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The Difference Between Pranks and Bullying

One of the ways that bullying can be prevented is through understanding what constitutes bullying. In this way, bullying behaviors can be prevented. Bullying behaviors may be passed off as "pranks" to victims, authorities or school officials.  However, there are certain criteria that should be considered when determining if an action is a prank or bullying.  The three criteria are intent, reaction and recurrence.

When considering whether or not something is a prank or bullying, the purpose -- or intent -- should be examined. If the intent is merely to cause a prank, then the intent is to provide some kind of action that may be found humorous or minor to all parties involved.  The following is an example of a prank. An organized coworker arrives at her desk in the morning.  Her coworkers have turned all of her reference materials upside down.  She sits down at her desk and starts turning all the books right side up without even thinking.  The coworkers laugh and say "five minutes." She looks at them bewildered, and they tell her they had a bet how long it would take her to realize the books were upside down. They all get a big laugh and move on. The intent, in this case, was to get a laugh and have the coworker also laugh at herself.

The following example demonstrates bullying. Two employees are sitting in the company cafeteria. Employee A tells Employee B to get up from his chair.  Employee B refuses because he is talking to his friends.  Employee A then "accidentally" trips, falling on Employee B and knocking him out of his chair. Employee A as a result also "accidentally" spills his soda all over Employee B's clothes and lunch tray.  Employee B gets angry and makes his anger and disapproval known to Employee A by saying his behavior was not acceptable. Employee A shoves Employee B, and Employee B falls down. The two are referred to human resources for disciplinary action. When confronted that the behavior constitutes bullying, Employee A says, "Gee, I was just playing around. It was a prank." This incident does not constitute a prank because the intent was to get even with someone else and inflict harm and Employee A acted out of anger. Employee A was trying to intimidate and show his power over Employee B.

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Another criterion used to determine whether or not something is a prank or bullying is the expected reaction of the pranked or bullied individual. Using the above examples, the coworkers expected the organized staff member to also think the prank was funny.  The reaction of the individual was assumed, and the staff member was not offended by the behavior and was not intimidated in any way.

In the second example with the two coworkers at lunch, the reaction that Employee A hoped to solicit was to either get Employee B to move, intimidate Employee B, cause Employee B to be angry or upset, and/or to get Employee B reported to human resources.  Because the expected reaction was to upset or cause distress to Employee B, this behavior constitutes bullying.

The third criterion that can be used to determine if bullying behavior has occurred is the recurrence of the behavior. In the first example, turning the reference books happened one time. Therefore, it was considered a prank.  However, if the scenario was changed such that the coworkers turned the staff members reference books upside down every day and also rearranged other aspects of the staff member's desk, then this would constitute bullying.  That is, the prank happened repeatedly. When a behavior happens repeatedly in order to demean, diminish, upset, or otherwise humiliate another, it constitutes bullying.

In the case of the lunching coworkers, this incidence only occurred once.  However, because of the severity of this one incident, it did constitute bullying.  Even though the behavior only occurred once, malicious intent with an expected reaction of Employee B being upset or intimidated existed.

Sources What is Bullying? Found online at:
Workplace Bullying Institute. The WBI Definition of Workplace Bullying. Found online at:
University of Louisville. Workplace Bullying. Found online at: