A train driver who was sacked for leaving tarantula remains and a shed snakeskin in a colleague’s pigeonhole did ‘not bully’ her, a judge has ruled.
Jonathan Richardson played his first prank in 2022 with the ‘exoskeleton’ of a tarantula after the female driver admitted the ‘creepy crawlies’ made her ‘squeamish’, an employment tribunal heard.
He was trying to elicit ‘momentary shock’ followed by ‘light-hearted relief’ from his colleague but had not anticipated her becoming distressed, the hearing was told.
He then followed up with the snakeskin prank, even after she had threatened to report him to their bosses at West Midlands trains and called him a f***ing tw**’.
Mr Richardson was fired for gross misconduct after rail bosses concluded he was guilty of bullying.
But he is now in line for compensation after an employment judge concluded that the pranks were not ‘abusive’ but merely ‘childish’ and ‘largely harmless’.
The Watford tribunal heard that Mr Richardson – a train driver of more than 20 years experience – started working for the rail firm in 2018.
In mid-2022 he had a conversation in the mess room at work with a female colleague identified only as Driver A.
‘At some point, the issue of insects and/or spiders was brought up due to [Mr Richardson] occasionally looking after those his friend(s) kept as pets, along with a snake,’ the tribunal heard.
‘At some point Driver A indicated a certain dislike of, or squeamishness in relation to, insects and/or spiders. This dislike was not elaborated upon.’
The tribunal heard that this conversation about her dislike of ‘creepy crawlies’ ‘planted a seed’ in Mr Richardson’s head and he decided to play a joke involving the exoskeleton of a tarantula – the spider’s hard exterior that it has to periodically shed in order to grow.
‘[Mr Richardson] sought to play a prank on her by placing the [tarantula] exoskeleton in her pigeonhole,’ the tribunal heard.
‘[He] had hoped to elicit a reaction of momentary shock, followed by light-hearted relief on realisation that the object was merely a shed skin and not a live tarantula.
‘Whatever [his] intentions, Driver A was distressed by the episode and couldn’t deal with the exoskeleton; she required a colleague to clear it from her pigeonhole.’
The tribunal heard Mr Richardson raised the prank when he next met Driver A and she called him a ‘f***ing tw**’ after which he suggested he might do something similar with a snakeskin and she replied that she would report him.
The hearing was told Mr Richardson believed the tone of this conversation had been ‘jokey’, that being called a ‘tw**’ was ‘playful’ and he had not understood Driver A’s ‘genuine upset’.
She also later described the exchange as ‘over the top banter,’ the hearing was told, but the next month when he placed a snakeskin in her pigeonhole she reported him to her boss.
‘I thought the situation was dealt with…but finding the snake skin has made me feel apprehensive and I have felt my concentration has been off the last few days,’ she told the subsequent investigation.
Of the tarantula, she said: ‘He thought it would be a joke and its only a spider… I really don’t like spiders and had to ask friends at work if they can remove it.’
Asked if she felt ‘intimidated, bullied or harassed’, Driver A responded: ‘All the above’.
‘After telling him once already, it’s horrible, I don’t expect to come to work and there be a tarantula skin in my pigeon hole, I really don’t like them and I shouldn’t have to deal with that,’ she added.
At a disciplinary meeting in September Mr Richardson offered his ‘sincere apologies’ to Driver A but was sacked for gross misconduct after the company concluded he was guilty of bullying.
He was told: ‘Your intention was to shock [Driver A]* Placing a colleague into a state of shock as you suggest could have serious implications to [Driver A] and to the public and the travelling public’.
After an unsuccessful appeal against his dismissal, Mr Richardson took the company to the tribunal claiming unfair and wrongful dismissal.
Upholding his claims, Employment Judge Matthew Hunt said: ‘All parties appreciated what a prank was. Its purpose is to elicit a short-lived reaction of shock or surprise, followed by some sort of feeling of relief and good humour.
‘A loose parallel in this case is planting the sort of rubber spider that is no doubt still available in any toy shop on someone’s shoulder.
‘By saying this, I don’t intend to trivialise Driver A’s upset and fully appreciate that in this case the Exoskeleton was genuine and well capable of causing greater shock.
‘I simply wish to demonstrate that a prank is a common and well-understood phenomenon.
‘Considered objectively, pranks are peculiar. Their purpose is to cause a degree of upset or discomfort, albeit fleeting. On that basis, many, if not all, pranks could be considered as bullying. That makes them no less commonplace.
‘It is very clear…that some pranks may well be considered by a reasonable employer to be so serious as to constitute gross misconduct. Plainly not all will, regardless of whether classed as bullying or not.
‘There is a real conceptual difficulty in attempting to rationalise what a prank is, and why one would ever be acceptable…
‘[The company] in this case took [Mr Richardson’s] pranks as being intended, or capable of, inducing some sort of lasting state of considerable shock in Driver A, sufficient to potentially lead to catastrophic accident or significant business interruption.’
EJ Hunt says this conclusion was ‘inconsistent’ with the nature of the prank and should not have been judged as gross misconduct.
‘The sort of prank performed…was plainly very ill-judged but extremely unlikely in reality to have led to such serious impacts.
‘They didn’t involve any risk of physical harm to Driver A, they were not of an abusive nature, they were largely harmless, childish pranks. The second prank was by all accounts considerably less spooky than the first.
‘[Mr Richardson] played two childish pranks, involving placing, firstly, a tarantula’s shed exoskeleton, and, subsequently, a snakeskin in a colleague’s pigeonhole.
‘Neither item was concealed, could move or could cause any physical injury. He performed the pranks on a colleague who he suspected would have a brief uncomfortable reaction.
‘Unfortunately for all, Driver A had far greater a reaction than he had anticipated.’
A hearing to determine Mr Richardson’s compensation will be determined at a later date.