It may be tempting, but if in doubt don’t be a prankster at work - Jack Boyle

A well-executed prank can be the source of much amusement. Anything which goes to bolster healthy camaraderie in the workplace is a good thing, right? Today of all days, the sharp-minded employee can hatch a conniving plan to gain respect and adoration from their peers at the expense of an unwitting colleague.

My own personal motto every April 1 is to just get through the day without falling victim. As with all aspects of human behaviour designed to amuse, pranks can go wrong. People take things too far. Some of us are less easily amused by puerile antics than others. We all see things differently.

Where, then, does an employer stand on April Fool’s Day? Could a prank ever end up in court? The short answer is, yes, of course. In one recent employment tribunal case, a train driver discovered that his colleague was squeamish towards spiders and other creepy-crawlies. He decided that it would be hilarious to place a tarantula’s exoskeleton (shed outer skin) in her work pigeonhole. She was, given her squeamishness, distressed by this. During a subsequent discussion between the two, the driver, undeterred by his colleague’s bad reaction to the first prank, raised with her the prospect of leaving a snakeskin in her pigeon hole. She told him “no I would not like that”. He asked her if she would report him, to which she replied “yes”. The only sensible next step for the gentleman was of course to place a snakeskin in her pigeonhole. This did not land well and she complained to the employer (as she said she would).

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The employer investigated the situation and, ultimately, dismissed the driver for breaching its bullying and harassment policy. The employment tribunal found that this was an unfair dismissal. The tribunal accepted that the prankster driver’s conduct was unacceptable. However, they decided that the conduct was not sufficiently serious to result in gross misconduct or justify dismissal. Of relevance was the driver’s unblemished 20 years’ service. The tribunal also took into account evidence of banter in the discussion between the driver and his colleague about the snakeskin plot. Compensation in excess of £40,000 was awarded to the driver, and he was reinstated.

Jack Boyle is a Director, Blackadders LLPJack Boyle is a Director, Blackadders LLP
Jack Boyle is a Director, Blackadders LLP

As to pranks in the workplace, the judge observed: “Considered objectively, pranks are peculiar. Their purpose is to cause a degree of upset or discomfort, albeit fleeting. On that basis, many, if not all, pranks could be considered as bullying. That makes them no less commonplace. It is very clear, and the Claimant openly accepted at the hearing, that some pranks may well be considered by a reasonable employer to be so serious as to constitute gross misconduct. Plainly not all will, regardless of whether classed as bullying or not.”

The full circumstances of a particular prank would have to be assessed to determine whether a dismissal could be justified. For example, the extent to which there was risk of physical harm – minimal in this case. A prank which is abusive may be treated more seriously than one which is merely childish. Had the spider’s skin been placed in the cab of a fast-moving train, the outcome may have been different. Finally, the evidence suggested the person who took the decision to dismiss was of the view that this matter could have been resolved informally. That was found to be inconsistent with a finding of gross misconduct.

If in doubt, don’t be that prankster.

Jack Boyle is a Director, Blackadders LLP

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