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Another Kind of Whistleblower: the Prank Party Pooper

Another Kind of Whistleblower: the Prank Party Pooper

Make sure your employees know when to blow the whistle on behavior that might go from funny to fatal.

If you think that warning your employees against setting one another on fire or shooting one another with nail guns is overkill, you might want to think again. Employers can be liable for pranks on the job that have serious consequences and companies can never be too careful when protecting themselves against the stupidity of their prankster employees.

Take, for example, an Australian case in which four workers were found guilty of health and safety offenses for egging their co-worker the day before his wedding. Unfortunately, the egging was only part of the prank. The coworkers strapped the victim to a panel of steel mesh, cut off all his clothing except his underwear with a knife, and pelted him with a dozen raw eggs. The supervisor then poured a half-circle of gasoline around him and lit it. The victim struggled, fell into the flames and suffered burns requiring skin grafts and, not surprisingly, psychological injuries. His wedding was ruined and he lost his job because of incapacity to work.

Duty to Intervene

In this case, not only were the pranksters found guilty, but other co-workers who didn’t come forward to stop the dangerous prank, or provide immediate first aid to the victim at the scene, were also liable.

An employer who does not have workplace policies and safety training in place is at great risk for a lawsuit when something like this happens on work property.

“Employers are liable for the actions of their employees that occur on the employer's premises and/or during working hours,” says Alix Rubin, a New Jersey employment lawyer and an investigator at Verita, LLC. “Therefore, the employer will be held liable for injury or death as a result of a workplace prank.”

Pranks as Harassment

But aside from actual injuries and death, which occur only in extreme cases of pranks gone wrong, workplace pranks can have a host of other negative consequences, adding up to big trouble for employers who condone them.

“Pranks are no laughing matter in the workplace,” says Rubin. “First, they interfere with productivity. Second, they can be easily construed as harassment, which is illegal if it is based on a protected characteristic such as race, sex, age, disability or ethnic origin,” she says. “Offensiveness is in the eyes of the offended. In other words, what may not offend one person will offend another, and that's all it takes for a prank to be deemed harassment. The employer will be held liable for such harassment, as well as for any injuries that result from a prank.”

Put Policies in Place

Workplace policies and safety training should outline what behavior is not acceptable. This is especially true in industries or workplaces with a culture or tradition of “inducting” or “initiating” new employees, where some of the worst pranks occur. Policies and training should stress that an employee seeing something dangerous being done has a duty to intervene.

In addition, policies should cover the harassing nature of pranks that may seem harmless but can put employees and the employer at risk.

“Anti-harassment, nondiscrimination and safety policies in employee handbooks should address pranks, as should annual company-wide training on these policies. Employers can emphasize that this doesn't mean employees cannot have fun at work. However, fun cannot detract from productivity or be hurtful (whether physically or emotionally) to other employees,” says Rubin.

“The requirement that employees blow the whistle when pranks look like they may get out of hand can be established as part of the employer's standard complaint procedure for safety violations, harassment and discrimination, reinforced through annual training,” she says.