Should an employer dictate what can and cannot be discussed at work?

Firms urged to crack down on office football chat

The football season is well underway, and Liverpool appear to be on course for their first title in 30 years; while the Six Nations rugby series is due to start this weekend with England looking to bounce back after the disappointment of the World Cup final last year.

However, a management body has warned that chat about football; rugby or any sport in the workplace should be curtailed or even banned.

The head of the Chartered Management Institute, Ann Francke, has said that sports banter can exclude women and lead to laddish behavior such as chat about sexual conquests. On the BBC’s Today program earlier this week, she said that “…A lot of women, in particular, feel left out…they (women) don’t follow those sports and they don’t like either being forced to talk about them or not being included.”

She explained that although she has nothing against sports enthusiasts “…the issue is many people aren’t cricket fans…”; arguing bosses should crack down on sports banter.

Why?

There is a genuine concern that discussing football (or any sport for that matter), can disproportionately exclude women and divide offices.

The concern is about how a discussion over a shock result, or a referee decision can be a gateway to more laddish behavior, which, if unchecked, can be a signal of a more laddish culture. Ann Francke explained that “…it’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend…”

Whether this happens in reality will of course be subject to argument and each situation will be assessed on a case by case basis, but it is easy to see how this could happen. For example, debate about sport can often involve discussions about the capability of men and women in sport, or the pay of men and women in the game. These are controversial topics and cause heated debate which can and have crossed the legal touch line.

The end of the office kitchen talk?

Should it be banned? Well, hopefully not.

Banning such talk and debate would be a terrible idea and entirely disproportionate. If you ban football chat or banter of any description, then all you’re going to do is alienate the people who want to communicate with each other. It is likely to be hugely negative to tell people not to talk about sport because women don’t like it. We would argue that’s far more divisive.

The secret is good communication and to discuss sport in an inclusive way and ensure that everyone in their team feels comfortable. Most people responding to the interview took this view and were unsympathetic to the reasoning put forward by the management body.

Censorship is a major concern and quite rightly. It could be dangerous for companies to dictate what people talk about, as not talking about it will alienate those with similar interests

Further, if you ban discussions on one sport, what else will have to be off-limits. If talking about cricket is to be banned, surely talking about TV shows that have violence, sex and other adult material in such as the hugely popular Love Island, EastEnders or Game of Thrones, would have to be censored.

It is impossible to deny that managers and staff can build a more direct bond over a shared interest such as sport, and that this has and can exclude those who don’t share that interest. Further, while workplace harassment is a serious issue, banning sports chat is not only a diversion from the more flagrant examples, but itself appears to be based on sexual stereotyping.

The suggestion that sports chat excludes women assumes that women aren’t interested in talking about football, which reinforces gender stereotypes and simply isn’t true.

What should employers do?

The question “where it does end?” has been heard a lot in recent years with the law struggling to keep up with changing attitudes and awareness of issues such as gender and gender change; and how people can discuss these issues. However, banning the conversation is not the issue or the answer.

The answer is to ensure managers and staff are trained to understand that those shared interests should not get in the way of management decisions or working collaboratively.

Furthermore, from a simple health and well-being perspective, employers should be encouraging participation in sport and exercise and part of this will invariably include talking about last night’s game.

If there are women or other groups who feel excluded by topics of conversation in a workplace, the problem is likely to be the organisational culture and most likely a lack of diversity within the organisation. Banning or putting a gender filter over sports chat could quite easily set the feminist agenda back a few thousand light years. What matters is connecting in a meaningful way with each other. Perhaps think of team building events that involve a sports match or even attending a game, as a bonus to staff for good performance.

Banter can fine as long as it is conducted with integrity and by those who are aware enough to put boundaries on unacceptable clichés and tropes. There is always room for different views, team loyalties or just different interests altogether.  Employers must not let the same old sports banter dominate the conversation, and instead be deliberately inclusive so everyone has a voice — that is how to build a winning team.

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

This article was written and researched by Albert Bargery, Solicitor at our Isle of Wight Office. Albert BargeryAlbert advises employers and employees on the Isle of Wight and throughout the UK. You can contact Albert by email:[email protected]

 

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

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