April Fool’s day is an occasion on which practical jokes in the workplace occur frequently. Whilst most are perceived as harmless there have been instances where the jokes have had serious implications for both employers and employees.
Below are a few employment law cases in which workplace pranks led to legal action.
An employer was not liable after an employee set fire to a colleague during “horseplay”
Graham v Commercial Bodyworks Ltd (Court of Appeal)
In this case two workers in a shop were joking about when one set fire to the other with a cigarette lighter and flammable thinning agent, causing serious injury. The injured worker claimed that his employer was liable to compensate him for the injuries suffered as a result of his colleague’s actions.
The Court of Appeal concluded that “frolicsome but reckless conduct” cannot normally be said to have occurred in the course of employment, therefore it was inappropriate to impose liability on the employer in this case.
The sabotage of a heterosexual employee’s Facebook page to suggest he is gay was sexual harassment
Otomewo v Carphone Warehouse Ltd (employment tribunal)
This case shows that it is possible for a heterosexual employee to be subjected to sexual orientation discrimination, even if the harasser knows that the employee is not gay.
Two members of staff took a heterosexual manager’s phone without his permission and updated his Facebook status to saying: “Finally came out the closet. I am gay and proud.” His colleagues knew that he is not gay.
The employment tribunal upheld the manager’s sexual orientation discrimination claim. It concluded that the employer could be liable for the entries made on the phone. This was because the entries had been made by the employees in the course of their employment, their actions took place at work and during working hours, and involved dealings between staff and their manager.
A suggestion that a toy helicopter be landed on an employee’s turban was harassment
Bal v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jobcentre Plus) (employment tribunal)
It is possible for an employee’s threat of a prank, without the joke actually being carried out, to be sufficient to create problems for the employer.
The claimant in this case is Sikh, and wears a turban. A toy helicopter was being flown around the office when someone suggested that the toy helicopter be landed on the claimant’s turban.
The claimant brought a claim for religion or belief discrimination for various alleged incidents, including this particular incident. The employment tribunal upheld the claim. It said that an individual’s wearing of a turban is inherently connected with religion and, regardless of the intentions of the alleged harasser, the actions were discriminatory.
A moony in the workplace constituted sexual harassment
AM v GF and another (employment tribunal)
In this case, a female employee complained of an incident in which a male colleague “dropped his trousers, bent over with his hands on his knees, and was shaking his bottom”.
The employment tribunal held that, although there was evidence of a history of joking and that mooning was a “way of life” in this workplace and was used as a morale booster, the claimant’s colleague’s actions were unwanted and of a sexual nature. The tribunal upheld her sexual harassment claim.