted significantly.

The world is now awash with banter. This clearly marks me out as someone whose hair is contracting as his waist is expanding, but we seem to have a generation – especially of young men – who cannot communicate in anything other than ‘bantz.’

But today one person’s banter has become another’s sexual harassment or claim for constructive dismissal.

We have just seen the very well publicised case of Topshop owner Sir Philip Green, who has rejected allegations of unlawful racist and/or sexist behaviour, saying that as far as he was concerned the remarks were ‘only banter’ and not intended to be offensive. Clearly it is impossible to say whether there is any truth to the allegations – or to the rumours of six-figure payoffs – but the case does highlight how difficult it is to draw the line between banter and unacceptable behaviour, especially when the vast majority of us may be in a rather more vulnerable position than Sir Philip.

What exactly is banter?

Let us take a step back at this point. The Oxford English Dictionary defines banter as ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks.’ As in, ‘there was much good-natured banter between Biggles and his chums.’

Banter Claus – what can you say at the office Christmas party?

The Urban Dictionary, however, makes an important point. There is no middle ground. Banter is something you have or you do not have. And therein lies the problem: in trying to keep up with the office culture, what many people fondly imagine is ‘witty banter’ can be perceived as insensitive, sexist or bullying. It is not just Sir Philip Green who has reached for the convenient – but subjective – defence that ‘it was only banter.’

The legal position

Significantly, ‘it was only banter’ is not a legal defence as judges and employment tribunals have been quick to point out. The fact that someone thinks there banter is witty and harmless does not mean that the person on the receiving end of it – who may well have very different life experiences or come from a different cultural background – will perceive it in the same way.

As judges have pointed out, what is said in the heat of the moment does not instantly disappear. Hurtful remarks stay with people and do lasting damage – so it is small wonder that employers are worried. It is not like the flashing images/adult themes/bad language warning before The Sopranos. An employer cannot post a notice: Warning. This workplace may contain language some employees may find offensive.

So what can we do about it?

One organisation has taken action on banter – and was widely ridiculed for it. Two months ago Leicestershire Police announced that its officers were receiving ‘banter training.’ Unsurprisingly, most of the press coverage was unfavourable, suggesting the Her Majesty’s Constabulary might have better things to do with its time and money.

The Chief Constable defended the move, arguing that it would help officers to avoid making insensitive remarks. Apparently, officers sent on the course at first thought that it was a wind-up, but the top brass was adamant:

“It is to help officers understand the fine line between funny and harmful communication. [The course will] put political correctness in its place, recognise the benefits of fun at work and focus on the risk and responsibilities for all concerned.”

Quite clearly the police force has one eye on employment tribunals, with a spokesman saying that the course will “teach officers about case law.”

And however much you think sitting in a classroom learning about banter would be a total waste of your time, plenty of other employers are likely to follow in the footsteps of Leicestershire police. Employment tribunals and claims for compensation are expensive things and if an employer can say, ‘Well, we sent him on a course’ it is at least the start of a defence.

Top bantz, Winston?

So, sadly, it may be that our offices are likely to become less humorous places. But with us recently having celebrated the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, it seems fitting to leave the last word to Winston Churchill and his famous exchange with Bessie Braddock in the House of Commons.

“You, sir,” said Bessie, “are drunk.”

“Yes, Bessie,” replied Churchill. “And you are ugly. But in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

At the time it was hailed as a mark of Churchill’s razor-sharp wit. Today – replayed a million times on social media – it would end his career. Makes you think, doesn’t it…