Bullying is NOT Banter: 3 Signs That It’s Not a Joke

Bullying is NOT Banter: 3 Signs That It’s Not a Joke

Have you been the brunt of bullying behaviors at work recently (or even not so recently)? After being on the receiving end of hurtful words, did the perpetrator say “I’m only joking” or “it’s just playful banter”? Did it make you wonder if you were being too sensitive?

Well, there is actually a simple way to discern the difference.

In a recent interview in a legal blog, Dennis A. Davis, Ph.D., a specialist in workplace conflict, outlined some simple, yet effective guidelines to identify whether or not a behavior at work is “banter” or bullying.


1st Sign: The Banter is Not Reciprocal

If it’s banter, shouldn’t there be some back and forth? If the comments are directed at you, and you aren’t returning them, this can’t really be called banter. (I’m not suggesting you bully back, nor try insulting the person back. The bully could very well take this retaliation in stride, turn the tables on you and suggest that YOU are actually the bully!) The point here is to evaluate if the bantering is shared and you feel you can and would respond in kind.

If the perpetrator suggests you shouldn’t be offended because he or she is using you as a verbal punching bag, know that it’s not just you being sensitive. This is one-way abuse, and as such, it is bullying.


2nd Sign: The Behavior is Targeted

Is everyone getting abused, or is it just you? If it’s just you, do you find it strange that you are always on the receiving end of this “joking” or “bantering”?

Well you should. If you are a consistent target of nasty comments at work, then it’s not a joke. Workplace bullies intentionally single people out for abuse. And they often intimidate the witnesses so much that no one steps up to defend you, because they are afraid they may be the next target. The effect is isolating and hurtful.


3rd Sign: The Comments are Personal – Very Personal

Joking or bantering behavior invites a friendly response. It is not intended to cause harm.

Bullying behavior is directed at someone’s seeming “weakness, deficiency or inferiority” according to Davis, and has an intent to make you feel bad about yourself. If the comments are directed about your appearance, supposed incompetence, personal traits or implied weaknesses of any kind – it’s bullying. And any effort to mask it by calling it “teasing” or “joking” is just a smokescreen to make the perpetrator look good and to make you feel even worse because you are offended by the behavior.


Does Any of This Sound Familiar?

Knowing that you are being bullied is the first step to regain control of the situation. There are personal behaviors you can change, and specific strategies you can use to help address the problem. If you are notifying management about the behavior, there are also reporting behaviors you can utilize that will actually improve your situation, rather than make it worse.

For more solutions and tips on how to deal with workplace conflict and bullying behaviors, exclusive content, and detailed reports, sign up for my free newsletter.

For more on handling difficult conversations, read my ebook, “Stop Arguing & Start Working: 6 Steps to Being Confident, Calm and Capable During Difficult Conversations At Work.” The book is available now.

Also watch for my upcoming book, Success Strategies for Handling Workplace Bullying, which outlines strategies I have been teaching targets. My strategies have been proven effective and empowering for targets and I’m committed to sharing them with the world.

I’ve been a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.

  • Thank you for your tips. Workplace bullying is now undeniably experienced by some employees, and the consequences can be emotionally and physically devastating. Clearly workplace bullying is not something to be taken lightly, this should be handled well by the company or the manager before it starts getting out of control, because this will not only affect the victim but the company as well. Victims are are less able to concentrate, and to make decisions, which may make them perform their job poorly and reduces productivity; thus makes bullying too expensive to keep.