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With April Fool’s just around the corner, it’s important for businesses to understand their potential liability if they have jokester employees who take their pranks too far. Unfortunately, office pranks tend to fall in a heavily grey area with each case (and prank) being unique to the employee and business. So, in a world where jokes can easily get out of hand, what should employers be wary of this 1st of April?

Jokes and pranks, whether amongst friends, family or co-workers, can have a variety of reactions: jovial, exasperated, entertained, uncomfortable, light-hearted to name a few.

Office pranks can result in negative emotional consequences that could include a work environment where people do not feel comfortable. Working in such an environment could lead to more employees wishing to work from home, or employees not showing up to work at all. Other negative consequences could include distrust and unease around fellow employees, not just the ones who are pulling pranks.

It’s vital that employers and employees know what is and isn’t alright. Below are four key responsibilities that all employers should know:

  • Employers have a liability to ensure all employees have access to a safe, respectful and harassment free place to work
  • Whilst the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) doesn’t specifically make reference to pranks, it does state that employers have a duty to prevent a ‘reasonable foreseeable’ risk of injury, e.g., when an employer knows, or ought to know, that a particular employee poses a risk to others
  • Employers can be held vicariously liable for injury caused to employees where it’s proven that the employer was aware of pranks taking place but failed to make precautions
  • In addition to criminal health and safety precautions, employers may face personal injury claims from victims of pranks at work
A joke too far

The third point is critical here. If an employer knows what’s going on in their workplace and does nothing to prevent or warn the jokester that their behaviour is unacceptable, they can be held vicariously liable for damages should it get out of hand.

There have been cases of employees being found liable for the harmful ‘jokes’ occurring on their premises.  In the case of Hudson v Ridge Manufacturing Ltd. an employee suffered an injury after a co-worker, well known for his practical jokes, forced him to the ground. The company was found to be vicariously liable on the basis that it had failed to put a stop to the prankster’s behaviour despite a string of similar incidents involving other employees.

There’s also a risk that what appear to be playful pranks, are symptomatic of a sustained campaign of bullying, or combine with other issues to cause serious mental distress.

So, how can employers prevent falling into a situation where they may be liable for an employee’s bad humour?

Scott Crichton, Principal Health & Safety Consultant at WorkNest, says this could include coaching, awareness training, supervision, rewarding safe behaviours, and learning from incidents rather than blaming staff. “Health and safety culture plays a large part”, he says, “however, that is changed by one conversation at a time, with one team at a time. It’s about building trust between colleagues and setting appropriate boundaries.”

It’s vital for employers to understand how they could be liable for their employees’ misplaced humour. What one employee might find as a harmless prank (pulling a chair out from beneath another employee for example) could be physically dangerous as well as mentally harmful to another. This doesn’t mean that work environments need to be humourless places, but it’s important that everyone agrees to the same jokester playbook.

Our Legal Assistance Helpline, manned by our legally trained experts, is available 365 days, 24/7, to assist our policyholders navigate the complexities of employment law, along with support on any personal or commercial legal problems, depending on the scheme access.

Michael Jenkins, Head of Legal Advice, Arc Legal Group

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