Q: I am a laboratory technician, and I've worked at the same medical center for more than five years. It used to be a fun place, where we laughed a lot and did a lot of practical jokes, like putting pond water into urine specimen cups and watching while med techs tried to figure out what was wrong with the sample. Then, last year, there were a lot of management changes and some of the workers who had been at my level got promoted.

One day about a year ago, another worker and I played some practical jokes that we had played in the past with the other bosses. We poured apple juice into a urine sample cup, labeled with random numbers and no name, and placed it in the wall where the techs process the samples. One of the newly promoted techs picked it up and ran the sample; certainly, the sugar content was high. Then she started following the protocols and began research to find out where the correct label was. At that point, I said it was a joke and I apologized. The other worker did the same thing later that day to another tech.

A few days later, the new managers asked me whether I had done what the techs said I did. I said I was sorry and it wouldn't happen again. The managers decided to suspend the other worker and me for three days without pay. Later, they reduced the other worker's punishment to a written warning and they paid him for the three days' work. The decision remained the same for me--three days without pay.

I was not surprised by the decisions, because of my ethnic background. I am Asian, and the other worker is from Central America. He told me a Hispanic manager had stepped in to help him because she would do whatever was necessary to salvage his name and reputation because they speak the same language, Spanish.

I think this is discriminatory. Please give me advice about any action I can take.

A: Almost every profession has a secret tradition of practical jokes, their own versions of the Masonic handshake among initiates. In the newspaper business, a favorite hoax is to call in a bogus news tip, some kind of hot story, and chortle away as a colleague scrambles to track down the source and get an on-the-record comment. Bonus points for playing this joke on Christmas Eve or when the co-worker is supposed to be out celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary. Ho ho ho.

Many management consultants think certain kinds of office humor are essential for building esprit de corps and sparking creative energy. Management consultant C.W. Metcalf, author of the book "Lighten Up," for example, promotes workplace merriment at corporate training sessions across the country. But, according to Metcalf, the humor went astray in this apple-juice incident.

"It was ill advised," he said, explaining that workers need to be aware that office humor is funny only if it occurs between people with a high bond of trust and where it is not seen as crossing the line into ridicule, particularly if workers are sensitive or insecure in new positions. By the way, Metcalf said it is particularly risky to play jokes on supervisors. They tend to be more concerned about their "image and propriety" because they hope to climb the corporate ladder.

Metcalf said he believes the managers erred in doling out serious discipline for behavior that had been accepted in the past. "It seems like a pretty hideous over-response, particularly considering he apologized," he said.

As to the discrimination issue, Dianna Johnston, senior legal counsel to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said disparate discipline based on workers' ethnicity is illegal under federal laws banning bias in the workplace. She said the worker could file a claim with the EEOC, and if his allegations were true and could be proven, the agency might help mediate the issue with the employer. He might also have grounds to file a lawsuit.

"If the facts were exactly as he said they were, it would be a discrimination case," Johnston said.

By the way, readers, we would love to hear some stories from the field about the high jinks and practical jokes common in different industries. Send them in. We'll publish them in an upcoming column.

Q: I work for a staffing agency as a desktop support analyst for a trade association. The job is going great, and I have been complimented on my performance. The working environment is great, and there's potential to grow.

I was told from the beginning that this job could become permanent within a few months. Now we are going through the hiring procedure.

Here's my question. If everything follows through and I am hired as a permanent employee, what should I ask for in salary? I am making $17 an hour. I know I am definitely worth more than $17 an hour, but this situation is a little different because I have been working as a temp. Please help me.

A: It's time to do some calculations, said Wanda Hairston, a managing director of Stamford, Conn.-based Advantage Human Resourcing. First, to learn the real bottom line, the letter writer needs to determine the dollar value of the benefits package the company offers, including vacation, health insurance and tuition reimbursement, and contrast it with what the staffing company is providing. Next, he needs to do a market analysis to find out what salary standards are for the same job at similar companies in the region.

After doing that analysis, Hairston said, she believes it is illogical to accept a job that pays $17 or less an hour, because it would mean a pay cut. She adds that placing a psychological premium on the added value of the stability of a "permanent" job may be illusory, because few positions offer true permanency today. On the other hand, if the job offers the chance to develop skills that would allow the writer to make more money elsewhere fairly quickly, then it might be worthwhile to accept the job, even if it doesn't include a pay hike, she said.

Regardless, before talking to his prospective employers, he needs to have done his homework. "He needs to gain knowledge to have an effective conversation" over compensation, Hairston said.