How to Keep April Fools Pranks from Being HR Disasters

As the winter months stretch longer, and spring seems endlessly far away, employees get restless. A well-played April Fool’s Day prank can do wonders to re-energize your coworkers, enhance office morale and keep your employees happy. A poorly-considered one, however, could be catastrophic – damaging relationships permanently and possibly resulting in discipline or worse.

April Fools Jokes in the Office: The Good…

Every year, someone wraps every single thing in a coworker’s office in wrapping paper or aluminum foil (or covers the entire office with sticky notes or toilet paper) on April Fool's Day in the office. It’s an overdone prank for good reason: it’s amusing every time, it’s not particularly cumbersome to deal with, and it’s not vicious or cruel. Filling an employee’s office with balloons, small balls, or packing peanuts is a little more of a nuisance, but still usually inoffensive and laughable.

HR Disasters from April Fool's Day Pranks

The key to a good office prank is that everyone finds the joke funny – including the subject. Poking fun at your coworker’s obsession with David Hasselhoff by plastering his cubicle in “Don’t Hassle the Hoff” memorabilia is probably harmless and encourages everyone who passes by to have a little giggle. Having fun with your coworkers by changing your outfit multiple times during the day and seeing if anyone notices is a clever and amusing joke with no unwitting victim (and makes the person who finally notices feel incredibly observant). 

In fact, a good joke can be good business! Working together to execute a clever scenario that lightens everyone’s workday experience can bring a team closer together, allow coworkers from different departments or projects to get to know each other, and prove that your company doesn’t take itself too seriously. Studies show that when employees are happier, they are more productive. Plus, many companies introduce spoof products on April Fool’s Day to amuse not only themselves but their clients; sometimes, the products are so popular that they lead to an surprise sales boom and a new successful product! 

The Bad…

Pranks go wrong when the subject feels demeaned, disrespected, or diminished. It’s a good idea, even if your intended joke is run-of-the-mill, to do some reconnaissance beforehand. Make sure that your planned date of execution doesn’t coincide with the last few days before a huge project is due, or fall on the day of a large presentation or client meeting. Making it more difficult for a coworker to help your business succeed will have the exact opposite effect you’re intending! Talking with your target’s assistant, project supervisor, or close coworkers can provide a great deal of insight; asking him or her directly what’s on his or her plate that day (perhaps under the guise of wanting to schedule a meeting yourself) is also extremely effective.

Give sincere thought to the mindset of the target of the joke, specifically as well as generally. For example, “Sam” might usually be a pretty laid-back guy who would think his cubicle being “foiled” is very funny; if Sam has recently been ill and under a lot of stress, however, he might not be the best target this time around. You should also consider the relative ranks in the office hierarchy of the executors and the recipients of the joke – pranking one’s superiors should be done with exceptional care and respect, and you should be equally cautious when playing jokes on staff that you manage. Playing jokes on your same-level coworkers, whom you know well and believe would legitimately be enthusiastic, is the safest bet.

Think twice about moving someone’s entire office or locker, changing their access codes, or doing anything else that makes them assume they’ve been terminated or demoted. While some people’s reactions might be confusion or chagrin, if your coworker throws his hands up in the air and whoops in delight – or throws a punch at your manager – it will be very difficult to undo the permanent aftereffects of your “joke.” 

And the Ugly…

It should go without saying, but office pranks should not be racist, sexist, cruel, frightening, harassing or dangerous. Like everything else in the workplace, it’s generally wisest to avoid anything sexual in nature or which implies religious or political opinion or criticism. Don’t do anything that could be a crime – like adulterating food, taking someone somewhere against his or her will, or touching anyone in an unwanted or offensive manner.

Be cautious to protect your coworker’s dignity and privacy – no matter how funny it is, he or she might not want to star in the latest viral YouTube video. If your joke is offensive or hurtful to your colleague, he or she may pursue litigation for civil causes of action including harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or emotional distress – and you may be disciplined, terminated, or find yourself a defendant in a lawsuit.

In the meanwhile, you might consider replacing all your coworker’s artful black-and-white family photos with portraits of Homer, Marge, and the kids…and waiting to see how long it is before he notices.


StarGarden has 30 years of HR experience managing your most important resources…your people. While we also enjoy a good practical joke now and then – within reason, of course – we focus on helping you manage your employees top-to-bottom with customized, integrated payroll and scheduling software. Contact us today for a consultation and learn how we can help you!

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