When tradie banter goes too far


By Tradie HR director Leigh Olsen


There have been a number of cases involving bullying, harassment and overt racism that I’ve been made aware of over recent weeks. They concern employees at all levels, including team leaders, managers and apprentices.

These cases vary in their degree of seriousness, but all have one thing in common — they have caused an enormous amount of stress and anxiety for each employee.

Further investigation revealed that all have been the victims of jokes and pranks that, quite simply, have gone too far.

The guys acknowledge that working in trades is not for the faint of heart, but the constant jibes, attacks and sarcastic comments have taken their toll on their physical and mental well-being, resulting in bouts of insomnia, panic attacks, and even a case of shingles.

They also said they have become anxious and nervous, and they doubt themselves because the criticism has eroded their confidence to such a level where they feel “useless”. 

One employee told me he doesn’t even get called his name anymore — he is called a racial slur (which I won’t repeat).

With such an emphasis on Health and Safety, how can this go unchecked and, in some cases, be actively encouraged?

The guys I spoke to said safety is something all their firms take seriously, but regarding the health side of it, not so much.

“Well-being” is a buzz word they told me, but no way would you ever ask for counselling as that would “just bring about more jokes and criticism”.


‘Oh just harden up’

A recent edition of the Otago Daily Times reported on the findings of a building industry study which identified a macho and bullying culture. BRANZ industry research general manager Chris Litten says a consistent message emerged from the survey.

“We found that the culture of toxic masculinity is really rife. And the ‘take a concrete pill’ and ‘harden up’ attitude is really prevalent,” he says.

Banter takes many forms, and I’m aware that humour in workplaces can centre around light-hearted wisecracks, jokes, and what some might perceive as mild sarcasm, all supposedly said in jest.

In some workplaces this is an accepted way of people having fun and communicating. In fact, in New Zealand, research has shown that sarcasm is often how Kiwis bond.

For many people, they feel that if they give a compliment, they need to follow it up with a quick sarcastic comment to make it light-hearted.

However, when this banter goes too far and takes a disturbing turn, action needs to be taken.

Banter and jokes can also be a cover or an excuse for bullying and harassment. “Oh I was only joking”, “I meant no offence”, and “people are just too sensitive these days” are excuses I hear that are used to justify if they have offended someone.

These excuses should never be licence to offend and humiliate. Whether they were meant to offend or not, offensive and hurtful comments are uncalled for in any workplace.


The cost 

Companies that find themselves with a personal grievance as a result of banter and jokes going too far, could be looking at not only a very hefty fine through the court system but also huge reputational damage.

At a time when there is a real shortage of good workers, the advantages of being seen as a good employer are critical to business success.

Those referrals, especially from word of mouth, marketing and social recommendations, are so important for any industry — and people do talk.

It is also worth remembering that it is not just the workers who are aggrieved but the wider workforce.

People have told me they really wanted to speak up for their workmates, but felt powerless to as they were scared the ridicule would then get re-directed at them. Their solution they said, was to “just leave, as it was easier”.

It may have appeared easier in the short term, but this came at a huge cost to them and their families as they not only had to find other employment, but also had to deal with the after-effects of being exposed to such contempt.


Time to change

At some stage we have all probably been guilty of saying something we thought was funny and afterwards realising it wasn’t, and wishing we hadn’t said it at all.

Owning up to it and ceasing such behaviour is so important for the health of your workforce and the health of your personal and professional brand.

At Tradie HR, we help business owners and their staff establish clear guidelines about what is acceptable and unacceptable conduct in the workplace.

We ensure the correct performance and conduct policies are implemented, and that the correct reporting processes and relevant training are put in place so everyone feels safe at work.

If you think you may have an issue then please don’t hesitate to contact me in confidence so we can work out how to mitigate and change things. Imagine a workplace where everyone went home in a better state than when they arrived — how cool would that be?

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