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Putting your foot in it when workplace banter fails to raise a laugh

Published 20 March 2019

Putting your foot in it when workplace banter fails to raise a laugh
It’s no laughing matter when a questionable joke leaves you fighting to save your job.
Logistics warehouse worker Dennis worked in what can be considered an old fashioned, male dominated environment.
Swear words were regularly used, insults traded and mickey taking was the norm as part of what was considered workplace banter.
Managers got involved with one even organising an elaborate April Fools’ Day prank that was filmed and widely shared online.
Dennis had worked for the company for nearly a decade and could only ever recall one occasion, a few years earlier, when a colleague had to be spoken to about such behaviour.
That incident involved one worker making a bad taste joke about a colleague’s seriously ill wife, and it almost ended in blows. The manager at the time, had worked for the company for over 20 years, dealt with it by having ‘a quiet word’ with the pair.
The disciplinary investigation Dennis was subjected to followed the appointment of a new manager, with a different approach.
Dennis’s made what he considered a joke about a colleague’s new safety boots, which had a thicker sole than the old ones. He referred to the footwear as high heels.
A couple of days later the same colleague, who had been with the company for a couple of weeks, approached Dennis. He joked that he knew it was his workmate approaching because he could hear the click-clack of his high heels.
Those present laughed, and no one gave the comment a second thought.
So Dennis was shocked when he was summoned to his manager’s office and informed that his colleague, who was gay, had resigned because of homophobic comments made by Dennis.
Dennis insisted he was only joking and that he had no idea about his colleague’s sexuality. He was suspended from work.
At the same time a similar allegation was put to one of Dennis’s long-serving colleagues. He later resigned when he was invited to attend a disciplinary hearing.
However, Dennis protested his innocence, denied any intentional wrongdoing and he was determined to clear his name.
He contacted the Castle Associates Employee Support Centre for help. Our representative reviewed the evidence with Dennis prior to his disciplinary hearing.
In his resignation email, the former employee who Dennis made the comments to, made it clear that he had never spoken about his sexuality. He also said he believed his colleagues would not have known.
The email described the high heel comments from Dennis as ‘unsettling’. He made no mention of the comments being homophobic. He was critical of the working environment and workplace culture and said it was place in which he would never feel comfortable to reveal his sexuality, which is why he was resigning.
At the disciplinary hearing our representative raised concerns and challenged the company’s decision to label the comments homophobic. He argued that there was no evidence Dennis showed any dislike or prejudice to his former colleague because of his sexuality, and crucially he had no idea that he was gay.
The hearing was told that Dennis’s comment about the boots being high heels was meant as a joke. It was said this was in keeping with the type of workplace banter, which had never been discouraged and in which management had also previously participated.
It was explained to the hearing that Dennis accepted the company’s concerns and how certain established behaviour may be considered offensive.
Our representative said this showed he had taken appropriate learning from the matter, which coupled with his willingness to work with the company to address any concerns about traditional behaviour in the workplace should mean words of advice are appropriate.
The company maintained it had a duty to take such matters seriously, and at the hearing appeared unwilling to accept Dennis’s response to the allegation.

However, it did eventually do so and the following week Dennis was cleared of the allegation.

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For free employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 0333 772 0611

A reputation built on success

For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 

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