Practical Jokes in the Workplace: Are they Suitable?

Year Published: 2021

Although they may be seen as humorous, practical jokes in the workplace can lead to unnecessary stress and upset for employees. Charlie Wood, Associate Solicitor, outlines the case of Carol Hurley v East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust and explains how these types of actions can have drastic and costly consequences.

Carol Hurley v East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust

The case of Carol Hurley v East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust is a prime example of employees getting a practical joke very wrong.

Amid a period of heavy workload, the Claimant’s manager decided to play a practical joke on her by sending an email to remind her of a three-hour presentation that she needed to deliver to the senior management team the following day. The manager even mocked-up an email allegedly from the general manager to corroborate the story. Her colleagues played along by agreeing that the Claimant has been informed about the presentation earlier that week, suggesting she must have forgotten about it. It is rather obvious that pulling such a ‘prank’ could easily have the effect of putting an undue amount of pressure on a person for no reason whatsoever.

The Claimant found this very stressful and as a result stopped all urgent work for financial month end and left work at 16:00 believing she would have to work all night to prepare. At 16:37 that afternoon, her manager sent an email stating: “Only joshing!!!! Have a great day.” Of course, this did nothing to help the situation.

Around the same time, the Trust began to establish a central finance team and the Claimant agreed to a new role there. The transition to the new team was difficult and her team members were not happy with the changes. One team member even refused to do anything the Claimant asked of him.

Constructive Unfair Dismissal Claim: What was the Outcome?

The Claimant raised this, alongside other complaints, in a grievance submitted during a period of stress-related sick leave from March to June 2018. When she returned to work, she found the contents of her desk had been removed and no one admitted who had cleared them. The Trust’s investigation into her grievance upheld her complaint about the practical jokes in the workplace but dismissed her other complaints. The Claimant resigned on 14 September 2018 and brought a claim of constructive unfair dismissal.

The Judge stated: “There is no possible justification for doing that to a member of staff in any circumstances. But the Claimant was busy, stressed, and had already been signed off sick. That was a fundamental breach of contract by itself, and she would have been entitled to resign at that point. She did not, however. People feel they must try to take practical jokes in good part, but she remained very unhappy about it.” The Judge went on further to say that the “attitude of colleagues appears to have followed hard on the heels of the informal complaint about [the manager], and management efforts to address the culture appear to have had little effect, and perhaps even resulted in further isolation.”

The manager in question was herself disciplined for her poor behaviour – which only further supported the fact that her actions were unacceptable to such a degree that they entitled the Claimant to resign. As she had found alternative employment shortly after leaving the NHS Trust, her losses were reduced considerably, however she was still awarded £9,890.60 in compensation.

Know Your Audience

The outcome of this case does not mean that you cannot have fun whilst in work, however it is important to do so with a degree of common sense. A key phrase to consider is “know your audience” – as it is less important how a joke was intended to come across, but more about how it is received by the person in question. If you are ever in doubt about whether a practial joke in the workplace could be perceived in the wrong way, it’s best to avoid. Also, lessons can be learnt here about managing employees in general. When the Claimant moved teams she had employees below her refusing to carry out management instructions – which itself could have been an act of gross misconduct. These issues were clearly not addressed which only further the Claimant’s stress. Always remember to treat all staff fairly and consistently – and to act promptly whenever an issue arises.

If you have any concerns about a practical jokes in the workplace or for any other other Employment law matter, please contact Charlie Wood, Associate Solicitor, on 0161 475 7673 or email [email protected].

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