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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Joking Around at Work

Dear Sue: Is it okay to play practical jokes on people? I supervised a worker who always slept at his desk during his lunch break. As he slept during lunch one day, I conspired with the rest of the staff. We set the clock ahead so that it was a few minutes after quitting time. We took our coats, left the office, and waited outside the door. We called the office to wake him up, and then watched him bolt through the door toward the parking lot as he headed for home. He took it good-naturedly.

Another time when I was traveling in Europe with our division VP, he asked me to hand-carry home a large box of delicate wine glasses, while he stayed on for more business. I did him the favor, but evened the score by opening the box, replacing the glasses with castoff laboratory glassware, then stomping on the box until the contents were broken beyond recognition. I left the mess on his conference table for him to discover when he returned. He, too, took it good-naturedly. Is anything wrong with having some fun?

- Joker

Sue says: Obviously, you enjoy playing practical jokes, and have gotten by with your shenanigans over the years. However, there must be a reason you are asking my opinion, and I wonder if it is because not all of your “victims” are as good natured as the two you wrote about.

The problem with playing practical jokes on people is that you literally are “playing” with them. The more people you involve, the more likely someone will feel embarrassed or picked on. Jokes can backfire, and you never know when you might really upset someone by something you did in the name of fun.

The two situations you describe both took a considerable amount of effort, time and planning. I can’t help but think you should be able to find more constructive ways to use your time. What do you gain from playing jokes? Is it really just for fun or do you derive pleasure out of temporality upsetting or embarrassing someone? And what will you do when one of your jokes backfires and someone becomes upset with you?

I’m all for adding some fun to the day, but beware; what’s funny to one person can be humiliating to another. You are better off looking for other ways to have fun and bond with the people you work with.

Dear Sue: The person who follows my shift is making petty complaints about me. My supervisor has no problem with the things this coworker is complaining about, but it still bothers me to have these things in writing. I don’t want to duplicate his behavior, because it accomplishes nothing, but I don’t like being made to look bad either. How do I deal with this?

- Frustrated

Sue says: Aside from talking with your supervisor and the employee who is complaining, to determine the real problem, if you are concerned about looking bad, think about things you can do to compensate and make yourself look good. Some people are impossible to please—and don’t forget, the more you react to others, the more of a reaction they will seek from you. Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction at all.

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

Send Sue your questions by clicking here: Ask Sue
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