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Humor in the Workplace

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“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.” Oscar Wilde

“Laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It’s the sweetest thing one can do for oneself and one’s fellow human beings.” Maya Angelou

I chose this topic because, more than anything else, a sense of humor is what gets me through the workday. My father finds humor in everything and is always looking for the joke to be uncovered in any situation, a trait that he has passed along to me. When my mom’s mother passed away, they released trained white doves at her funeral. My father wondered aloud if there were any hawk sightings in the area. That could certainly be deemed inappropriate for the setting, but his timing was perfect and it helped lighten the mood, especially because we all knew my grandmother would have cracked up. I have found that a good joke or funny observation at work can also help relieve tension and help to make a connection with someone. I wasn’t surprised to find that there is research and case studies that back up the benefits of humor at work, here are a few that I found to be the most interesting:

  • Humor can prevent work burnout, which is important if you are working an 80-hour week, anything that might help you from snapping at your local barista for not properly preparing your triple shot decaf skinny soy macchiato with sugar free hazelnut syrup is a good thing. “Humor has also been identified as a communication tool that, when used effectively, can prevent burnout and create a resilience to stress.” 1
  • Humor can get people to listen to what you are saying. My friend told me her boss never listens to her. At least, she thinks that’s what her boss said! “Consistent use of appropriate humor makes people want to read and hear what you say.” 2
  • Humor can help make connections to others and increase your likeability. For those who find the word “networking” to be akin to pulling out one’s own tooth. “Innocent humor increases likeability and interpersonal attraction.” 3
  • Humor can help diffuse conflict. Homer Simpson once said, “I thought I had an appetite for destruction, but all I wanted was a club sandwich.” “Humor has long been seen as the great equalizer – a means to facilitate conversation and bridge differences.” 4
  • Humor can increase your pay. My friend told his boss he had to have a raise as there were three other companies after him. The boss asked which companies, to which my friend replied the electric company, the telephone company, and the gas company. “The size of their bonuses correlated positively with their use of humor – In other words, the funnier the executives were, the bigger the bonuses.” 5

I have been in the working world now for well over two decades. In that time, I have watched as humor in the workplace (and in general) has evolved.  In my younger years, I remember that off-color jokes were much more common in the workplace – jokes about sex, ethnic group, or gender were shared much more freely than they are today, and if there were consequences, they generally consisted of internal cringing, eye rolls, or “that’s just Bob” as opposed to a visit to HR.  Here is an example of a great joke that is appropriate for the workplace:

A guy goes into a job interview and sits down with the boss. The boss asks him, “What do you think is your worst quality?”  The man says, “I’m probably too honest.”  The boss says, “That’s not a bad thing, I think honesty is a good quality.”  The man replies, “I don’t care what you think!”

I love this joke for many reasons, but I am going to narrow it down to three; feel free to use these as part of your own barometer for using humor at work:

First, it is tasteful. It is not sexist (the interviewee could be a man or a woman and the joke would not be altered in the least), political, malicious, religious, homophobic, xenophobic, and contains no locker room or bathroom humor. Before I go on to my next reason, I would like to respectfully recommend that when you are telling a joke or think of a hilarious situational observation at work, it is wise to run it by your internal filtration process first, before you decide to share your flair for comedic genius with others. This process shouldn’t take long, but even if it does and your joke is lost because the moment has passed, it is worth taking the time to check the politically correct boxes of an office joke/observation/comment, etc. Humor can be an effective tool, but it is not worth possibly damaging your relationship with a coworker who might be in one of those boxes or potentially losing your job.  If it is that funny and you simply have to tell someone, file it away for later and tell it to your cat, dog, fish, or a friend outside of work who appreciates and understands your unique brand of humor.

Second, like any good joke, there is truth that lies within. I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of job applicants in my career and there have been times when the candidates have been, well, too honest. In one interview, I asked for their thoughts on attendance and they replied that they only called in when they didn’t feel like coming to work. Since I am not sure how many of us would show up to work every day if this could be cited as a reason, I did not offer this person the position. Another time, I asked an applicant why they had left their previous employer and the answer took up the next 25 minutes. Let’s just say that they did not paint their previous manager in a positive light. Honesty, like humor, is a good quality, but you have to know when to use it.

Third, is it funny? Now, of course, humor is entirely subjective, what is funny to one person may not be to the next person, especially in the workplace. It is important to remember that determining if a joke is funny is not entirely up to you. And, if you are just not funny or do not find other people funny, of course that is totally fine too. Forcing funny when you do not feel it is even worse, though I would advise trying to laugh with others instead of frowning at them. Laughter is the sound of bonding and collaboration, and those are hallmarks of a productive and engaged workplace, which is somewhere where I prefer to be, no joke!

The more I laugh

The more I fill with glee

And the more the glee

The more I’m a merrier me!

Uncle Albert in the Original “Mary Poppins” Sherman Brothers, 1964, I love to laugh

 

  1. “On the association between humor and burnout,” Laura Talbot. International Journal of Humor Research, 2009.
  2. “Let the Good Times Roll Building a Fun Culture,” David Stauffer. Harvard Management Update No. U9910B.
  3. “Making social robots more attractive: the effects of voice, pitch, humor and empathy,” Andreea Niculescu, International Journal of Social Robotics, 2013.
  4. Letter from the President, Jill Knox. AATH Humor Connection, September 2013.
  5. “Laughing All the Way to the Bank,” Fabio Sala. Harvard Business Review, F0309A.