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April Fools’! Jokes, Pranks & Shenanigans in the Workplace

April 1, 2021

As a lawyer, I hate fun. April Fools! I’m hilarious, ask anyone (except my spouse, coworkers or friends).

Jokes aside, I do generally advise that employer clients treat jokes, pranks, and other shenanigans with caution in their workplaces. The same goes for employees, who may find themselves inadvertently in breach of their employer’s policies on bullying and harassment (and the Human Rights Code).

A few questions to consider before you place that fart cushion on David’s chair or circulate the funny meme Aunt Mildred found on Facebook:

(1)    Is this joke targeted at someone else, be it an individual or identifiable group?

(2)    Has this person or group consented to being the butt (pun intended) of the joke?

(3)    If you were the butt of the joke, how would you feel about it?

(4)    If you had to explain why this joke was funny, would it be awkward or offensive?

When considering the above questions, remember the following:

·         Consent does not mean forced laughter or tacit acceptance. It means a clear, verbal or written confirmation that the person involved finds the behaviour equally entertaining. This can be confirmed with a simple “Harry, are you okay with me teasing you about your moustache?”

·         Supervisors or anyone in a management position should remember that there is a power imbalance between them and their staff.

·         Jokes targeted at other people mean that you are getting your jollies at the expense of someone else. Consider carefully how that joke may be interpreted. For example:

o   Jokes about being pregnant might be heard by a woman who just suffered a miscarriage.

o   Jokes about mental health might be heard by a co-worker whose friend just committed suicide.

o   Jokes about the Easter religious tradition and the Easter bunny might be heard by a colleague who is a devout Christian.

·         Jokes that are homophobic, racist, sexist, or otherwise obviously offensive are not appropriate in the workplace. Full stop.

Best practice? Keep any jokes in the workplace consensual, between peers, and self-deprecating.

Bullying and discriminatory behaviour comes with a price tag, and often at the expense of an inclusive workplace culture. Employers need to have policies in place to address such behaviour, and should seek legal advice early when a potential issue arises.

Employees who are uncomfortable with workplace behaviour should say so, and consider reporting ongoing behaviour to HR – chances are, you aren’t the only one.