Practical jokes in the workplace are no laughing matter

Inappropriate behaviour by staff can lead to a raft of grievances and harassment claims for employers, says Joanne Frew

It is important for the workplace to be a safe and inclusive environment. Playing pranks on colleagues who are already highly stressed will undoubtedly lead to workplace grievances and litigation. 

The employment tribunal case of Hurley v East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust provides a useful reminder to employers of the importance of setting out clear parameters for the workforce on appropriate behaviour. 

Employees should receive regular training, information and guidance on areas such as equality and diversity and bullying and harassment. It is of paramount importance that leaders take responsibility, act as role models, continually drive through appropriate standards and call out instances of poor behaviour. 

Hurley saw an employee, who had previously been signed off with stress, fall victim to workplace bullying in the form of a practical joke. During a busy month end, the claimant, who was already struggling with stress, was tricked into stopping urgent work and preparing a sham presentation. The claimant's line manager sent her an email at 11.25am reminding her of a three-hour presentation that she was to deliver to the senior management team the next day. Others in the office were in on the joke. The claimant left work at 4pm still believing she had to deliver the presentation and that she would be up all night preparing. At 4.37pm her line manager sent her an email stating: “Only joshing!!!! Have a great day.” 

Tricking an employee, who is already stressed, into stopping urgent work and preparing a fake presentation is clearly unacceptable. As the judge stated: “Like many practical jokes, it was not at all funny.”

The practical joke itself was not an isolated incident and was found to be part of a series of events. The claimant suffered other incidents of bullying and was further ostracised. The claimant lodged a grievance; however, her concerns were largely rejected. While the appeal was underway, the claimant resigned and left the trust. Unusually, her complaints were largely upheld on appeal and her former line manager was disciplined. 

The tribunal found that the culminating impact of the claimant's treatment amounted to a fundamental breach of the duty of trust and confidence. The claimant's constructive dismissal was found to be unfair and she was awarded close to £10,000 in compensation. 

In the concluding remarks, the tribunal stated that the claimant had been undermined, given an unduly negative appraisal, isolated and subjected to a number of small pranks. Management efforts to address the culture had little effect and may have exacerbated the isolation. 

Although this case provides a stark warning of how such behaviour can lead to constructive dismissal claims, it is not groundbreaking. There have been a number of examples of practical jokes leading to successful employment tribunal claims. However, in the current environment, with many employees working under added pressure and increased anxiety, it is more important than ever for businesses to send out clear messages on appropriate behaviour in the workplace. 

Fostering an inclusive workplace does not just avoid expensive litigation. A poor workplace culture can lead to a number of issues, including poor performance, increased sick leave, high turnover of staff, grievances, claims of discrimination, difficulties recruiting and a tarnished reputation. Company culture filters down from the top to the rest of the workforce. 

Altering the culture in a workplace is no easy task, as management found in this case. Creating a positive culture requires commitment, demonstrable good behaviour from leaders and a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment. 

Joanne Frew is head of employment law at DWF