Humor at Work, and When Humor Isn’t Funny

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people laughing at work

The world feels particularly heavy in this moment for many of us. Some are struggling to keep up with an increasing workload, juggling remote learning, or facing extreme winter weather, and perhaps all three at once. Others are battling unemployment or forced evictions or simply feel the uncertainty of living in the midst of a global pandemic. Whatever the stressor, humor has always been a classic coping technique, and the present time is no exception.

Humor plays an important role in our relationships, but of course humor that might be appropriate at home or with friends could easily be inappropriate in the workplace. And when you are “Zooming” from your sofa or responding to a company email from your bed, the boundary between “work” and “home” is no longer clear. The line between “work humor” and “home humor” might also start to dissolve.

Humor Can Be an Asset or a Liability

Humor in the workplace can build and strengthen rapport and lighten difficult days. It can help make work a place you are excited to go to, instead of dreading. It can also lead to increased success at work. But for some employees, humor can have the effect of hurting and even alienating them, especially if it exercised at their expense.

Recently, I was reading “How to be Funny—Not Offensive—at Work” in the Wall Street Journal and thinking about all the ways people bungle humor without ever intending offense. The article correctly points out many areas that should be off limits, including people’s basic identity and background. However, there are so many more ways that intended humor can flop, and even cost someone a job. I once saw an employee get fired for a puppet joke. Unfortunately for some, bad humor is not a protected class.

In fact, the number of employees being fired for a bad joke—or two—has been on the rise. Remember that most audiences are on edge these days. Whether it is because of work, home life, or the weather, people are feeling charged and ready to spark. Right now, no one needs humor that cuts someone down. No one needs humor with an edge of hostility or a hint of judgment.

How Do I Know If I Can Tell a Joke?

There are a few things to keep in mind if you are wondering whether it is wise to tell a joke in the workplace:

  • Read the room. Gauge the likely reactions from the people you work with and consider their values. Jokes that appear acceptable at one moment or with a certain group of people could be deemed inappropriate or offensive for a different audience or with some critical distance. Keep in mind that, in the workplace, the audience determines what is funny, not the joker.
  • Assess your company culture: is it more open-minded and creative, or more on the traditional and stuffy side? Beyond your immediate audience, knowing how leadership would receive your humor is important. Avoid jokes about politics, religion and personal characteristics. Remember that being funny does not require making fun of people or affiliations.
  • Work on your own self-awareness. Are there blind spots you know you have, or a history of offending others? Listen to that little voice inside…especially if it is shouting at you to keep quiet!

So What Kind of Funny Is Appropriate at Work?

Humor is still possible at work—and often vital. Appropriate humor is the kind that builds up your colleagues. It might make light of a common challenge, poke fun at a competitor, or focus on a corny pun. Appropriate humor is the kind that shows optimism and resilience. You might use a funny voice to motivate your team or share a funny anecdote about serendipitously succeeding against the odds in some past endeavor. Perhaps now more than ever, appropriate humor is the kind that emphasizes we are all drinking from the firehose together—which is probably not hygienic or recommended in the time of COVID—but certainly strengthens our solidarity 😊