Employment matters: When mistakes cost jobs

TOO FAR: How much fun should you have at work, employment lawyer Bridget Smith asks.
TOO FAR: How much fun should you have at work, employment lawyer Bridget Smith asks.

When should a mistake cost you your job?

Most of us have had that moment...  When you look back and think, with the benefit of hindsight, that you would do things differently if you had your time again...

I had the privilege of representing a client during the Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry, so I have heard a thing or two about hindsight and about the changes people would make, during those 18 months.

I was reminded of the benefits of hindsight again last night, watching the TV interview with Melanie Greig, the radio DJ involved in the now infamous prank call to the hospital where Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton was being treated for acute morning sickness. 

Greig, using a plumy English accent, attempted to impersonate the Queen and her co-host, Michael Christian posed as Prince Charles.  Both have said they never anticipated being put through to actual nursing staff and given information about the Duchess' private medical condition. 

But that is exactly what happened and from there, once the hoax call was aired and gained worldwide media attention, the nurse who put their intended hoax call through, Jacintha Saldanha, took her own life.      

In the interview last night, Greig said that she contacted management after the hoax call was made and urged them to disguise the voices of the hospital staff. It was also suggested that the hospital management should be contacted, for permission to play the call. None of this was done with, in this case, tragic consequences.

Prank calls are reasonably common in the radio industry and in this case, the DJs say they followed the station's procedures which included referring the recording to management for a decision as to whether it should air or not. 

Despite that, Greig and Christian lost their jobs. Christian is back working, Greig is not. For her in particular, what started out as a harmless joke as part of her everyday job, has had an horrific outcome.  

This prank was in the course of their duties. The role of a radio DJ is to gain listeners and many do that by being controversial. The irony in this case is that Greig and Christian weren't trying to be controversial, they just though they were being funny. But fundamentally, it was an error of judgement in the course of doing their jobs.

Not all pranks are like that. In fact most workplace pranks on colleagues fall outside of the scope of an employee's duties. So, is this hoax gone wrong a suggestion that it is time to take the fun out of working or of the workplace? 

How far, is too far? For example, it might be fun to have a race around the office, zooming along the narrow corridors and tight corners, all fun and games until someone breaks a leg or suffers a concussion...

How much fun can you and should you have in the workplace?

Bridget Smith is a partner at Swarbrick Beck Mackinnon and a member of the Auckland District Law Society.