When pranks are no joking matter

Most of us enjoy a good joke, but jokes and pranks in the workplace sometimes backfire…

Here’s a true story of when a manager went too far

An employee felt overwhelmed by their workload in the finance department of an NHS trust and had taken time off sick, suffering from stress. Against that background, their line manager chose to send them a mocked-up email purporting to remind them that they were due to make a presentation to senior management the following day.

The employee took the email seriously and was preparing to work through the night at home when the line manager sent them a further email, saying that she was ‘only joshing’. The employee found the experience highly stressful and, although they felt under pressure to take the matter in good part, they remained extremely unhappy about it.

After they complained informally to a more senior manager, they were ostracised by some other members of their department who took steps to obstruct them in performing their duties. In a particularly disturbing form of revenge or sabotage, information they had entered on their office computer was tampered with or deleted.

Following a negative appraisal, the employee raised a formal grievance. Their complaint about the manager’s practical joke was upheld but the allegations of bullying were dismissed. The employee appealed but resigned before receiving the appeal outcome. They told the employer that they had been subjected to bullying, that the employer had not handled their grievance very well and that they had felt uncomfortable and isolated at work.

The employee received the appeal outcome while working their notice. The employee upheld all allegations and the manager was disciplined for the practical joke.

The employee submitted a claim of constructive dismissal to a tribunal who saw the complaints as a connected series of events, beginning with the lack of training, the purported joke, the actions taken to undermine them, the “unduly negative appraisal”, and “pranks” such as deleting their files.

In upholding their complaint of constructive unfair dismissal, the Employment Tribunal noted that there was no possible justification for a practical joke played on a busy and stressed colleague who had previously been signed off sick. By itself, the incident amounted to a fundamental breach of their employment contract which would have entitled them to resign on the spot.

Awarding them £9,890 in compensation, the Employment Tribunal noted that the joke was just one of a number of incidents that served to undermine their position. Managerial efforts to address the bullying culture that they faced appeared to have had little effect and may even have resulted in them being further isolated. Had they not swiftly moved to a new job, thus minimising their financial losses, the award would have been substantially greater.

Dignity at Work

What can we learn from this? Whilst the line manager’s intention was supposedly a joke (albeit in very bad taste), it caused further stress to an employee who was already feeling overwhelmed and was perceived as bullying. All employees are entitled to a working environment free from bullying and harassment, and Dignity at Work training would have raised awareness of the different behaviours that can constitute bullying and harassment.

It’s important to remember that the motive of the alleged bully/harasser is irrelevant – it is up to the victim to decide if treatment is offensive.

If you’re interested in our Dignity at Work eLearning module, or if you’d like help developing policies for Bullying and Harassment and/or Grievance, please contact us.