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Horseplay in any working environment is laden with risk for employers and that is certainly true of practical jokes. An Employment Tribunal (ET) resoundingly made that point in awarding almost £10,000 in compensation to an NHS worker who fell victim to one such, particularly unfunny, attempt at humour (Hurley v East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust).
The woman felt overwhelmed by her workload in the finance department of an NHS trust and had taken time off sick, suffering from stress. Against that background, her line manager chose to send her a mocked-up email purporting to remind her that she was due to make a presentation to senior management the following day.
She took the email seriously and was preparing to work through the night at home when the line manager sent her a further email, saying that she was 'only joshing'. She found the experience highly stressful and, although she felt under pressure to take the matter in good part, she remained extremely unhappy about it.
After she complained informally to a more senior manager, she was ostracised by some other members of her department who took steps to obstruct her in performing her duties. In a particularly disturbing form of revenge or sabotage, information she had entered on her office computer was tampered with or deleted. She eventually lodged a formal grievance concerning the joke and other matters.
After her grievance was largely rejected, she resigned. It was an unusual feature of the case that, following her resignation, the grievance decision was reviewed and her complaints were in the most part upheld. The line manager was disciplined but, by that stage, the die was cast and she moved on to a new job.
In upholding her complaint of constructive unfair dismissal, the ET noted that there was no possible justification for a practical joke played on a busy and stressed colleague who had previously been signed off sick. By itself, the incident amounted to a fundamental breach of her employment contract which would have entitled her to resign on the spot.
Awarding her £9,890 in compensation, the ET noted that the joke was just one of a number of incidents that served to undermine her position. Managerial efforts to address the bullying culture that she faced appeared to have had little effect and may even have resulted in her being further isolated. Had she not swiftly moved to a new job, thus minimising her financial losses, her award would have been substantially greater.