A Terrible Practical Joke

by Evil HR Lady on March 16, 2016

I’m a contractor for a fairly large consulting firm. The client site I work at has a handful of government employees, and most of the rest of us are contractors. A handful of folks from the office next door got together and played a prank on one of their own that I feel is highly unprofessional.

This woman had the stomach flu two weeks ago, so they kept convincing her she was pregnant. Finally, someone brought in a home EPT kit for her to use to settle it once and for all. Unbeknownst to the victim, however, it was a fake positive test bought off Amazon. She started freaking out.

They finally let her off the hook, via a sign posted at the entrance to their area.

I don’t really have a question, just am wondering at the audacity of some people. Three of the four who perpetrated that joke were government employees (including the chief of the unit we all work at). Who does that?

I wrote a short personal response to this letter writer and was going to leave it at that, but by golly this bothers me. It bothers my so much that I’m going to write in all caps. PREGNANCY IS NOT TO BE JOKED ABOUT. Sure, you can make jokes about weight gain, craving, and coming to an agreeable name (Suzanne is always a lovely choice for a girl), but you do not joke about being pregnant or not being pregnant at all.

You do not post Facebook messages that declare you are pregnant on April Fool’s Day. You do not post that you’re pregnant and due on a certain date based on a code sent around to bring awareness to anything. And YOU DO NOT TRICK A COWORKER, FRIEND, RELATIVE, OR MORTAL ENEMY INTO THINKING SHE IS PREGNANT.

This is so horrible I don’t even know why I need to explain this to people. Do you know how women get pregnant when they don’t want to? Do you know that an unexpected positive pregnancy test can either be the best news in the world or enough to induce sheer horror? And then when she finds out it’s a “joke” the opposite reaction will then ensue. And here’s the deal–no matter how well you think you know someone, you don’t know she will think.

If this had happened under my watch, the “jokesters” would have been read the riot act. This is not funny. Not funny at all. Not remotely funny. It is not a good joke at work. It is not a good joke with friends. It is not a good joke on the internet. When you think you’re being funny by declaring yourself to be pregnant when you are not (ha, ha, ha!) you’re bringing unnecessary heartbreak to your friend struggling with infertility.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah March 16, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Hello: After reading the article on the poor practical joke regarding pregnancy, a couple of other things came to my mind as an HR professional. How we communicate to one another in the workplace and with correct workplace terminology. The first is I see that you said you would have “read someone the riot act” if they played a joke. You shouldn’t say that. The reason being is that that sentence alone can be racial. For example: I had a manager once use the term “Obamacare” instead of Healthcare Reform to an African American employee. This employee became offended because of the term “Obamacare”. (Note: President Obama is African American). So do you see what I’m getting at? Also there was a word missing from your article toward the end. Reread it and see if you can grasp it. At the present time, I’m working on getting my supervisors to communicate in the correct way and to keep in mind the audience they are communicating to. While it’s sometimes good to use “slang” in communication, most if not all of the time in the work place, it may be taken the wrong way….Just a few thoughts from another fellow HR Professional. I enjoy your articles. Thank you!


fposte March 16, 2016 at 2:49 pm

The Riot Act is an actual English law from the 18th century that includes a requirement to read out a specific proclamation before dispersing unruly gatherings. Not sure how you’re reading it as racial.


greybeard3 March 16, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Oh good grief. “Riot Act?” RAAACIST! “Obamacare?” RAAACIST! Is that really what they believe on your home planet?

I was wondering how long it was going to take for pseudointellectual twits with Grievance Studies degrees to start infesting corporate HR departments…


J.B. March 16, 2016 at 8:29 pm

“Obamacare” is a bit politicized for work, although it would depend a lot on the context. If someone were going on and on about the burdens, that darn president, etc, it wouldn’t be too surprising if that same person were also espousing lots of other views. The problem of course is the whole. It would be nice if instead of being pro or anti political correctness we could all decide not to be a$$holes, huh?


Elliot March 16, 2016 at 10:30 pm

Even President Obama has at times referred to it as “Obamacare”. Whether those are Freudian references or purposeful I do not know, but it’s certainly a lot easier than saying PPACA.


Kobayashi March 16, 2016 at 10:59 pm

He went on record as saying he likes the term “Obamacare” because it implies that he cares.


J.B. March 17, 2016 at 2:12 pm

As I said, it depends on the context. I think the original comment was nitpicking at specific words entirely too much. It could be trolling, but since we don’t know the context we don’t know the surrounding issue. “Obamacare requires us to structure health insurance in a particular way”, no issue. Good old boy network happy to talk at length about “THAT president and Obamacare” could be part of genuinely ugly communication. Have you really never seen that happen?

J.B. March 17, 2016 at 2:15 pm

Oh, yeah, and the liberal overcorrection absolutely happens, and can be just as obnoxious. Hence maybe focusing on the behavior rather than the words and the content.

peej March 17, 2016 at 10:59 pm

Well, of course “riot act” is racist. After all, only people of color riot. Right, Deborah? That’s what you’re thinking, right?


Kobayashi March 16, 2016 at 5:58 pm

“At the present time, I’m working on getting my supervisors to communicate in the correct way and to keep in mind the audience they are communicating to.” Based on how you communicate here, I bet that’s going AWFULLY well.


Boboccio March 16, 2016 at 7:55 pm

I cannot tell if this comment is made as a joke or not. I feel like it is in earnest, but I guess there is no way to be sure.


Keith M March 26, 2016 at 1:05 am

The employee became offended? Sounds like a personal problem. It’s getting calls Obamacare all over the place in the media and in real life, does the employee live under a rock?

Also, just because Obama is HALF black, does that mean everything related to the presidency is “racial” and needs to be avoided? THAT sounds racist to me.


mpc March 16, 2016 at 3:10 pm

There are so many things wrong with this. What ever happened to professional behavior in the workplace?


Daniel March 16, 2016 at 3:13 pm

I find it unfunny, too. In fact, not only would I read the “riot act” to the jokesters, I might discipline them for bullying, creating a hostile work environment, or just plain sexual harassment. As I see it, this is an issue of gender; one would not play this particular joke on a man, unless that man’s female partner were in on the joke. Even then, it’s cruel. Sugar in the salt shaker, plastic wrap on a toilet seat, or one of those Easter eggs that shows a beautiful Easter scene that leaves a black mark (thank you Golden Girls) are practical jokes. Joking about a pregnancy, not funny; it’s mean.


Maggie March 16, 2016 at 3:19 pm

As someone who has struggled with infertility for years, the pain this would cause if it happened to me (!) or one of my coworkers is honestly hard to describe.


MB March 16, 2016 at 3:23 pm

After reading this, I’m not sure I’d even give the jokesters a warning. Pretty sure I’d fire them outright for violating even the most basic intrepretation of the employee handbook policies on hostile work enviornment, harassment, discrimination, ethics, etc. I realize not all company cultures are the same and some are much more liberal with joke tollerating, but at any of the companies I’ve worked for, this would be way, way across the line of acceptability.


RVA Cat March 16, 2016 at 7:58 pm

The manager who was involved in this should be fired, even if no one else is. It was inappropriate for this woman’s peers to do this, but her supervisor not only allowing this but participating just goes utterly beyond anything that could ever be tolerated.


Jeanne March 18, 2016 at 6:54 pm

I assume OP included they were government employees because we often hear it is harder to fire them. I agree this should require discipline or firing.


JIll March 16, 2016 at 3:45 pm

What these pranksters did notwithstanding….who on earth takes a pregnancy test at work and than immediately shares the results with the whole office? Or leaves it laying around for others to examine? You urinate onto that thing. Gross!

And for goodness sake, Deborah…if you have staffers that prefer to drink their coffee “black,” are they being racist, too? Nothing like an HR professional that takes political correctness to insane extremes.


mer March 17, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Put me in that racist coffe club. And in the winter, should I be watching out for “ice of color” on the roads?


Observer March 22, 2016 at 2:05 am

This is nothing new. A few years ago some municipality instructed their computer technicians to stop using the term “master / slave” about IDE controllers and attached drives because it’s racist. It’s a wonder they didn’t try to ban the word controller.

If I recall correctly, the idea was allowed to wither away when they became the butt of jokes in dozens of publications.


Observer March 22, 2016 at 2:09 am

Here is a CNN piece with a bit more information. And it was worse than I thought – they actually sent a memo stating:
” “Based on the cultural diversity and sensitivity of Los Angeles County, this is not an acceptable identification label,” Joe Sandoval, division manager of purchasing and contract services, said in a memo sent to County vendors.

“We would request that each manufacturer, supplier and contractor review, identify and remove/change any identification or labeling of equipment components that could be interpreted as discriminatory or offensive in nature,” Sandoval said in the memo, which was distributed last week and made available to Reuters. ”


acjcro March 16, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Apart from this taking place at work, I don’t understand why it’s being construed as bullying or as anything but a dumb joke played in the wrong setting. As an HR professional, it is never a good idea to mix personal feelings about a subject into a professional review of someone. Unless the woman on whom the joke was played was offended and upset, talking about why and how that joke was in poor taste would go a lot farther than simply yelling at or firing the individuals involved. Context to the story would also help. Are the individuals friends outside of work? Was a positive pregnancy test an inside joke during the woman’s recovery period? Humor is very subjective so getting to the bottom of why that joke happened (is the office very casual? are there a lot of practical jokes being played?) might be the better use of the HR person’s energy.


Sara March 16, 2016 at 7:31 pm

As an infertile woman, I am totally appalled at this situation. I would sue them over this in a new york minute.


Sara March 16, 2016 at 7:36 pm

After reading acjcro’s comment above, I do agree that the context of this story would be helpful – it was just so strange and disturbing that my initial reaction above came out immediately…. If I was in that situation though, I would consider it harassment of a sexual nature – pregnancy is obviously a woman’s issue. But yeah, why the hell would I take a pregnancy test at work? This person must have been totally bullied into this by these people, and while I’m not one to accept being bullied without a fight, I’ve seen others succumb to bullying and be bullied into bad behavior themselves. Anyway….


Jeanne March 18, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Context would indeed be very helpful. Are they friends? Did the woman take the test while at work? Was she “mad” or ready to never work with them again?


charles March 17, 2016 at 4:36 am

Yea, they sound like idiots. But, the “victim” is a bigger idiot for going along with this. She is the one who shared her “test results” with the group. She wasn’t “bullied” as much as he made herself into a doormat.

However, I agree that the manager involved should be told that such “practical jokes” are way out of bounds and will be grounds for dismissal if it happens again.

Off topic; but, I do NOT see the term “riot act” as “racial” unless one wishes to imply that only blacks riot. Now, THAT would be racist!


Elizabeth West March 17, 2016 at 3:08 pm

I have no words.


Andrew_M_Garland March 17, 2016 at 7:32 pm

A joke is a witticism or irony shared for enjoyment.

A practical joke is an assault on someone for the enjoyment of some clique. I don’t see much difference between leaving a rubber spider in someone’s desk or faking a pregnancy test. These are both assaults.

Amazingly, many practical jokes rely on the trust that the victim shows to the jokers. Message: “Ha ha, he was so stupid that he trusted us”. Practical jokes are sadistic and send the message “You are not part of our group, you pathetic loser”.

A practical joke is the definition of a hostile work environment. The organizers of such a joke deserve to be fired and/or pay significant compensation to the victim.


peej March 17, 2016 at 10:54 pm

Gotta agree with this. Pretty much all of the people I’ve ever known who thought practical jokes were funny had a core of nastiness.

And don’t even get me started on people who tell you “it was just a joke” if you react poorly to their nastiness… I mean humor.


Daniel March 18, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Mic drop, walk away, sir. Well stated.


J.D. Walker March 18, 2016 at 2:51 am

I’m black, and I drink my coffee black, and I don’t consider it racist. I drink my coffee black because I’m an Army Chief Warrant Officer (well, Army Reserve).


Original Poster March 18, 2016 at 2:54 am

I’m the guy who told this story to Suzanne, and the issue isn’t just the target of the joke, there are contractual issues involved. The target is a contractor, the jokesters are government supervisors. Plus, what if someone who was exposed to the joke was trying to conceive, or had a miscarriage. The joke made me uncomfortable when I found out, and I’m a man.


Horse Tense March 20, 2016 at 12:46 am

Yeah it is pretty sick. Had I known the victim (or somehow had been the victim) I would have walked out on the spot.

Please keep us posted on any developments.


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