Cumbria Times
A Voice of the Free Press
1:01 AM 1st April 2024

Are Workplace Pranksters Above The Law On April Fools’ Day?

From fake news to foam-filled shoes, it’s the time of the year when everyone’s funny bone is being finely tuned. However, there is a fine line between humorous and harsh. Can employers and employees find themselves in hot water should a prank be felt on the receiving end as harmful? Can a prank turn into legal proceedings?

Anthony Di Palma, Senior Associate Solicitor at DAS Law shares important information for any would-be workplace joker.

What is the law’s position on carrying out April Fool’s jokes at work?

Despite the occasion, existing rules governing workplace behaviour will also apply on 1st April.

When is a ‘prank’ considered going too far in the eyes of the law?

Most people enjoy a joke, but there are instances in which someone can overstep the mark. Even if the joke is within reasonable limits, a colleague may still react badly.

At the very least, practical jokes could contravene a company’s Disciplinary, internal Health and Safety, or Dignity at Work policies. At worst, they could result in litigation or even police involvement.

Could an April Fool’s prank be considered workplace harassment?

Absolutely! Employers have a duty of care to their employees to ensure a harassment-free workplace. Certain practical jokes might be indicative of an unsafe or even discriminatory work culture.

In particular, unwanted conduct that relates to an employee’s protected characteristic (such as gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, disability, sex, sexual orientation or age) might create an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” thus satisfying the criteria for a successful harassment claim.

Can employers be held liable for employees’ practical jokes?

Vicarious liability refers to a situation where someone is held responsible for the actions of another person.

Employers can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s practical jokes or behaviour, provided it can be shown that this behaviour took place in the course of their employment.

The recent Court of Appeal decision in Chell v Tarmac Cement and Lime Limited highlighted the severe consequences of what could happen to the victim of a practical joke. In this case a contractor suffered a perforated eardrum and long-term hearing loss as a result of a practical joke.

Whilst this case highlighted that employers are not expected to carry out speculative risk assessments to ensure that employees refrain from horseplay, it is a warning that employers could be vicariously liable if they are seen to be condoning a practical joke culture.

To successfully defend a claim, an employer would need to demonstrate that they took all reasonable steps to prevent an employee from doing a discriminatory act or from doing anything of that description. The employer would need to show it did not tolerate or accept this behaviour. It might be necessary to evidence the company’s acceptable behaviour or anti-bullying/harassment policies, whilst demonstrating a clear and consistent track record in investigating and sanctioning breaches of these policies.

Can an employer ban April Fool’s jokes from being carried out in the workplace?

Though it might be considered detrimental to company culture or staff morale, it is questionable whether April Fools’ pranks should be encouraged in the modern workplace.

It is important to remember that pranks require a ‘victim’ and if that person feels alienated, bullied or harassed by the actions of fellow employees, they may raise a grievance or ultimately make an Employment Tribunal claim against the company.

This not only affects the working environment and productivity levels but may also result in adverse public opinion and an unlimited fine if the prank amounts to a serious breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created.