Discriminatory April Fools’ Pranks Are No Joking Matter

A reminder about following company policies can help head off lawsuits

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. March 28, 2018
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​April Fools' Day jokes that make fun of someone's age, disability, sex, race or other protected status—such as religion, national origin or in many regions sexual orientation—may lead to discrimination complaints. Injuries resulting from mischief also can lead to workers' compensation claims.

HR shouldn't prohibit April Fools' jokes entirely though, as that could hurt morale, said Anne Cherry Barnett, an attorney with Polsinelli in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Remind employees instead to not violate company policies, she recommended.

Discrimination Claims

This year, office pranks will be less common, as April Fools' Day is on a Sunday, but employers should make sure hijinks don't discriminate, according to Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago.

A worker in his 60s once filed an age discrimination claim after co-workers sent him falsified medical test results on April 1, Weiss recalled. Colleagues created the records after they'd heard the worker was going to see a doctor. The records said that the employee had only a few months left to live. The worker turned ashen and slumped in his chair, and the co-workers left him there for two minutes before jumping out and saying, "April Fools'," Weiss said. The fact that the team manager participated in rather than stopped the prank led the company to settle, he noted.

One common act on April Fools' Day is sending another worker sexually explicit material. Scott Fanning, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Chicago, recalled one manager who handed the employee a folder and said there was an assignment inside. When the worker opened it, there instead were explicit images, which the manager thought would make the worker laugh but led to a sexual harassment charge.

If an isolated, off-color prank happens on April Fools', it may not rise to the level of an actionable harassment claim if harassing events haven't occurred repeatedly over time, Fanning said.

But Weiss cautioned that sexually explicit pranks may be severe and pervasive enough, even just in one day, to violate equal employment opportunity laws—such as with repeated lewd e-mails—and certainly can lead to claims.

Sometimes a prankster and his or her target may think that a discriminatory joke is funny, but others in the office overhear or see it and file secondhand harassment claims, Fanning stated. Secondhand harassment is "no different from a pinup calendar or graffiti in the workplace. Employers have to be aware of it and can't disregard complaints about it," he said.

"As a result of the #MeToo movement, employees have a broader view of sexual harassment and are much less tolerant of any sexually suggestive or risqué jokes at work," said Monique Gougisha Doucette, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in New Orleans. "There is an overall heightened sensitivity to jokes and pranks in the workplace right now."

Occasionally on April Fools' Day, employees have even placed nooses in colleagues' workspaces, which shows such poor judgment and is severe enough to justify termination, Fanning noted.

"The main themes are that if you consistently enforce anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and employees know that, just because it's April Fools' Day will not change how you enforce your policies," Fanning said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

Injuries

In addition to concerns with discrimination claims, workplace injuries resulting from April Fools' pranks can increase employers' workers' compensation or medical costs.

"The risk of injury during April Fools' is a big one," Weiss said. He recalled one employee who decorated the front of his forklift with a huge likeness of the company CEO, who was out of town. The worker chased colleagues around the workplace with the forklift until someone fell down a flight of stairs trying to escape.

Food-related funny business is common at work on April 1, Weiss noted. He recalled one employee who heated up a hot dog, then another worker replaced it with a hard-rubber version, and the lunching employee chipped a tooth.

Injuries can be more harmful. In one instance, Weiss recalled that the greasing of stairway bannisters caused cracked ribs; the company paid for the medical costs.

Do's and Don'ts

Barnett said HR can provide a friendly reminder of do's and don'ts in advance of April Fools' Day, including:
Do's

  • Any joke should align with company culture or mission.
  • The audience of a joke should be considered. April Fools' is not the ideal time to pull a prank on a new co-worker. If an employee chooses to prank, the worker should choose a joke that will be well-received. If the company culture is serious, the employee should think twice about proceeding with any prank.
  • All possible outcomes should be thought through. A would-be prankster might maybe even run the joke by a third party to get an opinion on whether the joke is funny or appropriate for the workplace.

Don'ts

  • No jokes should focus on an employee's race, gender, age, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, sexual identity or other protected status.
  • No pranks should interrupt an employee's ability to complete his or her job or interfere with a deadline.
  • No jokes should be physical. There should be no physical contact or injury.
  • No pranks should cause damage to property or the company's reputation.
  • No jokes should suggest someone has been terminated or demoted.

 

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