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Office Etiquette

Humor in the Workplace : How to Walk the Fine Line

There are many benefits to using humor in the workplace. It allows you to connect better and get people’s attention to pass on your message. It helps reduce stress and relaxes people. It will lighten up the mood in a tensed room and can be very effective to defuse tension in a conversation. Also, a boss with a sense of humor will somehow seem more approachable.

This quote sums it up pretty well.  “Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.” — Grenville Kleiser

The Obvious Boundaries

Whether as part of formal policies found in larger companies or as informal rules in a smaller business, profanity, sexist, ethnic and dirty jokes are the obvious no-nos.

Other topics like politics, religion and making fun of someone’s physical or mental disability are socially not well received either and should always be avoided in a work environment.

Helpful Indicators

Now there still remains a large grey zone. Even if your joke is outside the more obvious boundaries, what you find funny, someone else may very well find offensive or inappropriate for the workplace.

To help you evaluate how fine the line is and make the right judgement call, use these indicators. In short, it comes back to taking into account the context you’re in and being aware of who’s in the room with you.

  • Formal versus social context: Humor boundaries will not be the same if you’re sitting in a meeting with colleagues versus if you’re having a drink with them after working hours.
  • Senior management: If your boss’s boss or a senior manager is present, the timing may not be right for a joke.
  • Presence of people from outside the company: Is a consultant, client or partner present in the room? You may want to tone it down and stick with the corporate image.
  • Different generations: People’s perspective about what is funny may vary quite a bit depending on which generation they belong to.
  • Number of people: Whether in a meeting or in the office area, the larger the number of people, the ‘safer’ the joke should be.
  • Gender: The unofficial rules of what is appropriate humor are quite different when both genders are present in the room in comparison to an all-male or all-female group.

On The Receiving End

What about people on the receiving end? What should you do if a co-worker likes to make jokes about you, but you don’t find them funny? Sometimes it will only be one joke and you’ll let it go. But sometimes it can become a habit. The first time, you laugh. The second and third time, you smile politely to be a good sport. But once you’ve stopped counting, these jokes can become painfully unfunny.

People making these jokes are often not aware they’re offending you. Nevertheless you should feel entitled to go to them and let them know they’re making you feel uncomfortable. Or you can try using humor! To let them know their joke is getting old. But these situations normally can be worked out among colleagues. This extract from the book The Complexity of Workplace Humour: Laughter, Jokers and the Dark Side of Humour, provides interesting details about the social construction of humor boundaries.

Last Pieces of Advice

If you’re someone who likes to use humor all the time, remember that not everyone has the same perceptions about what is funny. You always walk on thin ice when playing with humor.

  • Concentrate on situational humor rather than making fun of someone. Some people may be more sensitive than you are. You don’t want to end up hurting your co-workers’ feelings.
  • Be aware of what you are trying to achieve at that moment (are you just teasing, or maybe becoming annoying?), and how the other person is receiving it.
  • Ask yourself, would I find it funny if someone made that same comment to me?
  • If you feel you may have crossed the line, talk to the person and say you’re sorry.
  • Think twice (or even thrice) before you blurt something out you think will be funny.
  • When in doubt, skip the joke.

I believe humor in the workplace is invaluable when done correctly. And having humor in your toolkit — whether as an employee or a manager — can be a great asset to communicate and lead better. I am lucky to have a boss who has a good sense of humor and I believe this is part of the reasons why he is so well liked by the whole team.

What is your experience with the grey zones of humor in the workplace? Don’t we all experience it at some point? The not so funny comment we wish the person had refrained from saying out loud? How do you deal with a joke you feel is of bad taste?


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