Can’t You Take a Joke, Mate? The Relationship between Aggressive Humour and Bullying

Jodie Fox
July 31, 2023

Humour is a great way to relieve stress, break the monotony and build relationships at work. However, there’s a fine line between harmless banter and aggressive humour that can lead to hurt feelings, poor team dynamics, and even physical harm. In this blog post, we’ll explore the risks of aggressive humour or “banter” at work, and how to manage this type of behaviour in the workplace.

Most of us have worked in places where the highlight is the light-hearted banter between colleagues. Years ago, I worked in an organisation where everyone had a nickname and teasing was a way of letting you know that you were accepted. There was Andy who was teased by everyone for losing his hair and Robbo who copped it over having a big nose. A long-running series of pranks took place – Robbo found a pack of “man-sized” tissues on his desk, Andy had a can of spray-on hair appear in his locker. Robbo would pretend to be blinded by the glare of Andy’s head, and Andy managed to smuggle a huge-nosed novelty mask into the basket and hand it to Robbo with a straight face when everyone else got their safety equipment. As a young and impressionable person, I remember finding all this hilarious and feeling a sense of belonging when joking around with my new colleagues.

However, as I have had more experience in workplaces, I’ve also seen the downside of this kind of banter culture. Sometimes the banter can warp into some inappropriate behaviour, leading to hurt feelings, poor team dynamics, and even physical injury. Sometimes people spend more time planning pranks than doing work.

Negative outcomes from banter culture are particularly difficult to manage or identify, as sometimes really complicated, negative, and even bullying messages are conveyed through humour. Not wanting to be a killjoy or a wet blanket is a powerful inducement to stay quiet!

The Complicated Relationship between Banter and Bullying

The relationship between humour and bullying was explored by New Zealand and Australian academics in a recent article published in the European Journal of Humour Research, which looked at a case study of a particularly egregious banter culture in an IT firm. In their article, “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”: Tolerating Bullying Humour in Order to Belong at Work, Plester et al[i] looked at the benefits of joking around at work, but also pointed to the more complicated borderline behaviour between humour and bullying.

Banter is generally seen as playful teasing between friends, where everyone involved is comfortable and willing to participate. However, when this type of behaviour becomes aggressive or hurtful, it can quickly turn into bullying. The line between banter and bullying can be difficult to navigate, as what might be considered banter to one person may be seen as bullying to another. Banter is usually reciprocal, meaning that both parties involved are participating and enjoying the teasing. It’s also not meant to cause harm and doesn’t go too far. Bullying, on the other hand, is often one-sided, with one person or group intentionally targeting another. It’s meant to cause harm and can escalate quickly.

Consider the situation of Robbo and Andy. They might rib each other for years about their perceived physical defects and have an enjoyable workplace. But once Andy’s wife leaves him for a younger man (one with a full head of hair, perhaps), the teasing might take on a different meaning. Andy might feel that jokes about his baldness just aren’t funny anymore. Andy can’t stop the teasing – any sign of weakness and the behavior will just step up a level. He can’t ask his colleagues to stop because he knows that they will say something along the lines of “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it!”, and he certainly can’t report it to management. Even if he wanted to get his colleagues in trouble, his manager would say that he had invited the banter with his own behaviour. Andy is stuck in a cycle of teasing that he no longer finds funny, but feels powerless to stop.

The dynamic of not wanting to be seen as straight-laced, combined with the feelings of belonging that come with being part of a group that engages in aggressive humour, add up to a situation where people may feel powerless to stop the behaviour.

The meaning of banter can change over time, and it also means different things to different people – gender, culture, age, physical ability, class differences, and personal circumstances can all affect whether we find something funny.

Considerations for Managing Banter at Work

Is it unlawful discrimination?

Consider if the comments and jokes are about a personal characteristic that is protected under one of the pieces of anti-discrimination legislation. If it is about a protected characteristic, it needs to stop. Harassment (negative comments based around a person’s protected characteristics) is unlawful and creates a risk for the organization, regardless of how well-meaning or well-received the banter is.

Is it bullying?

The definition of workplace bullying in the Fair Work Act is “repeated unreasonable behavior directed toward a worker or group of workers which creates a risk to health and safety.” Whether or not comments or jokes are unreasonable and create a risk to health and safety will depend on a number of factors, including how long the banter has gone on, whether there is a power imbalance between the people involved in banter, whether the comments are made publicly, whether the comments were objectively hurtful, and whether the person to whom the banter is addressed is hurt by the comments. It will very much depend on the circumstances of each case. Make sure your staff and managers are aware of the complications around banter and are ready to stop anything that crosses the line.

Can they say “stop” effectively?

Are your employees comfortable in stopping the banter if they become uncomfortable with the comments? Can your staff speak up appropriately if they feel that someone is getting hurt by jokes made by someone else? Training in having Conversations that Matter and Bystander Training is essential for preventing conflict arising from banter getting out of hand.

While humour and banter can be a positive thing in the workplace, it’s important to recognize the risks of aggressive humour and bullying. Negative outcomes from banter culture can create a toxic work environment and ultimately harm the productivity and well-being of employees. Understanding the difference between banter and bullying is crucial to creating a safe and respectful workplace culture. By fostering a workplace culture that values and respects all employees, and encourages and trains their staff to speak up appropriately when things are bothering them, organisations can create a positive work environment that fosters teamwork, productivity, and success.

[i] Plester, B., Hutchings, M., & Tuckey, M. R. (2021). “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”: Tolerating Bullying Humour in Order to Belong at Work. European Journal of Humour Research, 9(3), 36-57.

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