According to a study by Allen & Overy, office banter could cost UK businesses up to £292bn in tribunal claims during 2013.

As staff return to work following the Christmas period, UK employers are warned to make sure that their employees exercise caution when ‘joking around’ with colleagues, as what may be seen as innocent banter or a funny gesture to one person can often be interpreted as quite the opposite by another, and may, perhaps, even result in a discrimination claim.

Allen & Overy asked over 1,000 UK workers if they could easily draw the line between banter and unlawful bullying, and despite 80% of respondents claiming they could, when asked to identify unlawful comments, the responses suggest otherwise.

The study found that 46% think it is not unlawful to display a calendar of a male or female semi-naked model, however Allen & Overy say:

“Although some may appreciate the human form, others may feel it creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive workplace environment.”

It says that this could lead to harassment claims, which could potentially cost UK businesses up to £135bn.

In regards to offensive language, 59% of respondents feel it is not unlawful to swear, which A&O states is correct to some extent. However, swearing based on a legally protected characteristic such as gender, sexuality, race etc. can lead to a discrimination claim.

The results also revealed that 59% feel blaspheming is not unlawful; but for a religious colleague this may be seen as hostile and offensive and might form the basis of a religious discrimination claim.

According to the research, 78% of workers believe that sending a work colleague an anonymous card and chocolates is not unlawful, but A&O warns that even a gesture such as this could turn into a harassment claim, particularly if the person receiving the gift is in a relationship and has made it clear that s/he is not interested.

Commenting on the findings, Allen & Overy’s Employment Partner, Karen Seward, said:

“The festive season is often a favourite one with workers and a rare chance to enjoy a few drinks with colleagues. But once the lights go on and the party finishes, employers can be left with disciplinary headaches.

“There’s a fine line between friendly, acceptable banter and unlawful harassment/discrimination, but encouraging and educating workers to stay on the right side of the line is not as easy as it sounds.

“Time and time again, workers throw advice in this area into the ‘political correctness’ box, not appreciating the litigation risks or the impact on individuals. But they should do so at their peril, as an employee can be made personally liable for a discrimination claim under which compensation is unlimited.”