1st April is a time harmless mischief - but what happens when someone plays the April Fool at work?
What is humorous to one person could feel like harassment to another. It is easy for horsing around and “banter” to go too far, for someone to take offence and lead to allegations of misconduct and bullying. Employers will be left to manage the fallout and face the risk of a claim against them in an Employment Tribunal.
One “practical joke” turned into something far more serious and resulted in Mr Otomewo doing just that - taking his employer, Carphone Warehouse to court and winning.
Two of Mr Otomewo’s colleagues took his phone without his consent, accessed his Facebook account and changed his status to say “finally came out of the closet, I am gay and proud.” The two workers knew their manager was not gay. The Tribunal decided that the employees' conduct amounted to sexual orientation discrimination despite Mr Otomewo being heterosexual.
Age based comments are often the focus for complaints and a sensitive area for many. Even if someone appears to tolerate the teasing, they may still be able to succeed in a claim at Tribunal for discrimination.
What should employers do? If a worker raises a complaint or grievance - investigate it promptly, fully and take the appropriate action. Failure to be seen to treat a grievance seriously or to prevent harassment, discrimination or bullying occurring could entitle an employee to resign and claim they were forced out.
Mr Otomewo brought his claim against his employer rather than the two colleagues. If the actions were carried out 'in the course of their employment', employers can find themselves liable for the actions of their staff. The employer was liable for the acts of its employees because the Facebook entries had been posted in the course of employment, during working hours and were between staff and a manager.
Compensation in discrimination cases is unlimited so this could prove to be expensive.
Tips for employers
• Just because something occurs on 1st April, don’t turn a blind eye to it. Deal with misconduct in the same way as you would do so if it occurred on any other day.
• If an employee complains that a trick has been played on them, deal with it efficiently and follow your grievance procedures.
• Whether a prank is offensive or not is not a subjective test - if the target of the joke takes offence and raises a grievance or even brings a Tribunal claim, saying the offence was innocent or unplanned is not a defence
• Ensure the right policies are in place and up-to-date and ensure all staff are aware of and trained to prevent inappropriate workplace pranks or jokes from occurring in the first place.
About the Author
Philip McCabe is an experienced employment lawyer who has been advising businesses and individuals on a wide range of employment and HR issues since 2000.
He is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association, Industrial Law Society, and Law Society. He regularly writes for national publications on employment law issues and is a regular columnist in the Derbyshire Times.