This season’s initial episode of Mad Men opened with a scene of employees from a rival ad agency throwing water balloons at civil rights protesters outside of their building. The men’s prank clearly had racist overtones and as a consequence they went on to be publically admonished for their actions and were an embarrassment to their company. While this is a fairly blatant example of a prank gone wrong, all sorts of jokes and pranks in the workplace can walk a tricky line.
The biggest issue is that many pranks are simply not appropriate for the workplace. Certainly anything as offensive as the prank from Mad Men is inappropriate in any setting but even something that might be funny in another context, such as covering one’s floor with tiny cups of water or putting a kick-me sign on a friend’s back would likely be deemed unprofessional in the workplace.
On the positive side, jokes and pranks can lend a little bit of levity to a stressful workplace. They can also be the cause of bonding between employees who might not otherwise interact with a common non-work related goal.
On the other hand, just as they can increase social interaction between some employees, they can also create exclusivity within the office. For example, one group of employees had an ongoing prank that involved a small toy. A different member of the group would always have the toy and would plant it somewhere, like the inside of a bottle of aspirin or taped to a car’s rearview mirror, to be found by another unsuspecting member of the group. The prank was in many ways a good one for an office. It was harmless, funny, and caused very little distraction from work. The problem was that only a limited number of employees participated in the prank and those who had not been honored with the toy showing up in their things started feeling like they were being left out of this new fun group that had formed.
In this case, the problem had an easy solution. The pranksters realized that they were being exclusive and started rotating the toy among other members of their office. The prank eventually fizzled but without any bad feelings.
That said, here are some rules to make sure that your office pranks stay on the appropriate side of the line for the workplace:
1. Don’t do anything with discriminatory overtones. This should apply to all of your actions in and out of your office!
2. Do attempt to have good timing. Don’t plan your prank for the day of a big board meeting or for the busiest part of your boss’s day when his sense of humor may be lacking.
3. Don’t make a mess. This goes double for any mess that your company’s cleaning service or maintenance workers would have to clean up.
4. Do be inclusive. Try to involve as many coworkers as you can so nobody feels left out.
5. Don’t try physical humor. It’s too easy for somebody to get hurt and then you’re going to have to get HR involved!
I’m sure you can keep all of these points in mind and still have a good time.