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Is anything off limits with comedy?

Fahy Sheila
Sheila Fahy

PSL Counsel


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29 March 2022

This has become one of the most hotly debated questions over the last 24 hours. It is a really important one, which comes up time and time again in a workplace context.

Picture this: a high-performing team in a pressurised, fast-paced environment uses banter as part of their everyday communication. They joke about each other’s accents, heritage, social background, and personal foibles and characteristics. They all do it. It is their USP. It makes their heavy workloads somewhat lighter.

What’s wrong with that?

This is a scenario we often face when we do dignity at work training. Put in the above terms, it sounds harmless and inoffensive but on closer examination, the flaws start to show. The team tends to lack diversity and gravitates towards “group think”. The individuals mostly subjected to banter are those that are different in some way. Everyone does it because this has been the tone from the top and embedded within the culture of the team. It appears that everyone laughs at the banter, but it would take a brave individual to call it out, when most strive to fit in.

Don’t get me wrong: good humour and a convivial working environment are essential. The comedian just needs to be careful that the banter does not cross the line, which is the risk when it relates to personal characteristics such as sexual orientation, age, health, heritage and physical appearance. I often advise that if a person is unsure about whether to make a comment or not, use the guiding principle: would it be appropriate to make this comment to your mother/daughter/disabled child, etc? If not, don’t say it.

In a workplace, some banter – not all – is off limits. It can form the basis of a harassment/bullying claim if it meets the legal thresholds or undermines trust and confidence. This is why harassment training, which allows employees to debate these issues and understand some of the nuances is the best way to ensure respect in the workplace for everyone. In the not too distant future, employers will have to ensure that their workforce are clear about what comments cross the line, particularly in relation to sexual harassment as the government is to introduce a new duty on employers to proactively prevent this type of harassment. But more of this in another blog…


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