On my way to my desk the other day I popped into the office of a colleague, grabbed some documents from his desk, stapled them to the leaves of the plant next to his chair, scrawled “I love Pascal Lamy” across his copy of Inside Trade and started composing a suitably humiliating e-mail at his computer. But as my cursor hovered over SEND, something unusual happened: I wondered whether my behaviour was entirely appropriate.
I say “unusual” because I have been behaving in this distinctly un-FT way for years. But weighing on my mind recently has been a meeting with an old friend who, in relation to a disastrous but nevertheless, in my view, hilarious prank I played at school, remarked: “God, you were such a moron then.” Having always found myself incredibly amusing, the comment took me aback and made me wonder whether my predilection for office pranks might be similarly moronic.
Sifting through newspaper cuttings for advice, I didn’t find much in the way of consolation, only tales of caution: a story about a security guard in the US who died of a heart attack after being “kidnapped” by co-workers, a story about a joke that went fatally wrong at a Merrill Lynch office party in New Zealand when someone’s grass skirt was set on fire while he was in a toilet cubicle.
Meanwhile, the little advice dished out specifically on the subject of office pranks was uniformly disapproving. People who insist on larking around in the workplace label themselves “lowbrow, possessing a lampshade- on-the-head sensibility”, wrote one commentator in a US newspaper. Most office pranks are “aggressive and will likely serve to instil a negative work environment”, wrote another.
But eventually, as I trawled further back, one piece of faintly reassuring evidence emerged: some research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Management in 1999 concluding that “humour enhances individual and team performance” – albeit with the caveat that “the impact of humour depends on who is using it – transformational leaders use it to positive effect but laissez-faire bosses [can cause] damage by trying to be funny”.
As ever with academia, this is a long way of saying something simple. What they mean is: office humour is a funny – as in peculiar – thing. It is impossible to generalise about it in the same way that it is impossible to explain why some people are in hysterics when a colleague sets their stapler in jelly, while others find it as amusing as the Wall Street Journal. In short, carrying out an office prank successfully is more difficult than sending a man into space.
Of course, the safest thing to do would be never to be silly. But then, in my view, being silly is the one of the things that makes working life tolerable. I would even go as far as saying that the question of whether to prank or not to prank evokes the most profound dilemma of corporate life, one that confronts us the moment we turn up on our first day: how much do we dare to be individual in the face of pressure to conform?
After some deliberation I have concluded that it is good to prank. But before you tape down the button on a colleague’s phone so that it continues to ring after it is answered, or leave a message for the boss to call Mr Lyon, next to a number for the local zoo, it is worthwhile reminding yourself of some basic truths about workplace humour.
(1) People are rarely as funny as they think they are.
(2) Comedy is subjective and cruel – no joke appeals to everyone and nearly every joke has a victim. Before you go ahead with any prank, you should ask yourself: can my victim take a joke?
(3) Comedy is all about timing. Something your target might find amusing when he/she hasn’t got much on, might not be as as hilarious when he/she has a deadline to meet. Also, if you are pranking more often than you go to the loo, there’s a problem: you are an irritant.
(4) It is never a good idea to carry out a practical joke that will affect an entire company or a large department. Everyone has a different sense of humour, and a proportion are bound to consider you a moron. Be focused.
(5) Bear in mind the nationality of those you are targeting. I am informed that the Japanese have a preference for visual gags – wigs etc – while Germans, apparently, rarely consider levity at work appropriate.
(6) Bear in mind your profession. In medicine anything short of a human hand in someone’s drawer is not considered funny, whereas in law anything more than a whoopee cushion is seen as outrageous.
However, there are two scenarios in which none of the aforementioned qualifications apply. The first is when your intended target is someone who attended an English public school. Given that a significant proportion of their education will have involved them being taunted with jolly japes, it is almost always OK to play a prank on them. They can take it. Indeed, some of them can only communicate through wind-ups.
And then there is the situation where you have yourself just been
the subject of a practical joke. If someone has scrawled phallic symbols across your copy of Heat and sent a message to your boss from your PC, volunteering to do work that you
had no intention of doing, I would
say it is quite permissible for you
to act in revenge. At least this is why, in the end, I clicked SEND without any guilt whatsoever.