Speaking to my eleven year old daughter and eight year old son before Christmas I posed the following scenario, “you have three people in your life, someone who says mean things to others a lot of the time, one of your friends who sometimes can say mean things but also can be really nice and your best friend who you share fun and laughter with. Is it ok for any of them to call you a funny name or make fun of you?

The unanimous answer was the best friend because they know you, they know what they can say and what hurts you so they don’t say it, they wouldn’t say anything to hurt you. They identified that the one who is mean a lot of the time is not welcome to call you names because they don’t know you and is likely to be saying it to be hurtful, the one who is mean occasionally, you will never know if they mean to hurt you or not so it is not acceptable. They shared much wisdom that morning and it got me thinking about workplace relationships, friendships and bullying.

It took me back to my experience of being bullied and I questioned when and how the threshold was crossed from friendship to bullying. Initially she was one of my best friends who moved up and became my manager. Then came one excused incident of disrespect, followed by another and another until over time her behaviour became frequent, unavoidable and unacceptable to me. I’ve never really been able to pinpoint when or how it happened, I always knew my mistakes were to make excuses for her behaviour initially working harder to ensure she was less stressed.

After this conversation it started to become clear.

Our friendship had been built on a shared support but more importantly trust and mutual respect. I recognise now that the boundaries had either become blurred the closer we got or maybe we didn’t even set them to begin with. When changes happened in the organisation and it grew, the incidents started and I blamed the stress of the ever growing responsibilities. I went out of my way to make sure I made her job easier but the frequency of the incidents increased, we talked about them, she would apologies and sometimes even cry, promising to not do it again but they happened again and again.

This is where the line was crossed and maybe it was a new or at least a more clear line, I’m not sure. However, the trust and respect I had for her was gone, replaced by hurt, anger and resentment, the relationship changed drastically and she hadn’t noticed. I believe she couldn’t understand how her behaviour could be seen as bullying as it hadn’t been her intention. Her behaviour had come to rely on my loyalty and the old, strong friendship, what she’d failed to appreciate was we had no foundation for a friendship any longer, her behaviour ensure we became simply employer and employee.

The parameters had changed, the connection was broken, the respect and trust had been banished and maybe now my boundaries had become clear to me, she hadn’t noticed they had been drawn even after speaking to her. The banter was no longer perceived as banter, it was unwelcome and seen as rude, ‘having a go’, unsupportive, add that to the disrespectful and degrading treatment, it had crossed the threshold from banter into bullying.

The important thing to remember here is that while my perception had changed, her perception of the relationship hadn’t been updated, she hadn’t reassessed it, she remained under the impression it was all ok.

The workplace relationship

Both parties in any given relationship, professional or otherwise, are responsible for creating the relationship dynamics, setting boundaries, assessing on an on going basis, being aware of any changes, being respectful and more importantly is checking their behaviour, words, actions in line with that relationship.

Bullying is often only acknowledged when there is physical violence or clear evidence, words are often dismissed, not deemed harmful or destructive, or they are excused under the ‘I didn’t mean any harm’ defence. However, when respect is common practice, that is not a valid claim. Respect being a mutual contract to accept similarities, differences and uniqueness in everyone, it is also a promise to accept boundaries and be mindful of how that person deserves to be treated.

The fine line between banter and bullying heavily relies on the foundation of the relationship, the level of trust, the agreement, expectations, the boundaries, the respect and the perception, not only of the behaviour but also the relationship. If there is a trusting respectful relationship and you are at least 99% or as near as you can be that you know you’re words won’t be misconstrued or hurt someone, then say it, if not, do not say it.

The joined laughing and joking of the ‘butt of the joke’ does not mean it is acceptable, it can be a social pressure to fit in, to not seem uptight, embarrassment or any amount of other reasons.  If you do not know enough about that person and their life, you will not know what is going on or where they are emotionally and mentally. Only with a solid two way trust can you be certain it is still banter, if not, you are at risk of making someone feel uncomfortable or bullied. Being self aware is a skill that needs practicing and is important to being clear about what is acceptable or not to other people. Joking and banter may be your personality, you may have been doing it for years, it still doesn’t give you the right to continue to do it.

Is your behaviour banter or bullying?