April Fool’s Day: Harmless pranks or harassment in the workplace?

By Alan Price, BrightHR CEO

April Fool’s Day is fast approaching.

But whilst wind-up merchants are meticulously planning their antics and preparing to pull one over on their colleagues, it begs the question: are pranks in the workplace ever OK?

Now contrary to popular belief, your HR department doesn’t want to be a party pooper…

In fact, in many workplaces, some good-natured banter will be appreciated, and could even be seen as an importance aspect of nurturing good workplace relationships.

However, there is always a risk of a joke being misconstrued.

What might appear to be a bit of harmless fun to one person could be incredibly upsetting or humiliating to another.

Fans of The Office will no doubt remember when Jim puts his colleague Dwight’s stapler in Jell-o – and the upset it caused Dwight, much to the amusement of the rest of the team.

However, when someone feels victimised as the recipient of unwanted comments or actions, that could be interpreted as harassment.

And that could be a one-way ticket to an employment tribunal on the grounds of bullying if the bullying behaviour relates to one of the current protected characteristics.

Still not convinced that HR doesn’t stand for Humour Removal?

Well, let’s look at some of the common gags that will no doubt be making appearances in offices up and down the country on 1 April – and shine a spotlight on the potential HR issues that they could trigger, as well as the real-life ramifications.

Setting a risqué screensaver on a colleague’s computer
To ensure compliance with GDPR, employees should always keep their computer locked when away from their desk. Whilst a prank like this may seem trivial, if the jokester accidentally obtained access to confidential information or deleted key documents, there could be ramifications for the organisation. All data breaches must be reported by law, and it’s unlikely that bosses will look kindly on fines received as the result of a prank

Plastic wrap on the door
An old favourite, tricksters wrap a door frame in cling film hoping colleagues will bounce straight off the plastic when trying to enter a room.

It’s a tried and tested prank – but it’s not without its health & safety risks. And as we all know, health & safety is no laughing matter.

It should go without saying that anything that could be likely to cause injury should be avoided, otherwise you could find yourself with employees needing to take sick leave, and/or compensation claims. This also applies to the old ‘bucket of water on top of the door’ trick too.

Wrapping up EVERYTHING on your colleague’s desk
Firstly, when did this take place? It’s unlikely that gift wrapping a desk 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.

Similarly, the person who must unwrap their equipment may then be put under pressure to complete the work they had planned to do, causing undue stress. So this prank is likely to be a very unwelcome gift….

Baking a questionable cake for your colleagues
Bringing in cake for colleagues is a very sweet thing to do. But if you’re trying to trick your colleagues into taking a slice of what they only think is Victoria sponge or chocolate gateaux, there are potential health & safety concerns and, if someone has food allergies or intolerances, a prank like this could have serious ramifications.

Deliberately misleading a colleague on the ingredients contained within a food item could breach the implied term of trust and confidence and cause a breakdown in employee relations. Also, no employer wants to deal with the aftermath of someone who has eaten something in the workplace that doesn’t quite go down right…

Air horn/whoopee cushion on the office chair
The sound of an airhorn would be enough to cause a fright in an open space, never mind in an enclosed office environment. Employees who are sensitive to noise, or who suffer from conditions such as anxiety, could be upset by this prank.

Whilst a whoopee cushion is certainly not as strident as an air horn, it could still cause embarrassment.

Additionally, if customers or clients are in the workplace or on the phone to a colleague at the time, they could be unimpressed with the level of professionalism of your workplace.

So, what’s the verdict….is April Fool’s Day harmless fun or workplace harassment?

If an employee feels they are always the one being pranked to the delight of others, they could feel that this is bullying. They may raise a grievance or, if the behaviour continues, even feel that they can’t work there anymore. This puts you at risk of a constructive dismissal claim.

In general, when a joke comes at the expense of someone else it’s likely not to be a joke at all.

It’s important for organisations to have a zero-tolerance stance against any form of bullying, harassment, or discrimination in the workplace, and to pro-actively take steps to avoid such behaviours occurring.

It’s probably best to keep April Fool’s shenanigans to a minimum in the workplace to avoid any issues.

If you’re a born jokester and April Fool’s without pranks is like Easter without chocolate, then I would advise enjoying the fun at home with family before coming to work. And remember, any pranks after noon mean the joke is on you.