HR Blog: No offence! What happens when jokes and pranks go wrong in the workplace?

An unexpected turn of events at this year’s Oscars ceremony put a spotlight on how “it was just a joke” can go horribly wrong.

Best Actor winner Will Smith walked on stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife Jada’s medical condition, leaving attendees and viewers worldwide stunned.

The Academy, who organises the Oscars, initially tweeted that it “does not condone violence of any form” and has since announced a formal review into the incident.

Jokes that poke fun, or banter as it’s otherwise known in the UK, may cause harm and as seen here the fallout can be disastrous. It’s a lesson for all, but a reminder too for employers to understand the risks if this were to play out at work.

Comedians walk a fine line for a profession. If employees were to be involved in such a spat, it’s even more complicated due to risk of discrimination and potential vicarious liability for an employer.

April Fool’s Day, when pranksters come out to play, is just around the corner. So it’s as good a time as any for employers to understand the dangers of jokes and pranks gone wrong in the workplace.

Humour in the workplace

Having a laugh at work is great. Laughter increases endorphins and reduces stress, making for a happy and inviting work environment.

However, jokes made at someone’s expense can cross boundaries and run the risk of being discriminatory. Furthermore, bullying and harassment are often shrugged off as “just a joke”, but can cause serious harm if persistent and result in a toxic work environment. “I didn’t mean it” is not a solid defence at a tribunal.

What should you do?

Managers are unlikely to be able to censor all jokes from employees, nor will they want to. However, with a little training they can help to set the tone for what is and isn’t acceptable humour. They’ll also need to be prepared to handle any complaints that may arise from a miscalculated joke and what to do if they receive an employee grievance.

Practical jokes and pranks gone wrong

From banter to pranksters, what should you watch out for when it comes to pranks in the workplace?

Practical jokes may provide light relief from time to time, but if this sort of thing becomes the norm it can lead to silly and reckless behaviour known as horseplay. Examples of this can include a chair being pulled out from under someone, or machinery being used for things other than its intended purpose.

Health and safety is no joke and both employers and employees have responsibilities when it comes to health and safety in the workplace.

Vicarious liability is a real risk for employers, but as a recent case has shown, having policies and warnings in place that ban recklessness can help to form a defence.

In Chell v Tarmac Cement and Lime Ltd [2022] where a contractor suffered hearing loss and other symptoms as the result of a colleague’s practical joke, the employer was found not liable at the Court of Appeal.

The judge expressed that it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect an employer to have a system in place to ensure that their employees did not engage in horseplay. That fitters should refrain from horseplay was implied by the fact that they were engaged to carry out their tasks using reasonable skill and care. Furthermore, the employer’s site rules warned against the reckless use of any equipment.

This case shows that whilst employers are not expected to prevent all instances of senseless actions from staff, reasonable preventative measures are required.

Help from your HR Dept

If you have a self-confessed comedian or a prankster on your team and want to check that you’re doing what you need to in order to protect your people and your staff, we can help.