How Not to Get Sued For April Foolishness in the Workplace

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Editor’s note: This popular post from 2013 seemed appropriate to bring back today.

There’s a distinct possibility that some of your employees will do something foolish today that could get you sued, fired or worse.

To help prevent that from happening, the following is our handy How Not to Get Sued for April Foolishness.

The April Fools’ Hall of Shame

Death. Serious injury. Emotional distress. Massive lawsuits. All have resulted from workplace pranks gone bad. Here are just a few examples:

  • Death and injury ain’t funny. Unfortunately, workplace pranks too often result in unintended — and sometimes tragic — consequences. One employee was killed when a co-worker engaging in “horseplay” thought it would be funny to spray him with a high-powered compressed air hose (Kirby v. Louisville & Nat’l Railroad Co.). Another employee needed surgery following a “prank” in which the company’s president gave him an electric shock (Caudle v. Betts). The lesson from these cases is simple: pranks involving physical contact are never a good idea.
  • A free car? On a somewhat lighter note, a manager at a Hooter’s Restaurant in Florida celebrated April Fools’ Day by offering a “free Toyota” to the employee who sold the most beer that day. At the conclusion of the contest, the manager blindfolded the employee and led her out to the parking lot where he presented her with her prize: a “toy Yoda” — a Star Wars action figure. The less-than-amused waitress sued for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation, ultimately getting enough money to pick out any real Toyota she wanted.
  • A real drag. The movie National Lampoon’s Vacation features a scene in which Chevy Chase ties a dog to the bumper of the family car, forgets about it and then drives off. Apparently inspired by that scene, an employee thought it would be funny to tie a dead chihuahua to the bumper of a co-worker’s car. Unaware that the dead dog was there, the co-worker drove around town, horrifying plenty of passers-by. Making matters worse was the fact that the man was deaf and couldn’t hear all the passing motorists honking at him and begging him to stop. Eventually he was pulled over by the police, who charged the “prankster” with unlawful disposal of a dead animal.
  • Armed robbery ain’t funny either. In honor of April Fools’ Day, an employee at a clothing store in Columbus, Ohio thought it would be hilarious to call her manager at home and tell him that armed men were robbing the place. A few minutes later, she called him back and shouted “April Fools!” Unfortunately for her, the quick-thinking manager had already called the police who arrived on the scene in minutes. The police charged the employee with unlawfully inducing panic and the manager fired her.
  • Static is better than porn. When the reception on a conference call started getting static-y, an employee thought it would be funny to give everyone a porn hotline as the new dial-in number. Several of the callers didn’t appreciate the joke and the employee got fired.
  • The Case of the Undead Mayor. Two Boston radio DJs decided to honor April Fools’ Day by broadcasting the (untrue) news that the city’s mayor had died in a car accident. Unfortunately, efforts to disprove the story were foiled by the fact that the non-deceased mayor was traveling out of town and was unable to be reached. The two DJs were fired for the hoax but, in a perverse twist, the resulting publicity landed them a nationally syndicated gig.
  • Dog food delight? As reported previously, an L.A. firefighter was awarded more than $1.4 million for racial harassment when a co-worker snuck dog food into his dinner as a “joke.” The city wound up paying even more ($1.6 million) to two of the employee’s supervisors who alleged that they were unfairly made scapegoats for the incident.

So, what should employers do?

Done right, workplace humor can be a great thing for employee morale. Done wrong, it can be a disaster.

The idea is not to prohibit all workplace fun, jokes and pranks but rather to:

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  1. Help employees know where the line is; and,
  2. Take appropriate action if the line is crossed.

Here’s a simple solution: consider adding to your employee handbook a statement prohibiting “potentially unwelcome, offensive or harmful workplace jokes or pranks.”

What should never be allowed

Enforcing the policy should be fairly straightforward. Pranks that involve any of the following should never be allowed:

  • Race, gender or other protected or physical characteristic threats;
  • Physical contact, including ingestion of unwelcome odors or substance;
  • Weapons (even toy ones) or other potentially dangerous objects/substances;
  • Damage to property or a person’s reputation;
  • Interference with a person’s ability to do his/her job.

If a joke/prank crosses the line, strongly consider taking disciplinary action. Otherwise, you risk a perception that the company condoned the activity, which was precisely the result in several of the lawsuits noted above.

This was originally published on Manpower Group’s Employment Blawg.

Mark Toth has served as Manpower Group North America's Chief Legal Officer since 2000. He also serves on the company’s Global Leadership Team, Global Legal Lead Team and North American Lead Team. Mark is recognized as an expert on legal issues affecting the U.S. workplace and is frequently quoted in media from The Wall Street Journal to 60 Minutes. He is also a past Chair of the American Staffing Association and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources. Contact him at mark.toth@manpowergroup.com.

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