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Humor in the workplace: what’s funny, what’s not

Using humor in the workplace can boost your team’s spirits, make work more fun, ease tension when the going is tough, and help build trust among groups. A clever observation or lighthearted joke can also make leaders seem more approachable and relatable. We say laughter is the best medicine, and that’s true even at work. Just like any medicine, though, it works best when it’s used properly. Here’s how you and your team can use humor to bond – and to avoid missteps that can break those bonds. Look for the right times to use humor in the workplace There are many times when a bit of levity can make the workday go better. Below are some common ones:

When you need to win over an audience When giving a presentation, starting off with a light joke or a funny anecdote can engage your audience. Especially in a virtual environment, leveraging laughter to kick-off a meeting can dispel the flat nature of a two-dimensional videoconference. Attendees may feel more present after a belly laugh.

When you need to persuade Need to make your case? Whether it’s a co-worker, client or future hire, a funny story shared at the right time can illustrate a point or gain buy-in. By increasing trust and approachability through humor, you may resolve an issue, close a deal or influence the ideal candidate to take the job.

When you need to make a great first impression If you’re joining a new team, working with a new colleague on a project, or starting in a new workplace, sharing lighthearted personal stories can help people get to know you better and nurture new workplace relationships. That’s because, in addition to making yourself relatable, smart humor can show that you’re creative and fun, attributes that many of us seek in a collaborative partner.

When you need to put people at ease Humor can help ease the stress of a difficult situation, especially if it gives people the freedom to think about something besides the source of the stress or approach a difficult task in a fresh and fun way. For example, if it’s your turn to lead a regular monthly meeting that has begun to feel stale, consider shaking it up. Think about how you might lighten the mood, while still communicating what needs to get done. Perhaps instead of the usual meeting with live presenters, you ask those same speakers to pre-record an event, dress up in fun outfits and deliver the message with light-hearted brevity. You may find that your presenters get a boost of energy from breaking the mold and dressing up like the Grinch or wearing a Santa hat during their segment, instead of just doing the same old thing. And attendees will probably get a kick out of seeing a VP wearing their favorite light-up holiday sweater. Now, instead of the meeting being a drag on everyone’s time and attention – just when people are feeling overwhelmed – it becomes a fun break from the routine. Bonus: all of the important information is still shared and more likely to be retained. Dressing up isn’t the only option, of course. The key is to do something that shakes things up in a positive, entertaining way.

What’s not so funny at work If a joke divides you from those you work with or if your humor is at someone else’s expense – skip it. Highlighting differences can prove especially problematic. That’s why you want to:

  • Avoid jokes about sex, religion, stereotypes, politics and other inappropriate workplace topics.

  • Never use humor that mocks or discredits your co-workers, clients or the organization.

  • Refrain from jokes about topics and events that are still in the headlines or trending on social media. Your listeners may feel that it’s too soon to laugh about them.

  • Be careful about appearing lighthearted when others are working in crisis mode. Your team members or co-workers may perceive it as being insensitive to their situation.

Remember: We don’t always know what might be troubling to other people. What may not seem insensitive to you could be a painful trigger for someone else. Staying aware of your audience – and sensitive to the impact of current events upon them – is wise. When in doubt, err on the side of kindness and building trust.

What to do if humor in the workplace crosses the line Humor can be subjective, but its impact can be clear. With the help of the following questions, you may be better prepared to decide where and when to put your foot down with employee jokes. Does it align with your organization’s culture? If one of your employees makes jokes that run counter to your organization’s values, it’s time to discuss those values and what’s expected of employees. Because inappropriate humor that contradicts your culture can open you up to risk for discrimination and harassment, it’s important to bring HR into the discussion for guidance and transparency.

Might it impact performance? Beyond the risk that out-of-bounds employee humor can create over the long term, it can also have a direct impact on the performance of teammates and other employees. Addressing this may require a conversation among you, the employee whose humor is causing the problem, and HR about how to proceed. Discussing the issue with employees may be all that’s needed to correct the problem and help prevent future gaffes. However, some first-time missteps can be so dire that they can have an immediate impact on your culture or brand (and perhaps even your bottom line if clients or prospects catch wind of it). In those cases, it’s important to bring in HR immediately to plan, document and enact next steps to help prevent lasting damage.

Easy rules for using humor in the workplace So, how can you make sure your jokes and jests have a positive impact on your co-workers? Keep these tips in mind:

1. Read the room. Know your audience and pay attention to the environment, current workload, what’s happening within the company, and what’s happening in your community and the world at large. 2. Keep it PG. Getting a laugh is good. Getting a laugh while making your listeners feel comfortable and building trust is better. Only make jokes as deep as your relationship with the listener. Don’t break out your edgiest humor with a new colleague or your boss. If what you say falls flat or gives offense, you’ll need enough relational capital to repair the breach. 3. Pace yourself. A well-timed joke every now and then has a bigger impact than a steady stream of class-clown style remarks. 4. Take your cues from the boss. Especially when you’re new to a group, let your manager lead with the use of humor in the relationship. This will help you determine what they find acceptable and funny. Then try to match their general humor in a way that strengthens your relationship.



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