Workplace Pranks: More Costly Than Funny

As April Fool’s Day approaches, some employees might be scheming to pull a range of pranks on unsuspecting co-workers. Of the 6,800-plus employees surveyed by in 2008, 32% reported having either initiated or been on the receiving end of an April 1 prank.

But all too often, pranks backfire, causing pain and humiliation for the intended target…and resulting in potential harassment, hostile environment, constructive discharge, and/or Workers’ Comp liability for the employer.

The Comedy Police

Humor is subjective, but as an employer, you have the right to declare what is out-of-bounds in the workplace. Take a stand against so-called humor that:

  • focuses on protected characteristics or on stereotypes of protected characteristics,
  • occurs in front of, or is perpetrated on, customers or clients,
  • has the potential to cause physical injury,
  • has the potential to damage company or personal property,
  • prevents workers from performing their jobs,
  • is tinged with violence, including fake threats and toy weapons.

Start with a reprimand, and use progressive discipline as needed. Follow up to make sure that the behavior ceases; if it doesn’t, you may be on the hook.

Case in point: A relatively new employee was shocked when a co-worker superimposed his picture on a suggestive photo. He was even more shocked when it happened again. He complained to management, and the individuals involved were subsequently reprimanded. That didn’t stop one of his co-workers, though. She passed around at a sales meeting a photo of the employee’s face superimposed over that of former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey. The related newspaper article detailed McGreevey’s homosexual activities. Claiming that his reputation was damaged by the association with the disgraced governor, the employee sued for defamation. A jury awarded him $5,000. (Viglione v. Express Times, et al., Northampton Cty. Ct. of Common Pleas, No. C-0048-CV-2005-1974, 2008)

Guiding principle: It’s okay to impose harsher discipline on the employee whose prank damaged company property than on the worker who told a dirty joke. It’s not okay to impose harsher discipline on a female, minority, or rank-and-file employee whose prank damaged property than was imposed on a male, white, or supervisory employee whose prank also damaged property.

The Joke’s On Them

You might want to give employees a heads-up that pranks could result in personal liability. The employee who was the butt of the joke may sue his/her co-workers for a prank that results in any physical or psychological injuries. Knowing that they, personally, could be sued, might just be the motivation jokesters need to cease and desist from their inappropriate ways.

Advise pranksters that they may be held personally liable for:

  • assault and battery,
  • defamation,
  • false imprisonment, or
  • intentional infliction of emotional distress.