Is your sense of humour at work making a fool of you?


There are benefits to humour at work, but a misplaced joke could be doing you a lot of harm. HRM explores interesting research about workplace funny business.

I really wanted to open this article with an HR joke, but that’s not my type of humour. According to this Humor Typology Quiz (form fill required), I’m a sniper; someone whose sense of humor is reliant on sarcastic comments and dry jokes. And while that kind of humor is fine among friends, it’s something I need to keep in check at work.

According to research, laughing is really good for us. It’s not an apple a day that keeps the doctor away, it’s your deskmate with the impeccable comedic timing. Laughing can improve our immune system, lower stress levels, and reduce symptoms of depression. 

Humour and laughter are also an important part of a good workplace culture. However, it does depend on the kind of humour you use. 

While some jokes can improve your social standing among colleagues, an off-colour joke could actually cost you credibility and possibly encourage poor behaviour from employees.

For April Fool’s Day, HRM takes a serious look at when and how to use humour at work.  

Make ‘em laugh

According to a 2016 study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, telling a joke that makes others laugh improves people’s perception of your confidence and competence. 

In fact, humour can improve your status among co-workers when someone simply recalls a joke you’ve told, so you don’t even need new material!

“If you are brave enough to tell the joke that you want to tell, whether it succeeds or not, people ascribe confidence to you because they see you as efficacious,” researcher and assistant professor at Harvard Business School and co-researcher of this paper, Alison Wood Brooks told Phys.org

However, a joke that falls flat is a different story. According to this research, it won’t necessarily harm your reputation  among your co-workers, but that’s only if the joke is simply unfunny. If the joke is inappropriate, it can have quite detrimental effects.

Telling an inappropriate joke can not only decrease your status among your colleagues, it can also make people think you’re incompetent

Of course, what’s deemed inappropriate will be contextual to different work environments and dependent on the levels of trust between colleagues within them. 

As a rule of thumb, humour that is racist, sexist or generally discriminatory towards a group is going to immediately fall into the inappropriate basket. Also, there’s always the chance that something perceived as a harmless joke during dinner with  friends won’t be taken the same way at your company meeting. 

What makes something funny is usually the subversion of expectations or the challenging of a social norm, according to Maurice Schweitzer, researcher and Wharton School professor. 

However, this subversion needs to avoid being too severe, Schweitzer adds.

“If I’m making jokes about 9/11 –that crosses a line, it’s too much of a violation. But if I’m making jokes about the War of 1812, there’s so much distance that’s passed, it doesn’t feel as raw, and so that can feel more benign,” he says.

Ultimately, the jokes that benefit you are the ones that make people laugh (no pressure or anything). So it’s worth treading lightly with an ‘audience’ you’re unfamiliar with.

Funny enough to break the rules

Humour has, historically, gone hand in hand with leadership. Just think of monarchs and their court jesters. Not only were jesters a form of entertainment, they also helped kings and queens ease tensions between courtiers and generally keep them in line.

Nowadays, humour is still an important tool for leaders in the workplace.

Employees who think their boss is funny tend to be harder workers, more productive and are more attached to their jobs. However, again, these positive results are determined by the type of humour leaders engage in, according to research published in the Academy of Management Journal.

In psychological academia it’s generally agreed that there are four types of humor:

  1. Affiliative humour – humour that helps people bond. 
  2. Self-enhancing humour – jokes that find the positive in a bad situation. 
  3. Self-deprecating humour  – placing yourself as the butt of a joke.
  4. Aggressive humour – making fun of others.  

While the first three probably have a place in the workplace, aggressive humour is obviously a problem.

Aggressive humour can range from sarcasm or gently picking on coworkers, to more overt behaviour, which can tip into bullying, such as laughing at them not with them.

According to the researchers from the Management Journal, leaders who used aggressive forms of humour in the workplace encouraged deviant behaviour from their employees. Researchers define deviant behaviour as a violation of organisational-norms, such as being chronically late to work or ignoring instructions.

The researchers are quick to point out that leaders shouldn’t stop telling jokes at work. Well-intentioned jokes can see benefits such as those listed above. So if you’re a leader with a funny bone, stick with the non-aggressive forms of comedy in the workplace.

When humour at work is helpful

When speaking to the ABC podcast This Working Life, Dr Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, US-based authors of Humor, Seriously: why humor is a secret weapon in business and life explained that knowing when to use certain types of humour can be advantageous to the workplace.

Bagdonas believes senior employees and leaders should stick with kinder styles of comedy, stuff that is positive and uncontroversial. However, for junior or less influential employees more aggressive styles can actually be quite effective at winning respect. 

Bagdonas says that when she presents to senior executives, often as the only woman in the room, she uses humour to get them on side and cut the tension when needed. Take this example of a time she was cut off by a rude executive named Craig.

“I was halfway through a presentation, and Craig cut me off and said, ‘Can you get to the part where you just get my people to do what I want’… And it was just like a record screeched. Everyone looked at me and looked at Craig, and you could cut the tension with a knife,” she says.

“Without thinking, I just shot back, ‘Well, you know, you’re thinking of the session that I write on mind control. Come back next week and I’m happy to have you join that session’… Everyone laughed, and Craig, uncrossed his arms behind his head and he said, I kid you not, ‘I respect you; you can continue.’”

If you’re still searching for a work appropriate joke, I leave you with this one you can retell as you please: why was the scarecrow awarded employee of the month? He was outstanding in his field. But hay, it’s in his jeans.

Maybe you laughed or maybe this time the fool is me. Maybe I should stick to picking on my manager. It might even get me a promotion.


While AHRI doesn’t offer improv classes, it does have a range of short courses that can help to elevate your career. Check out the full calendar here.


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Is your sense of humour at work making a fool of you?


There are benefits to humour at work, but a misplaced joke could be doing you a lot of harm. HRM explores interesting research about workplace funny business.

I really wanted to open this article with an HR joke, but that’s not my type of humour. According to this Humor Typology Quiz (form fill required), I’m a sniper; someone whose sense of humor is reliant on sarcastic comments and dry jokes. And while that kind of humor is fine among friends, it’s something I need to keep in check at work.

According to research, laughing is really good for us. It’s not an apple a day that keeps the doctor away, it’s your deskmate with the impeccable comedic timing. Laughing can improve our immune system, lower stress levels, and reduce symptoms of depression. 

Humour and laughter are also an important part of a good workplace culture. However, it does depend on the kind of humour you use. 

While some jokes can improve your social standing among colleagues, an off-colour joke could actually cost you credibility and possibly encourage poor behaviour from employees.

For April Fool’s Day, HRM takes a serious look at when and how to use humour at work.  

Make ‘em laugh

According to a 2016 study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, telling a joke that makes others laugh improves people’s perception of your confidence and competence. 

In fact, humour can improve your status among co-workers when someone simply recalls a joke you’ve told, so you don’t even need new material!

“If you are brave enough to tell the joke that you want to tell, whether it succeeds or not, people ascribe confidence to you because they see you as efficacious,” researcher and assistant professor at Harvard Business School and co-researcher of this paper, Alison Wood Brooks told Phys.org

However, a joke that falls flat is a different story. According to this research, it won’t necessarily harm your reputation  among your co-workers, but that’s only if the joke is simply unfunny. If the joke is inappropriate, it can have quite detrimental effects.

Telling an inappropriate joke can not only decrease your status among your colleagues, it can also make people think you’re incompetent

Of course, what’s deemed inappropriate will be contextual to different work environments and dependent on the levels of trust between colleagues within them. 

As a rule of thumb, humour that is racist, sexist or generally discriminatory towards a group is going to immediately fall into the inappropriate basket. Also, there’s always the chance that something perceived as a harmless joke during dinner with  friends won’t be taken the same way at your company meeting. 

What makes something funny is usually the subversion of expectations or the challenging of a social norm, according to Maurice Schweitzer, researcher and Wharton School professor. 

However, this subversion needs to avoid being too severe, Schweitzer adds.

“If I’m making jokes about 9/11 –that crosses a line, it’s too much of a violation. But if I’m making jokes about the War of 1812, there’s so much distance that’s passed, it doesn’t feel as raw, and so that can feel more benign,” he says.

Ultimately, the jokes that benefit you are the ones that make people laugh (no pressure or anything). So it’s worth treading lightly with an ‘audience’ you’re unfamiliar with.

Funny enough to break the rules

Humour has, historically, gone hand in hand with leadership. Just think of monarchs and their court jesters. Not only were jesters a form of entertainment, they also helped kings and queens ease tensions between courtiers and generally keep them in line.

Nowadays, humour is still an important tool for leaders in the workplace.

Employees who think their boss is funny tend to be harder workers, more productive and are more attached to their jobs. However, again, these positive results are determined by the type of humour leaders engage in, according to research published in the Academy of Management Journal.

In psychological academia it’s generally agreed that there are four types of humor:

  1. Affiliative humour – humour that helps people bond. 
  2. Self-enhancing humour – jokes that find the positive in a bad situation. 
  3. Self-deprecating humour  – placing yourself as the butt of a joke.
  4. Aggressive humour – making fun of others.  

While the first three probably have a place in the workplace, aggressive humour is obviously a problem.

Aggressive humour can range from sarcasm or gently picking on coworkers, to more overt behaviour, which can tip into bullying, such as laughing at them not with them.

According to the researchers from the Management Journal, leaders who used aggressive forms of humour in the workplace encouraged deviant behaviour from their employees. Researchers define deviant behaviour as a violation of organisational-norms, such as being chronically late to work or ignoring instructions.

The researchers are quick to point out that leaders shouldn’t stop telling jokes at work. Well-intentioned jokes can see benefits such as those listed above. So if you’re a leader with a funny bone, stick with the non-aggressive forms of comedy in the workplace.

When humour at work is helpful

When speaking to the ABC podcast This Working Life, Dr Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, US-based authors of Humor, Seriously: why humor is a secret weapon in business and life explained that knowing when to use certain types of humour can be advantageous to the workplace.

Bagdonas believes senior employees and leaders should stick with kinder styles of comedy, stuff that is positive and uncontroversial. However, for junior or less influential employees more aggressive styles can actually be quite effective at winning respect. 

Bagdonas says that when she presents to senior executives, often as the only woman in the room, she uses humour to get them on side and cut the tension when needed. Take this example of a time she was cut off by a rude executive named Craig.

“I was halfway through a presentation, and Craig cut me off and said, ‘Can you get to the part where you just get my people to do what I want’… And it was just like a record screeched. Everyone looked at me and looked at Craig, and you could cut the tension with a knife,” she says.

“Without thinking, I just shot back, ‘Well, you know, you’re thinking of the session that I write on mind control. Come back next week and I’m happy to have you join that session’… Everyone laughed, and Craig, uncrossed his arms behind his head and he said, I kid you not, ‘I respect you; you can continue.’”

If you’re still searching for a work appropriate joke, I leave you with this one you can retell as you please: why was the scarecrow awarded employee of the month? He was outstanding in his field. But hay, it’s in his jeans.

Maybe you laughed or maybe this time the fool is me. Maybe I should stick to picking on my manager. It might even get me a promotion.


While AHRI doesn’t offer improv classes, it does have a range of short courses that can help to elevate your career. Check out the full calendar here.


guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
More on HRM