As employees in organizations across the country aim to connect with their coworkers through laughter, April Fools' Day pranks continue to grow in popularity in the workplace. It's imperative that employers understand the risk involved in office pranks and take measures to both mitigate risk and react promptly when things go wrong.
When the Joke Isn't Funny
Even well intentioned April Fools' Day pranks can wreak havoc on the workplace, like the pranks in these examples:
- A Boston TV producer convinced an entire viewer audience that a harmless hill in the area had suddenly erupted, spewing flames and lava, in 1980. The prank resulted in mass panic and overloaded state and civil defense lines with calls seeking instruction for evacuation, and the producer was fired for his poor judgment.
- Intel plant workers taped a "kick me" sign to a coworker's back on April Fools' Day in 2012, and - as expected - the employee was kicked and ridiculed throughout the day. The end result? The employee sued the company and the pranksters not only lost their jobs, but left with misdemeanor battery convictions.
- Southwest Airlines airport officers forcibly handcuffed and hauled a new employee out of her workstation, stating that she was under arrest, in August 2002 (not even on April Fools' Day!) to "make her feel welcome" as she wrapped up her probationary period. Southwest Airlines was sued by the employee, who was humiliated by the prank.
- A crew of firefighters staged a fake robbery using fireworks to simulate gun shots in order to scare a coworker. Multiple crew members were left with corrective action: one was fired, one was demoted, four were suspended, and one received a correction action.
Best Practices for Employers
The single most impactful measure an employer can take to reduce their risk of pranks gone wrong is to develop a culture of accountability and inclusion. When employees understand the differences - both evident and hidden - between themselves and their coworkers, they're much less likely to participate in activities that could leave an employee feeling frightened, discriminated against, or humiliated. Simply knowing that "not everybody is like me," to put it simply, helps employees consider that a joke they find funny may not be funny to others.
Second, a no-tolerance policy for violence and bullying is critical (and enforcement of that policy is even more important). All employees should feel confident that if they assault a coworker - despite their intentions - they will not be permitted to continue working in the organization.
Finally, employers should build a company culture around mission, vision, and shared core values. When employees understand the impact their work has on the world, they're more inclined to take their work seriously and carefully consider their actions.
What to Do If a Prank Goes Wrong
Managers can help prevent pranks gone wrong by visiting with their teams about April Fools' Day ahead of time, providing clear guidelines for staff. If a manager recognizes that a prank is in poor taste or likely to offend, they should immediately put a stop to it and ensure the employee is addressed and corrected. The best defense against legal action is prompt response.
A professional employer organization (PEO) can draft policies to protect your organization and provide clear guidance in difficult employee relations situations like these.