Tribunal rules calling man ‘bald’ is harassment: when banter becomes bullying

  • Discrimination
Alan Price - Peninsula's Chief Operations Officer and CEO of BrightHR

Alan Price, Chief Operations Officer

(Last updated )

An employment tribunal has ruled that calling a man ‘bald’ is sex-related harassment. Tony Finn, a former employee at a West Yorkshire manufacturing firm, claimed that his supervisor insulted his baldness during a shopfloor argument. He’s now in line to receive compensation.

We know that personalities clash. Some people are outspoken and blunt, others are quiet and sensitive. What one person thinks is ‘banter’ might be hurtful to someone else. So, where do we draw the line?

You can tell when workplace banter becomes bullying when…

1. Remarks cause offence

The key way to know if banter has gone too far is if it causes offence. Being the butt of someone’s joke can be an upsetting and isolating experience. So, it’s important to be mindful of how comments, even with non-malicious intentions, can hurt someone’s feelings.

It’s best to think of it like this. Would you find it uncomfortable to explain the joke if someone called you out on it? Then, you probably shouldn’t say it.

Be conscious of your staff making inappropriate comments. Call them out if you hear something offensive. A workplace culture like this can easily breed harassment claims. So, you should lead by example and let staff know that you won’t tolerate bullying or offensive comments.

2. Remarks are about protected characteristics

If staff make jokes that relate to someone’s age, sex, race, religion, sexuality, or disability, this puts themselves and your company at legal risk.

The Equality Act 2010 protects these characteristics. So, if someone feels they’re treated unfairly because of one or more of these, they have legal grounds to claim for discrimination.

In Mr Finn’s case, the judges ruled that the comment relating to his ‘baldness’ was sex-related harassment as baldness was more common in men. So, any comment about someone’s personal appearance can carry legal risk.

You can reduce this risk by having a clear policy on equality and diversity in the workplace. In your policy, condemn comments of this nature and outline your zero-tolerance for bullying and harassment. You should also be clear about the consequences of breaking the policy.

Need to create a policy?

Your HR experts are on hand to craft up watertight policies to keep you safe from legal risk.

Learn more

3. Morale is down 

Pay attention to how your staff behave. Is anyone acting out of character? Is anyone withdrawing? You can always spot a toxic environment by how the team behave. If the atmosphere feels uncomfortable and morale seems to be down, then you may have a problem.

Often, staff won’t speak up if they experience bullying. Which means they might keep it to themselves, and their work suffers as a result. Workplace bullying may also lead to:

  • mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression
  • increased absences
  • low productivity
  • high staff turnover

Check in with line managers who may know more about incidents between staff. Also, regularly check in with your staff to see how they’re feeling and how they’re finding the job. If you establish yourself as an approachable and open employer, they’ll be more likely to come to you with their issues.

4. Staff are making allegations

The clearest sign that banter has gone too far is if staff are reporting incidents. Whether they tell you directly, or open up to their line manager or a HR rep, you need to investigate every claim.

If your worker reports that they’re being bullied, ask them questions like:

  • What happened?
  • When did this happen?
  • Are there other examples? 
  • How long has this been happening? Or is it the first time? 
  • How often does this happen?

If you find evidence to back up a bullying claim, you need to act. If it goes to tribunal, you’ll need to be able to show that you followed the correct process to keep staff safe. If you don’t, you could put yourself at legal risk.

These steps might involve the following:

  • Mediation – this is usually the first step to resolving minor disputes in the workplace. In a mediation session, a neutral person will lead a meeting with everyone involved and try to get staff to work through their issues and find solutions. If staff can’t reach an agreement, you’ll most likely have to escalate to a disciplinary process.
  • Disciplinary – You might have to take disciplinary action to deal with more serious disputes, unacceptable behaviour and if mediation fails. This involves carrying out an investigation and a hearing to provide evidence and discuss outcomes. Following a fair process, the outcome could be an informal warning, a formal written warning, a demotion, or dismissal.
  • Dismissal – if the claim is serious enough and you find evidence to back it up, you might have no choice but to dismiss staff. This might be if the person is already on a final written warning or in a case of theft, violence or anything that destroys the trust and confidence in a working relationship.

Need to investigate a bullying claim?

If staff are reporting incidents of bullying, you need to act. Grievance and harassment investigations are uncomfortable, especially when you know those involved. You might worry about making a mistake, missing a step in procedure, or remaining impartial. So, eliminate the worry and risk by letting your HR experts handle it for you.

Peninsula’s Face2Face consultants will visit your workplace and have those tough conversations on your behalf, whilst making sure you stay in line with employment law guidance.

Discover the benefits of Face2Face support by calling 0800 028 277 or visit the page to find out more.

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