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Pranks in the Workplace: It’s No Joke

Great news- New York State has vowed no new regulation changes for the rest of the year!  Ok, that was a little late since April Fool’s Day has come and gone, hopefully without any major incidents for our readers.  And the use of humor, when used properly in the workplace can help boost morale and provide a much-needed break from workplace stress. However, the prevalence and severity of pranks in the workplace should not go unnoticed by Human Resources as they can sometimes lead to costly liability concerns for employers. 

So how prevalent are pranks in the workplace?

Of nearly 7,000 employees surveyed by Careerbuilder.com, 32% reported having either initiated or been on the receiving end of an April 1 prank.  One might then reasonably deduce that the number of those affected by pranks throughout the year is considerably higher.  And while you don’t want to perpetuate the idea that HR is the fun police, it is important that employers remind employees that pranks cannot violate company policies and should not interfere with work productivity.

How far is too far?

When it comes to pranks, there are no clear-cut guidelines as to what crosses a line.  However, pranks that target an employee’s protected class status, including sexual harassment, or result in injury are the most common concerns for employers.  But determining what exactly is too far can be hard to navigate.   When it comes to hostile work environment claims based on a protected class, one-off comments or actions do not typically rise to the level of a violation of the law.  However, it's possible that a prank may be egregious enough to immediately rise to the level of a hostile work environment or the prank is part of a pattern of comments or actions that are harassing or discriminatory in nature.  With regard to safety concerns, we see that not addressing pranks that are physical in nature can be a slippery slope (pun intended).   When employees feel that horseplay generally goes unaddressed, the pranks tend to be more aggressive and more physical.

What’s the liability?

If an employee gets injured at work because of a prank that he or she was not willingly participating in, an employer may be saddled with a hefty workers' compensation claim. Employees are entitled to workers’ compensation if he or she is the victim of on-the job horseplay.  In one case, an employee who was held down and duct taped from head to toe by three co-workers received $300,000 in workers' compensation claims related to both physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.  With regard to harassment and discrimination claims, the EEOC states that in 2018, it secured $505 million dollars for victims of harassment and discrimination, an increase since 2017.

How can we address excessive pranking?

First, ensure that your policies are up to date.  By instituting comprehensive and effective written policies, employers can help to establish expected behaviors at work.  The policies should clearly call out horseplay as inappropriate workplace behavior and have a zero tolerance for workplace violence and all forms of harassment and discrimination. 

Second, employers should provide training to ensure that managers understand their role in addressing excessive and/or inappropriate pranks.  Managers may often feel ill-equipped to have these discussions or choose to avoid these discussions rather than be viewed as killjoys.  However, managers are your first line of defense when it comes to recognizing when pranks go too far and modeling appropriate workplace behaviors.  It’s important that they understand both their responsibility and the liability associated with inappropriate workplace pranks.

Finally, employers must promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints of prohibited conduct and respond in a timely manner.  Progressive disciplinary measures should be enforced consistently as needed and managers should understand that failing to address situations before they rise to the level of an employee complaint or injury may also result in discipline of the manager. 

Do we really need to address this?

Want to be shocked by just how poor some employees’ judgements are?  Just Google “workplace prank lawsuit” and start scrolling.  But make sure to give yourself plenty of time, as there’s a lot to read and chances are, you won’t be laughing at the end as the costs to employers is frightening!  These lawsuits show us that not everyone has a sense of humor about being the butt of an April Fool's joke.

 

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HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.