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April Fools’ Day and the workplace prank

Published 21 March 2016

Playing practical jokes on 1 April is a tradition that is centuries old - but it can cause modern day problems in the workplace. Despite having no official recognition April Fools’ Day is about making other people look stupid with pranks.

When it all started remains something of a mystery although there are a number of theories, one of which traces the origins back to the 16th Century.

In the UK people are traditionally only allowed to play jokes on others until midday. TV stations, newspapers and companies often join in the high jinks.

There are a number of examples in employment law of what can happen when workplace joking around goes wrong.

In Graham v Commercial Bodyworks Ltd the Court of Appeal held the employer liable for injuries caused to an employee who was set on fire when a prank went wrong.

And in Otomewo v Carphone Warehouse Ltd a heterosexual employee lodged a successful claim for sexual orientation discrimination when colleagues changed his Facebook status to say he was gay.

Those involved in setting up or playing a joke on a colleague may find the reaction to it absolutely hilarious. However, the person on the receiving end can be left humiliated, especially as there is a trend to capture the moment on camera and share it via social media or online.

Complaints from an employee may include allegations of bullying, harassment or discrimination. The actions of the joker can bring the company into disrepute or lead to a loss of trust and confidence in the individual.

Any complaint or concern should be investigated in a fair, reasonable and timely manner and the allegations should be clearly defined.

Where practicable the investigation should be conducted by someone who is not involved in the allegation. They should be willing to look for evidence in support of the complaint as well as against it, and speak to all parties involved and produce written evidence.

No employer wants to be a killjoy, and while there is still a place for a harmless joke in the workplace, it may be a good time to remind all staff of their responsibilities as April Fools’ Day can sometimes prove to be no laughing matter.

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