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Tread Carefully April 1; the Joke Might Be On You
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  3/31/2010

April 1 can find a colleague’s office covered in toilet paper or a door boarded up, but a national survey shows that there’s a line in each organization that just shouldn’t be crossed.

Nearly 70 percent of more than 500 marketing and advertising executives don’t think that playing April Fools’ jokes at work is a laughing matter—41 percent said it’s not at all appropriate and 27 percent say it’s not very appropriate, according to phone interviews The Creative Group conducted the first quarter of 2010.

“Many advertising and marketing teams are stretched thin, and there may be less acceptance of activities that are viewed as potential distractions,” said Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group, in a news release. The Creative Group is a staffing service that provides creative, advertising, marketing and web experience on a project basis.

“April Fools’ jokes often have a target, too, which can make them hard to pull off without hurting someone’s feelings.”

Linda M. Farley, who works as a trainer, writer, facilitator and instructional designer, remembers an April Fools’ prank at work several years ago that went sour and cured her of pulling April Fools’ jokes on colleagues.

“I disguised my voice and called one of the other supervisors. I told her that she had won a huge monetary prize. She was so excited. She went around the office telling everyone. I really thought sooner or later she would figure out what day it was and suspect that she was the brunt of a joke,” Farley said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

“Not so. She was so elated that I began to worry about how she was going to take the news that she hadn’t really won anything. I finally confessed, and her hysterical crying was forever [embedded] on my brain. Pranks in the family are one thing,” said Farley, who always pulled jokes on and with her brothers, “but at work probably should be avoided.”

However, there is room for fun in the workplace, Farrugia noted.

“Humor that is inclusive and well-intentioned can be a morale booster, which is especially important when business conditions are difficult. Employees who can foster a more positive work environment are assets to any team,” she said.

Enter the Lawyers

While an April Fools’ joke in the workplace might not lead to a lawsuit, it can be used as evidence of a discriminatory mind-set toward a protected class, whether intentional or not, according to Chris H. Mills, a labor lawyer and partner with Fisher & Phillips LLP in Murray Hill, N.J.

“Don’t use April Fools’ Day to get back at someone you don’t like … and just hide behind ‘it was just a joke,’” Mills cautioned. “A lot of pranks are a continuation of the schoolyard bully” and are mean-spirited.

While HR doesn’t have to be the “fun-killing monster,” it doesn’t hurt to send a reminder to people to exercise care.

“Your normal rules of conduct are not suspended on April 1,” he pointed out. Mills advises employees to “be triple-extra careful if you’re going to prank your boss,” as it might turn the boss against you. “As a boss, don’t ever do it to a subordinate,” he added.

“It’s all about the corporate culture … and different cultures within [an organization’s] various operations,” Mills said. “Be cognizant of the culture you’re in. Don’t do something so alien you’ll stand out,” he advised.

Placing a whoopee cushion on a co-worker’s chair at a Wall Street firm will be perceived far differently than at Motley Fool, for example, where “they live for that, they love that,” he said.

And sometimes April Fools’ pranks become “part of the mystique of the office,” Mills told SHRM Online. One guiding principle to consider, he said, is “a year from now, could you talk about it fondly?”

Jack Goldenberg, who was the creative director of the Blakeslee Group in the early 1990s, relishes one such joke that relied on people’s fascination with celebrities. He and some colleagues at the Baltimore ad agency started a rumor that Tom Cruise was shooting a testimonial for one of the company’s clients.

“We told everyone he was coming by around 11 a.m., and for the first two hours very little work was done at the company and many female employees primped and fussed until they were sure they looked just right for Tom’s visit,” Goldenberg said in an e-mail.

“Around 10:45 a.m., a new rumor spread that it was all an April Fools’ joke, but we assured everyone “Tom” was not due until 11. At precisely 11 a.m., a long white stretch limo pulled up with darkened windows.

“The limo sat there for 20 agonizing minutes, and finally several employees asked me to go up to the car and find out why Tom Cruise wasn’t coming in. I went back into the agency and said, ‘He said he’s not coming in until he gets his carrots. He wants me to go out and bring him some #x1*7%! carrots. And they have to be organic!’

“Then I heard a huge female chorus of ‘Buy him the carrots! Buy him the carrots!’ I went to a grocery store near the agency; I picked out the biggest, most organic carrots I could find and delivered them to the limo.

“I went to the agency and waited. Five minutes later, I got a call on my cell. I answered the phone. ‘Did you like the carrots?’ I asked, without even saying hello. Then I appeared to have another argument with the elusive and demanding Tom Cruise.

“I stormed out of the agency, not saying anything until I was just within hearing distance.

“He wants some #@$%! lollypops. He says he won’t come in until I get him a bag of # @$%! lollypops.

“Same deal as before. I delivered the lollypops and waited for his call. The phone rang. ‘He’s coming in.’ Everyone, even the men, cheered.

“The limo driver gets out of the limo and opens the back door. Out jumps one of our agency creatives wearing a big pink bunny suit. He’s carrying a basket of lollypops and eating a carrot. He comes inside the agency, hands a lollypop to one employee after another and says, ‘Would you like a lollypop SUCKER!’ ”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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