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Having a Laugh

They say laughter is the best medicine and there is substantial medical evidence that the more you laugh, the greater the health benefits, both long and short term. Chez Russell HR Consulting the workflow is fast, the problems tough, discussions are often complex and the environment can be challenging, both mentally and emotionally. We have to manage not just the work but clients who are sometimes highly stressed or put us under unnecessary pressure by doing things like leaving a message saying “we have a discipline in ten minutes. Please call to discuss in the next three minutes” (yes, this really happens and it is emphatically not my preferred approach). Believe me, we spin some fast plates here. Visitors who spend time with us literally have dropped jaws when they hear what we have to deal with.

Client work is just a part of it. As well as training the team, there’s all the back-office stuff to do too. One of my pet hates is dealing with large organisations when they have caused a problem, but I have to sort it out. It can be incredibly frustrating and time consuming. The worst offender by some distance is BT, but most recently we’ve had the interesting experience of dealing with an E.On problem. It started when they failed to invoice us properly for our electricity consumption for a year. Some small charges had been made which had been paid but a big bill going back over 12 months suddenly landed on my desk with demands for immediate payment. When I called to find out what was going on they apologised profusely because they hadn’t advised us that this was going to happen. I said I wanted to agree a payment plan because it was their fault the billing had not been done at the correct intervals and we eventually agreed a process. This meant having a new meter installed and this in turn meant turning off the power for up to two hours in the working day. We asked for an 8am slot to minimise impact and were told that they could only say 8-10am. I made it clear that if anyone turned up after 9am we would have to reschedule but it was like talking to a wall. The first engineer came from Nottingham (starting travel at 8am) and as he arrived at 9.30 am I had to send him away, but not before he told us we could agree a specific 8am slot. We rescheduled the same day. In the meantime E.On’s debt department kept sending increasingly strong letters chasing the original debt (despite our written replies with evidence of the new arrangements and payments to date); the meter re-bookings team didn’t know that we had already re-booked and on the fateful day in questions, two engineers turned up (one at 8am who said we couldn’t have the meter because the signal wasn’t strong enough and one who arrived at 8.30 (the original chap who had turned up three weeks earlier) who said it was. I wrote an irascible letter to the CEO asking what the blazes is going on and saying that as all of this had already taken three hours of our time the next E.On blooper which needs to be sorted out by us would be invoiced at our standard rate To their credit they did apologise and credited our account with £150 (which is more than BT has ever done with far worse errors and truly appalling customer service). Having gone to all this trouble, let’s hope this blessed meter works now.

To keep our sanity across the maelstrom of daily business activities, we take an irreverent view of life. Sacred cows are targeted on a regular basis, but there is a line that needs to be drawn. What is acceptable in the workplace doesn’t mirror what is acceptable with friends in the pub on a Friday night. There is a considerable degree of informality across society now and it’s seen everywhere – in work, in social exchanges, in the media It causes the that communication edges to blur and it can be difficult to appreciate what will be acceptable and when. This is often where problems begin in the workplace.

It’s a very inverted British thing to be extremely nice to those we dislike, yet we find it OK to trade insults with our friends. I can remember trying to explain this to an American. He just didn’t get it at all. Work place banter often starts out as a laugh for everyone; someone did something silly, giving someone a nickname etc. Workplace jokes of this type are often centred round one individual and if you think about it nicknames are almost always based on a protected characteristic. It can often lead to complaints, grievances or claims of bullying. If it’s based on a protected characteristic, for example, age, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, you may then also have a discrimination claim. Treating someone less favourably because of a protected characteristic, even if it’s just a joke, amounts to unlawful discrimination. Even quite mild remarks, for example, calling someone like: “Taffy” (nationality),“old man” (age),“God botherer” (religion) or one of the many other bantering remarks we’ve encountered, is a potential problem in the workplace, though it is subject to the objective test of reasonableness. The fact that the employee who is now complaining has participated in the past with the banter is no defence. People change the goalposts but employers are left holding the legal baby.

When an employee raises concerns of this kind, take the complaint seriously. Make sure you investigate. Ask what the employee’s preferred outcome is. Quite often you can resolve the problem informally, though the aggrieved employee may wish to exercise a right to make it formal.

The subject of a complaint will often say ‘I didn’t mean to upset him – it was just a bit of fun. He never complained!” Employees have a right not to be harassed in the workplace. Silence doesn’t denote acceptance and having no complaint is not a defence. Additionally if you know or ought reasonably know about nicknames, banter or other language/ behaviour which reasonably constitutes bullying or harassment you are expected to deal with it properly.

As a rule of thumb if you wouldn’t want your grandmother to hear you say it, then keep it to yourself. Make sure your dignity at work policy is clear, communicated to all employees so they understand the difference between an acceptable joke and harassment. Monitor and enforce the policy. Don’t wait until there’s a compliant. If you know there’s language or behaviour which is seen as “a bit of fun” but has the potential to result in a grievance deal with it firmly and promptly.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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