April Fools' Day on the Job: Good, Bad and Ugly Pranks

Pranksters "repossessed" car, sabotaged copier.

March 31, 2010 — -- Ah, April 1 -- day of cubicles covered with tinfoil, phones glued to their cradle and Photoshopped screensavers of co-workers walking into a jail cell or strip club.

In this era of grim business news, you might think such an April Fools' Day joke is the perfect antidote.

However, your boss may feel differently.

A telephone survey conducted by staffing firm The Creative Group found that 68 percent of advertising and marketing executives polled regarded April Fools' pranks "unsuitable for the office."

"Given that so many companies are stretched thin right now, there's less tolerance for activities that are viewed as time wasters or distracting," said Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group. "You have to be careful. You don't want these things to backfire."

Rather than spend the next 1,000 words telling you not to cross some imaginary line of office decorum, let's take a look at some real-life April Fools' Day pranks, from the good to the bad or the downright ugly. Then you can decide for yourself whether you want to be an April fool or a potentially unemployed tool.

Fun With Technology

Humor and social bonding is a key ingredient in the workplace. But, Farrugia warned, "You want to laugh with people, not at people."

One way to avoid singling out an individual co-worker for humiliation is to punk a swath of them simultaneously. Just ask Jill Knapp, who played this joke on her less-than-tech-savvy colleagues several years ago while working as the manager of information systems for a large radiology practice in Mesa, Ariz.:

"We were going through some technology upgrades, so users in the company were expecting to see some changes. On April 1, I arrived at the office very early, and I printed up memos and placed them on the chairs of about 15 employees. I made sure to choose people who would handle it well.

"The memo said: 'Congratulations! You've been chosen to pilot our new automated computer login tool. Your computer has been fitted with a microphone and speech-recognition software. You'll never have to remember your password again. To use the system, simply turn on your computer, press Control+Alt+Delete to get to your login screen, and then say your username slowly and clearly. Do not say your password! If for some reason you are not automatically logged in, try saying your name a bit louder. If this still doesn't work, say your username three times quickly to restart the system; you'll be logged on right away.'

"As users trickled into the building around 8 a.m., the chorus of spoken (and soon shouted) usernames swelled. People finally figured out it was a prank about 40 minutes later. It was a masterpiece, if I do say so myself. I thought the office administrator was going to bust a gut from laughter."

The Unnecessary Roadblock

Of course, your masterpiece might fall flat if it inconveniences or frustrates your co-workers. Jennifer Guild, a communications professional in Richmond, Va., will attest to that. Last April 1, she fell prey to a common printer/copy machine prank while on a tight deadline at work:

"My [printouts kept coming out with] a paper clip on them. I checked the flat bed of the copier and didn't see any paper clips. I had no idea what was going on. It looked bad, but I needed to submit the final draft of a brochure to all the VPs, including my president/CEO, for approval. I had to circle the paper clip on the printout and write, 'This is not on the final draft -- it keeps coming out of the printer like this.' After I put the page in my boss's inbox, I left a message for our IT guy about the printer/copier messing up. [Turns] out one of my prankster co-workers made around 30 copies of a paper clip. Then he put those pages back into the paper bin in the printer/copier. So whenever someone printed/copied something, it had the paperclip on it. No one figured out what was going on before the paper was all used for the day. Our IT guy got a ton of phone calls, but by the time he went up there to fix it, it was back to regular paper so he thought everyone was crazy.

"Eventually, my co-worker fessed up to the prank. I wouldn't have cared at all if my project didn't have to go to the CEO. I actually made him a copy of the document when it came back to me signed by the CEO with the paper clip circled. He still has it on his bulletin board to this day."

The Fake Reprimand

In today's layoff-happy workplace, celebrating April 1 by issuing fake reprimands from the boss is probably not the way to go. Elliot, a New York communications professional who didn't want his last name used, narrowly avoided a CEO run-in as a result of a prank played at a previous job last year:

"A senior level manager and I created an e-mail that appeared to come from the CEO asking about the 'Twitter habits' of one of my colleagues. The [colleague] was an associate publicist and there wasn't anything negative in his tweets. But the CEO was always nervous that there was potential to paint the company in a bad light.

"In the [fake] e-mail, the CEO questioned whether my colleague was giving a bad reputation to our firm based on his tweets. He freaked out and nearly ran into the CEO's office to justify his tweets. We were very worried he'd [go to the CEO] so we had to clue him in rather quickly. My colleague was upset but relieved. He took it as good fun and vowed revenge -- though he has yet to get it."

The Over-the-Top Caper

"If you want to put the senior executive's car in the middle of a fountain, that's probably not smart," Farrugia advised.

In most corporate cultures, a prank like that could land you a pink slip faster than you can say "Ferris Bueller." Even extreme prankster Bert Martinez, a Houston-based business coach with almost two dozen employees, warned against trying this one at your own home office:

"I had known A. for many years prior to him coming to work for me. I knew he was a guy with a lot of integrity and somebody I could trust with my clients. But after a while, he started missing deadlines and lying about it. He would be in charge of FedExing things back to our clients. One time he swore up and down that the FedEx had gone out and gave me the tracking number. Only, the client didn't get the FedEx and the tracking number wasn't in the system. Any other employee I would have simply fired. But because of our friendship, this called for some extraordinary [tough] love.

"He had bought a brand new car, and because we were such good friends, he gave me a set of keys as a backup. At 1 a.m. [a mutual friend and I] drove A.'s car out of his driveway and parked it at the downtown mall. Then we called the police and reported the car repossessed. When A. woke up to find his car gone, he called the police and they told him it had been repossessed. He called his bank all pissed off because he wasn't late with his car payment. When they told him, 'We didn't repossess your car,' he put two and two together and figured out it was me. He left me three or four voicemail messages, calling me names, screaming.

"To me, it was funny. To him, it was not funny at all. He literally did not talk to me for a month. If he had to interact with me at work, he was very short, very distant. In any other situation, if the boss would have done that they would have been sued or reported to the EOE."

The Ill-Timed Bad News

April 1 is not the day to deliver bad news to employees.

Ronald Katz of Penguin HR Consulting, a management training company in New Rochelle, N.Y., knows this from firsthand experience. During the last recession, Katz worked at a financial firm that was planning to trim staff late in the first quarter of the year. Here's his tale of woe:

"Things kept delaying the process and the exits were finally planned for March 31. Then, one more problem arose and we needed to move the releases to -- you guessed it -- April 1. I begged the senior managers to push it to April 2, but they would not relent.

"I wound up doing an exit interview on April 1 with a good friend, someone I ate lunch with two or three times a week. He was convinced it was a joke even after I took his keys and employee ID. As he left my office he kept stopping, looking back, waiting for me to say 'April Fools!' But I never did. I can still see his face as he stood in the doorway to my office. It was one of the most difficult exit interviews I ever had to conduct."


This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire," and, "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.