Should the use of humor at work ever be off limits? As a humor in the workplace speaker, it’s one of the most common questions I get. It’s not an easy question to answer because humor is such a wide-ranging and subjective topic. One person’s funny is another person’s offensive, cruel, downright stupid, insensitive comment.
So much of how humor is interpreted depends on the context, the timing, and the nature of the relationship between the parties delivering the humor and hearing the humor.
The other reason this is a tricky question to answer is that I truly believe most workplaces go too far in the other direction and either intentionally or unintentionally squash any semblance of fun and humor in their workplace, without realizing the potentially damaging consequences of doing so.
Overly somber, serious, oppressive workplaces run the risk of turning into morgues where morale plummets, conversations get stifled and creativity dies.
Remember, boring rarely succeeds. Boring won’t help you stand out from the herd to be heard. Boring won’t get new employees seeking you out, and boring sure as heck won’t get new customers pounding at your door.
And we need to remind ourselves of how powerful a resource humor is. How humor, when used effectively (and there’s the kicker) has helped people throughout history cope with wars and death and tradegy, sometimes in the most unspeakably horrific circumstances.
But, having said all that, the flip side is that we all know that humor can be used to bully people and that inappropriate remarks under the guise of humor can be devastatingly cruel and offensive. Humor CAN build walls between people, as easily as it can sometimes tear down walls.
So really, when you consider all of this, that elusive “line” people talk about crossing isn’t so much as a hard and fast and readily-defined line, as it is a squiggly, messy, tangled line that looks like it just came of the washing machine.
But here’s a few general guidelines that might help you practice safe workplace humor:
If you want to promote more humor in your workplace but you’re wary of offending folks, then have this conversation with your team. Be proactive. Talk about what people’s limits and sensitives are. Ask for your team mates’ definitions of “safe workplace humor.” Create some fun, playful guidelines for the use of humor.
And just remind yourself, that, as with doing anything different at work, of course there’s a risk attached to it.
Just don’t let that risk become an excuse for standing still and being BORING!
Michael Kerr, 2010. Humor at Work – The Way Work Ought to Be. Michael is an award-winning international speaker and the author of Inspiring Workplaces, 340 Ways to Put Humor to Work, and Putting Humor to Work.
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