I enjoyed an excellent lunch with a group of women business leaders yesterday.

At one point the conversation turned to the recent "sexist banter" incident at Sky Sports, that resulted in the sacking of Andy Gray, and resignation of Richard Keys.

I was quite surprised that everyone who expressed an opinion said something along the lines of "If we've got to the stage when people can't engage in a bit of banter at work, then things are in a sorry state."

Personally, I believe that it is unacceptable for people, male or female, to exhibit behaviours that are deliberately intended to denigrate, demean or intimidate another person. And, for me, what Gray and Keys engaged in is a long way from banter - which the dictionary defines as "the playful exchange of teasing remarks."

But in this case, my personal opinion is not the point of this blog.

As I thought more about it, I realised that irrespective of opinions, or the backstory and rumours floating around about this incident, the action that Sky took makes complete commercial sense.

This kind of "banter" can do untold damage to a business. You have absolutely no idea of the impact that even a single potentially offensive remark can make.

For instance, if two of your male employees were overheard by a customer making derogatory remarks about women, and that customer took offence, you have almost certainly lost a customer; plus, perhaps everyone else they tell about it - that's always been the case.

But in today's connected world, if they (or even someone they tell) happen to be active on Facebook (which has 26 million UK users - over 40% of the population!) they can tell an awful lot of people, in a very short time.

It's well known that it takes years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it - and it's important to recognise that that destruction can be wrought by a tiny piece of overheard workplace banter.

I suspect Sky Sports will have lost very few viewers by sacking Gray; probably many, many times less than they might have lost had they not acted. But the protection of their reputation is priceless.

Whatever your opinion of Rupert Murdoch, few would disagree that his businesses' actions are  usually based on well thought through commercial principles.

And whatever your opinion about this particular incident, think twice before allowing "work place banter" to go unchecked - or you might end up with a much smaller workplace for people to banter in.

2 Responses to The Untold Cost of Workplace “Banter”

  1. Nick Dougan says:

    I agree with you, but I agree with your female lunch companions even more! I doubt that Sky Sports have or would have have gained or lost viewers either way.
    Other businesses may be more vulnerable for sure. They need to be careful – but is that a REALLY GOOD THING or just another arbitrary risk that they all run?

  2. Doug Mather says:

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for commenting, and in broad terms, I actually agree with them and you, far more than the blog might suggest.
    In this particular case though, from rumours & bits of history I’ve come across, I suspect it has a lot more to do with ongoing unpleasant and boorish behaviour towards co-workers & others, rather than just this one off incident. This was just the thing that gave them enough rope to hang themselves. After all, this wasn’t like Gordon Brown’s bigot gaffe – these guys didn’t just happen to to get caught on a live mic that they thought was off – somebody recorded and released this conversation.
    That said,it still stands that you have to be really aware about what your employees are saying in a potentially public domain, and ready & willing to act on it – one person’s banter can be another’s deeply offensive remark, and today the outcome of that can be catastrophic and far faster than you can perform damage limitation.
    I’m not saying whether that is a good or bad thing, just that it’s a fact and you need to watch out.

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