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Workplace blogs

Humor in the Workplace: Should Humor at Work EVER be Off Limits?

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:

  • Laugh at situations, not at people.
  • Laugh with people, not at people.
  • Consider the context and the timing. Laying off employees isn’t likely the best time to be trying out the latest one-liner.
  • Consider your relationship with the person/people are using humor with. Of course the boundaries will vary depending on your personal relationship.
  • Consider the intent.  Did you truly mean no harm when you delivered that joke in the lunch room?
  • Consider how it might be interpreted. Can you see how others might hear it? How can you see how others might not get that “you were just joking?”
  • Consider the subject matter. Of course racist, sexist,  gender-bashing or obscene humor should be off limits at work.  People aren’t going to a nightclub act.  The good news is though, that there is a world of humor out there that doesn’t depend on cheap laughs or potentially offensive remarks.
  • Laugh at yourself more often. If you turn the punch line on to yourself you will take away anyone’s ability to laugh at you because you’ll beat them to the punch line! Laughing at yourself is a sign of self-confidence and maturity–as long as you are not using put down humor on yourself!
  • Be careful of sarcasm.  Sarcasm comes from a term meaning to “tear at flesh like a dog.”  Enough said.

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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