Workplace teasing – or bullying?

Another Personnel Today survey, this time about how acceptable it is to make fun of how people look.

Ginger-haired people have it worst. 81% thought it was OK to take the piss out of redheads. Blonde hair, regional accents and baldness were thought by most people to be acceptable targets too.

The survey leaves out the most sensitive aspects of appearence – race and religious dress. Perhaps there was no point in asking whether it would be acceptable to tease people about their ethnic origin or religion. Most people, and probably all HR people, would have given a definite ‘no’.

The survey also misses other nuances. 74% of the respondents said that it was OK to make fun of regional accents but would those people have agreed that commenting on a Jamaican, Indian or Chinese accent is acceptable? I doubt it.

Age related insults or comments about disability weren’t covered either.

In short, the survey avoided mentioning anything which was clearly against the law. However, as an employment lawyer points out, even having a laugh at a redhead’s expense could lead to a claim of harassment or bullying if it went on for long enough. And what is considered a sustained period of harassment depends on the person being harassed. For some people, a single comment repeated on consecutive days would be enough.

Every so often, a friend of mine meets for a meal and a few beers with a group of colleagues and ex-colleagues. They have known each other and worked together for years. At the end of the evening, the bill is always given to the one member of the group who is Jewish, along with light-hearted comments about how they are less likely to get ripped off if he checks it and adds it up. He takes it in good spirit, or at least appears to.

But for more sensitive people, this is just the sort of ‘innocent banter’ that could be seen as offensive. My rule of thumb is that I don’t make any comments about someone’s appearance unless I know them well enough to judge how they will take it. I also only pick on people who I know will give back as good as they get.

Most of us learn at school that there is a fine line between teasing and bullying. We would do well to remember that at work.

Hat Tip: Guru

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2 Responses to Workplace teasing – or bullying?

  1. Guru says:

    This Personnel Today survey was to test attitudes to those aspects of discrimination that aren’t automatically covered by law (eg ‘heightism’, ‘gingerism’ etc).
    And while it was commissioned with a relatively light-hearted intent, it was none-the-less interesting to see what was and was not considered acceptable.
    Basically anything that could be considered a medical condition (eg dandruff, bad teeth, acne etc) were considered no-go areas for teasing; and anything that was self-inflicted (eg dodgy haircut, wierd dress sense etc) were fair game.
    Meanwhile ‘gingers’ seem to remain figures of fun for most people.
    Guru tip: hair dye!

  2. Rick says:

    But the things at the top of the list, i.e. red hair, blonde hair, baldness, are not self-inflicted.

    You could argue that people could make an effort to change regional accents but even so, accents are harly a metter of choice.

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