Work jokes no laughing matter

THE general consensus among the HR fraternity is that a happy, fun working environment is a productive workplace.

That may well be true, but what happens when that fun or humour goes too far – either accidentally or intentionally?

Recently, following an unfortunate practical joke in a large supermarket chain, that question was put to the test.

At Woolworths’ Cottesloe supermarket last week an apprentice butcher was suspended from work after a practical joke involving a plastic spider went unnoticed by the colleague for whom the joke was intended.

The spider ended up in a package of frozen meat on the store’s shelves.

The glare of the media spotlight was soon on Woolworths after a customer discovered the spider, which was first thought to be real.

While first reports were that the apprentice was to be fired, it now seems his fate is in the hands of the WA Apprenticeship and Trainee-ship Support Network.

WA Business News believes another Perth butcher has offered to employ the apprentice if he loses his job at Woolworths.

Gascoigne Furniture managing director Kim Gascoigne is one employer who is qualified to speak on the issue of the downside of jokes in the workplace.

In February 1999 a large fire was started by two young employees using a lacquer gun outside work hours at Gascoigne Furniture’s Midvale factory.

The fire caused $1.5 million worth of damage, and business turnover fell from $300,000 a week to $40,000 per week.

Mr Gascoigne said the business still hadn’t fully recovered from the damage done to its computer systems. 

Mr Gascoigne decided against dismissing the employees – a decision he didn’t regret.

“It was an incredible lesson for everyone,” he said.

“Incidents like this come up every so often and companies have the opportunity to tighten up on policy, or on the flip side they can show some benevolence.”

Mr Gascoigne said the decision was made to retain the workers because it was not their intent to hurt anyone or damage anything, and they had immediately admitted to their mistake.

 “It is one of the saddest things; I mean everyone has had a time when they’ve done a practical joke,” he said.

“It is actually a shame because often you find people with great humour are generally very nice employees and can often have the potential to make great managers.”

And this is where HR and personnel management is critical, according to Mr Gascoigne.

He said that, since the fire, the company totally re-evaluated its personnel management and, rather than cracking down on staff, management was changed.

A Japanese-style of management system was installed, which had proved a great success, Mr Gascoigne said.

In fact, he said it had brought a lot more initiatives out of staff.

The system is all about communication.

It requires management to gather staff once a day, for 15 minutes, and explain to them what their roles do and don’t require, at the same time giving employees an opportunity to tell management of problems or issues in the workplace.

Australian Mining and Metals Association national operations manager John Flood said that while a practical joke or the ‘unofficial welcome ceremony’ was a common occurrence, employers must be careful about what they tolerated at work.

The Woolworths incident was unfortunate, Mr Flood said.

“There is that line that you can’t cross,” he said. “A company’s name is that valuable.

Also top-of-mind in all workplaces were the legal ramifications of practical jokes or behaviour gone too far, particularly those concerning bullying, harassment and occupational health and safety.

However, Mr Flood acknowledged that enjoying work was a key part of a successful business.

“The last thing you want to say to employees is they can’t enjoy themselves at work,” he said.

“A happy workplace is an enjoyable workplace and an enjoyable workplace is a productive workplace.

“When I am training I tell the troops I want them to enjoy themselves.”

Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA director of employee relations Bruce Williams said “skylarking” occurred every day in most workplaces and was an issue that management should deal with on a case-by-case basis, rather than trying to regulate it with policy.

“That [policy] would be a waste of paper,” he said.

“In every workplace there are employees who are naturally entertaining and those who want to be entertained.

“Employees generally have bucket-loads of sense and it is a rare occasion anyone gets into trouble for a practical joke.”

Mr Williams said it was a simple case for managers to communicate with staff to ensure working relations were appropriate and that customer relations were not damaged.


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