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A practical joke in the workplace seems like harmless fun, but can have serious consequences for both employers and employees.
Stephen Simpson of Personnel Today wrote about nine employment law cases in which workplace pranks led to:
- Legal action including allegations of misconduct leading to dismissal,
- Harassment against colleagues
- Serious injury for which the employer could be liable
It highlights what can happen when an intended joke has severe repercussions. Here are the first fives cases discussed. Look out for next week’s blog for the other four – and what actions employers should take.
Employer not liable after employee set fire to colleague during “horseplay”
- Graham v Commercial Bodyworks Ltd(Court of Appeal)
In this 2015 decision, the Court of Appeal held that an employer could not be held liable for injuries caused by a prank gone wrong in the workplace after one employee set fire to another during “horseplay”.
Two workers in a bodywork repair shop were joking about when one set fire to the other with a cigarette lighter and flammable thinning agent, causing serious injury. The worker who was injured claimed that his employer was liable to compensate him for the injuries caused by the perpetrator’s actions.
The Court of Appeal reviewed the case law on employer liability for employees’ acts of violence and concluded that “frolicsome but reckless conduct” cannot normally be said to have occurred in the course of employment, meaning that it was inappropriate to impose liability on the employer in this case.
Workplace pranks: a history of violence
It has long been established that employers can avoid liability for practical jokes in the workplace if they can show that the jokers were acting on a “frolic of their own”, for example by doing something totally unconnected with work.
Two contrasting cases from the 1950s show this principle in action:
- Smith v Crossley Brothers(Court of Appeal, 1951)
As a “practical joke”, two mechanics removed a colleague’s trousers and inserted a rubber hose into his bottom. The rubber hose expelled compressed air, causing serious injury.
The Court of Appeal found that the employer was not liable for the resulting injuries as there was nothing that the employer could have done to prevent such unpredictable actions.
- Hudson v Ridge Manufacturing Co Ltd(Court of Assizes, 1957)
An employee’s wrist was broken when a colleague wrestled him to the ground as a practical joke. The colleague was a known practical joker and had a reputation for playing pranks. The employer had been aware of this for years.
The employer was found to be liable for the injury because it was obvious that the joker posed a danger, but it had done nothing to prevent him from committing further pranks.
Male manager fairly dismissed for “attempting to touch a colleague’s testicles and bottom”
- Charlton v Orange PCS Ltd(employment tribunal)
A sales manager at a call centre was accused of attempting to touch a colleague’s testicles and bottom. The two men had a history of conflict.
The sales manager denied that he had done this, although he did admit that he liked “pranks” and could not rule out that he had made a “rugby gesture”.
The manager was dismissed and claimed unfair dismissal. The employment tribunal rejected his claim, deciding that the employer had a genuine belief based on reasonable grounds that the claimant was guilty of the alleged misconduct, and had carried out a fair disciplinary procedure.
Manager’s wheelie-bin prank recorded on CCTV
- Adamson v Mitchells & Butlers Retail Ltd(employment tribunal)
An employee’s workplace prank can undermine the employer’s trust and confidence in him or her, and warrant summary dismissal, as this case demonstrates.
A large company dismissed the pub manager of one of its flagship venues. He was recorded on CCTV being pushed around in a wheelie bin by a female colleague. He fell out of the bin and embraced the woman. Damage to a door was later discovered.
The employment tribunal concluded that, although the manager was apologetic and admitted that getting into the wheelie bin was “a ridiculously stupid act”, his dismissal was fair because the employer had lost all trust and confidence in him to manage the premises on its behalf.
Next week, you can read about four more cases, plus how we advice employers to handle these situations.
If you think that you have a similar situation within your workplace, speak to Consensus HR for professional, unbiased HR advice. Contact Matthew on 01462 621243 or email him via firstname.lastname@example.org.