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There will be no whoopee cushions, hand buzzers or fake vomit at city hall in London, Ont. And April 1 will be just another day of the year.

London city councillors have passed a bylaw that prohibits politicians and civil servants from carrying out practical jokes in the workplace -- all because of what happened to Glenn Howlett.

Mr. Howlett, London's community services manager, was on a much-needed vacation in Banff, Alta., when he received a fake letter on official city letterhead telling him to complete a huge project right way. He is now on extended stress leave.

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Coming so soon after Newfoundland's premier landed in hot water for making a wisecrack about drunken legislators, and after Conan O'Brien had to say he was sorry for the anti-Québécois rants of a plastic puppet, the new code of conduct may prompt some to ask if Canadians have truly lost their sense of humour.

But London's councillors are making no apologies. They say practical jokes played at work can be hurtful and that's something they have learned the hard way.

"Everybody was pretty much in agreement with it," city controller Bud Polhill said yesterday of the new bylaw. "It just takes away the potential for someone to be embarrassed or someone to be put in an unfortunate situation. We had an incident with an upper-level manager that created quite a problem. We just don't want these things to happen again." Mr. Polhill and the other city councillors can't talk about that "problem" because it is a personnel matter.

Rod Martin, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London who is one of Canada's foremost experts on humour, said Mr. Howlett "was told he had to do this huge amount of work within a short amount of time and he was already under a huge amount of stress. And that just kind of put him over the edge."

Jokes can be appropriate and beneficial but they can also be detrimental, Dr. Martin said. So "I think it is appropriate to set limits on the kinds of humour that can be used in the workplace."

With regard to the Howlett situation, it is easy to imagine the perpetrators having a great time putting the prank together and thinking it was hilarious, he said. "But it isn't funny to the guy who got the letter at all, there is no humour in it whatsoever. So it's having a lot of fun at somebody else's expense."

And non-verbal humour, the kind we call a practical joke, isn't the only kind that can be hurtful, said Dr. Martin. "When you are joking about somebody's gender or sexual orientation or race or whatever, it can be really funny to the person that is making the humour but not at all funny to the person who is the butt of the humour and I think definitely is inappropriate, especially in the workplace."

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Much of our humour involves a negative barb or a jab, but it's all in fun and the recipient takes it that way. The problem, said Dr. Martin, is sometimes it goes to far.

But is it really possible to ban all practical jokes? "I guess it probably is," Dr. Martin said. "We try to in general have rules that say you treat one another with respect and I would say that applies to everything including humour."

Mr. Polhill said deciding what is and is not a practical joke will have to be done on a case by case basis but he hopes the pranks will simply stop as of this week.

He conceded that he has never heard of another municipality enacting such a bylaw.

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