Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
I’m convinced that there are two types of people in most workplaces: those who find office pranks hilarious and those who think pranks have no place at work, ever.
I say this because I receive a surprising number of letters about pranks at work, and they inevitably provoke a flood of outraged responses from anti-prank readers, followed by a wave of replies insisting those people are killjoys who don’t understand fun.
To be fair to the first group, a fairly high proportion of the pranks people write to me about do go horribly awry—ending with someone upset, humiliated, in trouble, or injured. It’s easy to hate on those. Here’s one example:
I would like your opinion on this workplace prank gone bad. I work with two gentlemen who work on the same team in a large call center, Fergus and Niles. They are friends and in their 20s. This team is not an entry-level team; both employees have been promoted to be on this team, and they have both worked for the company for over two years.
Yesterday afternoon, as a prank, Fergus placed a pair of scissors on Niles’ chair, apparently assuming Niles would see them before sitting. He did not. Niles was injured and taken to an urgent care for a puncture wound. Niles’ injuries were minor, but it was a bit embarrassing for him as everyone in the call center was able to see this happen. Due to the blood, his chair had to be replaced as well.
Think that’s bad? It gets worse:
I manage four reports and two of them made another think $50,000 had gone missing and she was being arrested for stealing it. … They went so far as to get one of their wives to pretend to be a police officer there for the arrest. The one who was accused wept so hard she vomited. She was adamant she didn’t do it and asked to phone someone to go stay with her sick mother while she was in custody. It was only then [that] she was let in on the joke. She has not returned since it happened and will not answer calls or letters. … I have no clue what they were thinking. They say it was intended to be hilarious, not mean. I don’t know of any trouble before this and all of my reports seem to get along.
Sometimes it’s even management that’s at fault:
Years ago, at my old dysfunctional company, the owner/boss called the group from my office into the conference room and had all the other offices on speaker phone. He then announced that the company had been sold and the new company would be interviewing us to keep our jobs. There was an audible gasp and more than a few people were in tears. After about 5 minutes of this, he came clean and said “April Fools!” What an asshole he could be. The office mood was pretty tense the rest of the day … no one was amused.
But not all office pranks go so badly. Some are actually funny and embraced by their targets:
One year, a woman in our office came in early and swapped pictures on other employees’ desks. So instead of my two boys, I had pictures of a couple of beautiful daughters and some strange man I didn’t know. My boys were on other people’s desks. One lady even had a framed picture of someone out of a magazine. It was funny and cute and we all had fun tracking down our own pictures.
Here’s another one that went over well:
We plastic wrapped the entire office of a senior VP. The guy was very cool, and everyone knew he liked pranks though he didn’t do much. So we grabbed a couple people, a huge roll of plastic wrap, and did his office. Monitor, phone, keyboard, mouse, desk, chair, trash can, white board, etc. If it was there, we wrapped it. He loved it and the whole area heard him laughing when he found it. (We were careful to time it so we wouldn’t mess up meetings or anything—the assistant helped.)
There are some key differences between pranks that go well and pranks that end in tears or injury. First and foremost, if a prank has any hope of succeeding, the “joke” can’t be that someone is scared or humiliated or getting terrible news. The prank needs to be funny for everyone, not just the people executing it, which means that prank-pullers need to know their targets well enough to be certain of how the joke will land.
In a good-natured group that adheres to those rules, work pranks can sometimes become a form of team building, because sharing humor and goodwill and just being silly together can humanize co-workers and strengthen relationships. But when a prank is done even slightly wrong, it usually functions as the opposite of that—and leaves alienated and upset colleagues in its wake. So, pranksters: Know your targets and calibrate accordingly.