April Fools is the day that traditionally observes friends and colleagues playing pranks on one another but when does this go too far in the workplace and how we can we ensure we are following a duty of care towards employees?
Contrary to what some may think, HR teams are not the ‘fun police’ or ‘party poopers’ but with April Fool’s Day approaching, now is the ideal time to remind employees of the pitfalls of an ill planned attempt at ‘banter’ – A term many HR professionals have come to loath, particularly if dealing with employee grievances when banter hasn’t been received as intended.
Any fans of The Office will recall when Jim makes Dwight ‘Believe It’s Friday’ (Season 2, Episode 8) In this episode, Dwight is led to believe that it is Friday instead of Thursday, and when Jim and Pam discover this, they decide to continue to feed into this mistaken belief. Because of this, Dwight goes home elated, thinking that it is the end of the working week, only to find out the next day that it isn’t the weekend, coming into work late and flustered as he’d never missed a day of work up until that point whilst his colleagues stood by and laughed at their triumph.
Whilst it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is just a bit of harmless camaraderie amongst colleagues, this kind of ‘ganging up’ mentality and consistently being the target of someone’s practical jokes (as often Dwight was) can make someone feel ostracised and fearful about coming to work.
And then there are the classics we’ve probably all heard of, whoopie cushion on a colleague’s chair, with the sole intention of causing embarrassment, deliberately making a colleague ‘jump’ by hiding then suddenly appearing in front of them, perhaps even with an air horn (or any other device designed to create extremely loud noise) for added effect, which would inevitably cause a significant amount of stress and embarrassment, the wrapping of a colleague’s desk, hardly a well-received gift if the recipient has to spend time unwrapping everything causing undue stress about their work commitments, not to mention the issue of time wasted by the culprit during working hours.
We’ve probably all got examples whether from being directly involved, witnessing, or having dealt with the aftermath, of some harmless and some not so harmless.
In the case of Otomewo v Carphone Warehouse Ltd (2013) two employees took their manager’s phone and changed his Facebook status saying that he had “finally come out of the closet” and that he was “gay and proud”. The employees knew that the manager was not gay; however, the manager subsequently brought a claim for sexual orientation discrimination against the company and was successful in the employment tribunal which held that the behaviour of the two employees was “in the course of employment” and that Carphone Warehouse was liable.
Employers have a responsibility to ensure all employees have access to a safe, respectful, and harassment-free place to work and therefore can be held directly responsible for the impact of ‘a prank gone wrong’ (i.e. vicarious liability). Vicarious liability refers to a situation where an individual or employer is held responsible for the actions of another person and so the employer would need to be able to demonstrate that they had a zero tolerance against this kind of behaviour.
To do this, an employer should have up to date policies including Bullying and Harassment, it would also be advisable to ensure of an audit trail as proof this has been provided to employees such as the issue of a company handbook containing all said policies.
Another proactive step would be to ensure training is provided to employees across the board. Regular Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Training should be provided and refreshers on existing Bullying and Harassment policies would demonstrate that as an employer, this kind of behaviour is taken seriously.
If found in the unfortunate position of an employee being upset as a result of being ‘the butt of someone’s joke’ it’s important to act fast, meet with the employee, ask how they want to move forward, (are they happy to take steps to resolve this informally or do they feel more comfortable proceeding through the company’s formal grievance process?) though it should be noted, if very serious the company would have an obligation to take investigatory steps and this may be something that advice is sought on.