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November 29, 2018

Humor in the Workplace: Not a Laughing Matter!

Ed Pearcey

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"When people say to me, 'Would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss?' my answer's always the same: to me, they're not mutually exclusive."
– David Brent, philosopher, philanthropist and motivational speaker (BBC TV's "The Office")


A horse walks into a bar… Anyone concerned that the punchline might be inappropriate, embarrassing or offensive? No? Good, because none of the resolutions to this classic one-liner are.

But what if I start with "Three Orthodox Jews walk into a bar…"? Who's a little uneasy now? The vast majority, no doubt, as this is not the type of content you expect from Mind Tools. It would be wholly inappropriate for our website and our audience.

Successful Humor in the Workplace

Herein lies the essence of using comedy and laughter at work: judging your audience, assessing the culture, and reading the mood.

Types of humor and comedy vary from workplace to workplace, and they very much depend on the culture. In my experience (working in almost every work environment, from small startups to giant corporations) the less hierarchical the company is, the more willing people are to crack jokes and push a few boundaries.

It's all a matter of understanding what's acceptable.

Humor usually has a bit of an edge to it (often, that's what makes it funny), but in an office environment, always err on the side of caution. If you're not sure the joke will 'land,' it's probably safer not to say it. The words of Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do at Work, spring to mind: "Humor is hard to do well and easy to do badly."

Humor in the Workplace: Good For Your Career

There's pretty good evidence that injecting a little comedy into the workplace is good for your career. In a 2017 survey by Robert Half, almost 80 percent of senior executives said that an employee's sense of humor plays an important role in how well they fit the corporate culture.

Another recent study indicated that funny people are viewed as more competent than their more serious colleagues, with the "successful use of humor increasing status in both new and existing relationships."

If you can inject some comedy into your working day, people will likely enjoy working with you. You'll have lower stress levels, higher morale, and you'll be able to build trust among your colleagues, as comedy can offer a view of the "real" you.

Always Remember Where You Are

However, always keep in mind that workplaces aren't nightclubs, bars or social events, where the rules of what can be said (and, more importantly, what’s expected to be said) are vastly different. The people in your office are there to do their jobs, hopefully in a stable and safe environment.

If they can have a laugh in the process, all the better. But their sense of humor could be different to yours. Or, they may not understand your references. Maybe they're really busy. Or, they may just not be in the mood for giant belly laughs.

David Brent: The Unintentional Boss of Comedy Bosses

We all know someone who's always got a ready quip at hand, or can perk everyone up with a funny comment. These are the people who are, to coin a phrase, "naturally funny," and can judge whether something will get a chuckle.

None of this applies to David Brent, the hapless and mildly delusional comedy creation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Here is an office manager whose inability to read the mood of a room, suppress inappropriate comments, and make people laugh (intentionally, anyway) borders on the legendary.

Just take a peek at "The Office" (U.K. version), Season 2, Episode 1, for a demonstration of the dangers of misplaced humor. After about 10 minutes, the slow-motion comedy car crash begins. David Brent gives a welcome speech to several new employees, following the merger of two branches.

To call the humor misplaced would be a monumental understatement. Every joke falls flat, is badly timed, offensive, or just massively unfunny.

How to Alienate Colleagues and Annoy People

He starts with an improvised homophobic slur. Then, he quickly runs through a series of childish jokes, followed by a raft of bad impressions. Finally, there's a verbal attack on his audience for not understanding his comedy. Oh, and a bit later he tries a racist joke, in a desperate attempt to rescue his credibility. And then all is quiet.

Should you ever need to annoy and alienate your team members, and ensure that you lose all their respect, this is the instructional video for you!

Leaders Don’t Have to Be Funny, Just Lead

David Brent is probably right when he states that being a great boss and being funny aren’t mutually exclusive. But Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, or Sir Alan Sugar have never come across as particularly funny. They’re just great at what they do.

Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership.” But it shouldn’t be the central theme of your leadership – leading should be.

So, for those of you who are thinking about cracking out Jackie Mason's Big Book of After-Dinner Jokes and letting rip, please, please, please be careful. You need to know your audience, understand what’s acceptable in today’s working environment, and keep it light.

And in Conclusion…

The barman said, "Why the long face?" The barman then confused an idiom with a joke, and offered the horse some water. But he couldn’t make him drink. Now that's funny!

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3 comments on “Humor in the Workplace: Not a Laughing Matter!”

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      Mind Tools Coach

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