ET Sides with Driver After He’s Unfairly Dismissed For Playing “Tarantula Prank” on Colleague

After being sacked for playing a tarantula prank, Jonathan Richardson has been compensated for his unfair dismissal claim. Below, we discuss the facts of his case and what the employment tribunal said. Then, we examine the fine line between office pranks and bullying in the workplace.

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Train Driver Sacked After Employer Said Prank Amounted to Bullying

Jonathan Richardson had over 20 years of train driving experience when he joined West Midlands Trains in 2018. Some time in the middle of 2022, he had a conversation with a female colleague, where he learned of her fear of spiders. Subsequently, he had the idea of playing a tarantula prank, where he would place its exoskeleton in her pigeonhole.

The train driver hoped to elicit “momentary shock, followed by light-hearted relief” upon her realising it wasn’t a live spider. However, his female colleague was distressed by the incident and required assistance to remove the exoskeleton. 

Once she learned that he pulled off the tarantula prank, she swore at him. He replied, saying he might try the same with a snake’s skin next time. The female colleague responded, stating she would report him if he did.

During proceedings, Jonathan Richardson stated how he felt this exchange was “jokey” and didn’t realise his colleague was genuinely upset. She also labelled this conversation as “over-the-top banter”. Yet, she reported him to her superior when he repeated the tarantula prank with a snake’s skin.

The female colleague was asked whether she felt “intimidated, bullied or harassed”, to which she replied “all of the above”. Then, Jonathan Richardson apologised sincerely to his colleague at a subsequent September disciplinary meeting. Despite this, he was dismissed for gross misconduct after the employer concluded his tarantula prank amounted to bullying.

Tarantula Prank was “Largely Harmless” States ET

He unsuccessfully appealed this decision, which resulted in him making an unfair dismissal claim to an employment tribunal. Whilst acknowledging the prank was “very ill-judged”, the tribunal felt it “extremely unlikely… to have led to such serious impacts”. They added, “They didn’t involve any risk of physical harm… they were largely harmless, childish pranks”.

Ultimately, the tribunal believed the conduct didn’t amount to bullying, meaning Jonathan Richardson had been unfairly dismissed. As such, they awarded him compensation for his unfair dismissal claim. They ordered his reinstatement and awarded him £22,571.22 for loss of earnings and £704.99 a week until he was reinstated.

The Line Between a Prank and Bullying is Closer Than You Think

Workplace fun like that of the tarantula prank may appear harmless; however, there’s a fine line before it becomes bullying. It’s, therefore, essential to consider how the joke affects the recipient.

For example, sending an inappropriate message from a colleague’s email, unbeknown to them, could have adverse effects. This may seem funny at the time, but trouble could arise for all concerned parties. That’s because this unprofessional act could risk GDPR breaches and reputational damage for both the colleague and the employer.

Alternatively, an employee may tell their colleague that their manager wants to see them, falsely implying they’re in trouble. Such conduct could massively impact the colleague’s mental health, unnecessarily filling them with anxiety and stress. Consequently, an environment of negativity and fear could be cultivated as the relationship of trust is broken between the employees.

And despite bullying not being illegal, harassment is. If the conduct relates to a protected characteristic, intending to violate someone’s dignity or create an intimidating environment, it could amount to such harassment. In such circumstances, the victim of the misconduct may be able to claim compensation. Yet, it’s not only the offending employee who could be liable, as the employer may be vicariously liable too.

Therefore, although the tarantula prank was established to be “largely harmless”, others may face a harsher verdict. To avoid disputes and legal action, it’s best to refrain from pranks that come at the expense of another.

Contact Redmans Solicitors now if you’ve faced circumstances similar to Jonathan Richardson’s and want to make an unfair dismissal claim. Our team of employment law specialists could discuss your case before advising on your possible next steps.

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