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April Fools: Just a prank?

Laptop on desk

5th April, 2022

This is a bizarre case involving an employee who decided to play a practical joke on his colleagues which got very out of hand…  Mr D Bucholz v GEZE UK Limited

Facts

The Claimant was a technical product manager and was notorious for being ‘the joker’ in the office. One day he thought it would be funny to set up white lines of sherbet paper and rolled up pieces of paper on his desk to look like illegal drugs to play a prank on his colleagues.

The Claimant forgot about the prank, but it was later discovered by external cleaners on site who brought it to one of the director’s attention. The director initially thought it was a joke knowing whose desk it was; however, he later doubted himself and called the police to confirm the white substance was not in fact drugs. After testing, the police confirmed it was indeed sherbet powder.

The Respondent brought disciplinary proceedings against the Claimant and subsequently dismissed him for gross misconduct. The Respondent reasoned that the Claimant’s actions was a clear breach of its Disciplinary Policy as he could have brought the company into serious disrepute and damaged its reputation had the incident been circulated on social media.

The Claimant brought a claim for Unfair Dismissal.

Judgment 

The Employment Judge was not satisfied that the conduct was serious enough to warrant gross misconduct and that, objectively judged, a reasonable employer would not have imposed such a sanction. Whilst the Claimant’s conduct could be seen as ‘foolish’ and ‘careless’ it was held it did not merit the loss of his job. The Claimant was therefore found to be unfairly dismissed.

As part of the decision, the Judge considered whether the Claimant’s actions could have brought the Respondent into serious disrepute but ruled that the risk of reputational damage was low when everyone at the company, including the cleaners, had understood that this was meant to be a practical joke. Furthermore, the Claimant’s actions had not been circulated on social media so no reputational damage had been caused.

Other relevant factors which the influenced the Judge’s decision included: (1) the Claimant’s long length of service  as there was no live warnings on his file aside from a written warning for conduct very different to this incident; (2) the Claimant had apologised to the cleaner who discovered the prank if it had caused her any concern or distress; and finally and importantly, (3) the Respondent had failed to consider imposing a lesser sanction to reflect that such conduct was unacceptable such as a final written warning.

Considerations for Employers

Whilst this case is unusual in its circumstances, it serves as a reminder to employers of the importance of ‘reasonableness’ during disciplinary proceedings. Employers should consider all circumstances of each case and whether dismissal is reasonable or whether a lesser sanction would be more appropriate.

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