April Fool’s Day: Harmless pranks or harassment?

With April Fool’s Day is just around the corner, plenty of people are planning pranks to pull on their colleagues. But it begs the question… are pranks in the workplace acceptable?

With April Fool’s Day is just around the corner, plenty of people are planning pranks to pull on their colleagues. But it begs the question… are pranks in the workplace acceptable?

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, says “Most of us love having a laugh with our colleagues – it’s great for building up positive working relationships and morale. However, when it comes to humour, there’s always a risk that what one person sees as banter, may cause offence to another. And can cross the lines of professionalism.

“Remember that infamous prank scene in The Office? Jim put his colleague Dwight’s stapler in Jell-o much to the amusement of the team – but Dwight was rather upset by it.

“When someone feels victimised as the recipient of unwanted comments or actions, that could be interpreted as harassment. And should that harassment relate to one of the protected characteristics as set out in the Equality Act, it could result in a claim being raised at employment tribunal…

“Believe it or not, nobody in HR wants to be a party pooper. But we’ve had some pretty outrageous calls from clients who’ve had questionable pranks pulled in their workplace that should make you think twice.”

Here are some of the most common:

1. Sending questionable emails from a colleague’s computer.
Whether the goal is to make a colleague look unprofessional, or to confuse them, it’s unlikely any employer will look on this prank kindly. And technically, both the person pulling the prank and the target would be at fault.

Employees should always keep their computer locked when away from their desk. Failure to do so risks breaching GDPR compliance. And if the wannabe prankster had access to confidential information or deleted key documents, you may have to report the data breach and your company could be fined.

This also brings risk of reputational damage, especially if something inappropriate is sent to a client.

2. Pretending your colleague has been summoned to the boss’s office for a telling-off.
It might have been funny in school to tell your friend that the head wanted to see them, but in the workplace it’s a different story. Imparting unnecessary stress on a colleague is not only harsh, it can also affect workplace relationships and hinder trust. Even when done in jest, actions such as this can create negativity and a culture of fear and apprehension. And nobody wants that.

3 Messing up QWERTY might make colleagues shirty.
Whilst swapping keys on a keyboard might sound relatively unoffensive, it could result in damaged equipment and loss of productivity.

Taking time away from normal duties to do this could, in severe cases, even be treated as a conduct issue, especially if the participants missed deadlines or failed to serve customers while taking part in this prank.

Similarly, the person who must then correct their keyboard may then be put under pressure to complete work or make mistakes if they haven’t noticed the change.

4. Messing with someone’s chair every time they leave their desk.
Again, this may sound innocent but carries risks when it comes to Display Screen Equipment (DSE) regulations. It may be that some employees have a specific desk set-up to aid them with back pain, so to disturb that could cause discomfort or even, potentially, injury and absence.

5. Shrink wrapping possessions.
We received a call from one employer where employees wrapped up a colleague’s car….or so they thought. In a hilarious (but totally inappropriate) twist of events, they got the wrong car and had, in fact, wrapped a customer’s car instead. And they were not at all happy when they found out…

There are a couple of issues here. Firstly, it’s unlikely that gift wrapping a desk, car, or anything else would be included in an employee’s job description, so taking time away from their normal duties to do it could, in some cases, be treated as a conduct issue. Especially if the participants missed deadlines or failed to serve customers.

Secondly, if the items are damaged at all then the employees could be liable for the cost of replacing them…..a costly mistake to make.

6. Farting around.
Another common prank is putting a whoopee cushion on a colleague’s chair. Rather childish but innocent enough, right? Well, not for one of our clients who called for advice on this very issue. At the exact moment the employee sat on the whoopee cushion, the company CFO walked in and did not see the funny side, considering it inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Employees could easily be upset and embarrassed by this prank. Additionally, if customers or clients are in the workplace or on the phone at the time, they could be unimpressed with the level of professionalism of your workplace.

So, what happens when a prank doesn’t land in the way it was intended?

Kate Palmer says “If an employee feels they are targeted in workplace jokes, it could be interpreted as bullying. They may raise a grievance or even leave, putting you at risk of a claim for constructive dismissal.

“As a rule of thumb, if a joke is at the expense of someone else steer clear.

“Employers should communicate a zero-tolerance stance against any form of bullying, harassment, or discrimination, ensuring employees have read and understood their policies on appropriate workplace behaviour.

“It’s probably best to keep April Fools celebrations in the workplace at a minimum. If you’re a born jokester and April Fools is like your Christmas, then get it all out of your system before coming to work or commit to a prank that won’t cause offence or discomfort. But bear in mind that humour can be a fine line….

“There are plenty of non-offensive gags.

“Everyone loves doughnuts so bringing in a box of a dozen ‘delicious treats’ only to see smiles turn to disgust when they open the box to find [insert universally hated vegetable here] is always a winner in my eyes. And a sign on the coffee machine saying “voice activated” will always give me the giggles.

“What’s your favourite?”

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    29 November 2023


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