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How can you tell if a workplace joke is a good or bad one?

Published 31 January 2022

Let’s face it we all like a good laugh and usually do not mind if it is at the expense of others, even at work.


Some may perceive workplace pranks, jokes and banter as nothing more than a bit of fun that is good for morale and helps to build team spirit.


Others, and it is often those on the receiving end, can have a completely different view, and consider it bullying


And it is distinguishing between ludicrously inappropriate jokey behaviour and acceptable behaviour, where the line can become blurred and create a serious problem for any employer.


Workplace jokes will usually be light-hearted and playful and done with a sense of fun to create laughter and amusement between the people involved.  Bullying hurts a person or is done with the intention to hurt.


Although there is no legal definition of bullying, it can be described as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either: offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting, an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone [1 cited 31.1.22]


When it comes to workplace high jinks, there are no definitive guidelines as to what is acceptable. Determining when the joke has gone too far can be difficult.

But if it directly relates to a protected characteristic of an employee e.g. race, religion or sex, then should it prove to be no laughing matter, it may amount to harassment [2 cited 31.1.22]


Inappropriate behaviour among colleagues, even when intended to be good natured, can lead to formal grievances [3 cited 31.1.22]

Employees should be fully aware of the standard of behaviour expected from them. Company policies should be up to date, comprehensive and effective and make clear inappropriate horseplay and jokes, violence, harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated.


Any complaint that emanates from a workplace joke or prank should be taken seriously and investigated and dealt with properly.


The fallout from employees said to have been fooling around at work , was highlighted in a recent employment tribunal case.


A civil servant who claimed she was gagged and bound to a chair lost her £500,000 compensation claim for unfair dismissal after a tribunal ruled it was just ‘high jinks’ [4 cited 31.1.22]


In 2018 the image of DeeAnn Fitzpatrick taped to a chair with tape over her mouth went viral.   She claimed it was retribution for blowing the whistle on abusive and misogynist behaviour in the office.


But her bosses did not believe her and she was sacked for lying about when the photo was taken.


In dismissing Ms Fitzpatrick’s unfair dismissal claim, an employment tribunal ruled the photo was just 'high jinks' and the two male workers who tied her up believed they were playing a prank.


It is reported that the workplace was ‘dysfunctional’. It was described as one that had a 'culture of puerile pranks.'


Workers were said to have allegedly put ice down each others clothing, taped someone who had fallen asleep to his chair, placed tape on the beard of another member of staff, poured shredded paper over someone, and used a pen casing as a ‘peashooter.’


No employer wants to be a killjoy, but the workplace should be a safe and inclusive environment for all workers.


Any employee who complains about being offended, hurt or upset by a workplace prank should be listened to.


If any inappropriate behaviour or wrongdoing by any employee is subsequently identified it can be dealt with following the guidance in the ACAS Code of Practice guidance [5 cited 31.1.22]


Ensuring managers and employees receive regular training, information and guidance on areas such as equality and diversity, bullying and harassment can help to prevent any inappropriate pranks and jokes in the workplace, and to avoid costly legal action.

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