Having a laugh at work has its proven benefits, but there are also good reasons why the national sense of humour has changed.
In a recent interview for ABC news breakfast, ABC chair Ita Buttrose said she believed Australians need to embrace their inner larrikin and that we’ve become “far too sensitive”.
Her comments are a response to preliminary results from the ABC’s Australia Talks national survey, which has so far interviewed 54,000 Australians to collate their thoughts on everything from climate change and Indigenous affairs to personal finances and loneliness (you can take the interactive survey yourself to see how your behaviours and attitudes align with other Australians).
One of the questions is ‘has political correctness gone too far?’ When asked to share her view on this question, Buttrose said, “We don’t talk to each other the way we used to. Even in the workplace… the way women and men used to talk to each other, which was quite fun I think, doesn’t exist today. I think of some of the conversations I used to have with Sir Frank Packer for instance, it simply wouldn’t happen today. I think it takes a lot of spontaneity out of the workplace.
“I think Australians are essentially good humoured people and we like to josh each other in the workplace. And we should be able to do that without anyone being offended or sensitive about it. There are very few larrikins anymore. We’ve suppressed that side of our character. I think we need to bring back the larrikin element of Australia… because it’s very unique to us.”
This larrikin attitude may have been alive and well in Buttrose’s Cleo days in 1970s Australia and things have certainly changed now, but there’s a reason for that.
So what exactly is the humour that Buttrose misses? Well here are some quotes attributed to Frank Packer:
- A boat’s a bit like a new bride. You never really know how she’ll perform until you get married.
- My experience of journalists has been that the more they whinge, the better they work.
- It looks like everyone is unanimous but me.
- I suppose every housewife is a stripteaser…
- (Apparently he said to Ita Buttrose) Well done. You’re not only good-looking but talented.
Considering those second and third quotes would be absolutely fine in a modern workplace, you could jump to the conclusion that Buttrose is referring to Packer’s casual sexism, perhaps among other things. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no doubt these kind of comments wouldn’t be condoned by management in a workplace today.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, founder of mwah (making work absolutely human) and chair of AHRI’s National Inclusion and Diversity Reference Panel says, “I completely agree that we don’t talk to each other the way we used to, but that’s probably a good thing. When Ita mentions the conversations she used to have with Sir Frank Packer, well, he may or may not be the role model that we’re looking for in the future. I think society has moved on.”
There’s no one reason why such quips are considered less acceptable workplace banter today, but a good place to start is that Australian culture has a very different take on sexual harassment than it once did. And one of the causes of that is the extent of such harassment, against both women and men, is now much more visible.
The 2018 national survey into Australian workplace harassment showed people were far more likely to report workplace sexual harassment in 2018than when the national survey was first conducted in 2003. Twenty-six per cent of men reported having been sexually harassed at work in 2018, compared to just six per cent in 2003. For women the number jumped to 39 per cent from 15. In the last five years, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually harassed while at work.
From this point of view, it’s not surprising that things have shifted.
“Our standards of what we’ll put up with have changed. It was harder to discuss back then, but now we’ve got language around it,” says Brighton-Hall. “Sure, there’s a lot of rules and policies around this stuff now, but there’s also better language and confidence to call out tough conversations when we’re not comfortable.”
“In the 1980s, the loudest (usually male) voice would have won the debate but that’s changed. That ability to have a debate is a really important skill. I’m a huge fan of Ita and I think she’s a role model for this skill of confidently raising pointy issues respectfully and courageously with good humour.”
We should still have a laugh at work
All of this is not to say that there’s no place for humour in the workplace. Not only is a tongue-in-cheek attitude an important part of the Australian identity, there’s plenty of research out there saying it’s effective. It can increase employee performance, it can boost creativity and, when used appropriately, increase the joke teller’s perceived competency.
Brighton-Hall thinks humour is an essential part of all cultures, it’s just different in every country and every workplace. When asked where the line is at work, she says it’s all about context. “It’s not just about the two people who are joking around, you also have to consider the people who are hearing it.”
This is especially important to keep in mind with new employees who won’t be familiar with the dynamics between certain people in the office. If they notice two people making fun of each other all the time, which may be a reflection of a great relationships in Australian culture where we tend to tease the people we like most, the new person might take it the wrong way and assume the interaction is a negative reflection of the company’s values.
“A well intended leader will watch who’s in the room when they make certain jokes. If they see someone looking at them like, ‘Oh my goodness, what did you just say?’ that leader will make sure they take the time to go over and clarify that they were joking around and make sure that person is okay,” says Brighton-Hall.
Another approach Brighton-Hall often takes when training leaders is tapping into what she calls ‘soft power’. That is, the ability to raise and lean into a tough conversation between adversaries.
“In a world that’s quite divided right now, where opinions can be so one-sided and absolute, it’s increasingly a core skill,” she says.
Her advice for HR professionals who are faced with staff members who are making inappropriate jokes is to approach them with kindness.
“Most people don’t want to be offensive,” she says. “We tend to grow up in a household of people who share the same values and humour as us. If someone hasn’t ever been told something’s not okay, it’s OK to guide them and, hopefully, they’ll hear that feedback and the good intent behind it.
“Say to them, ‘I hear where you’re coming from. I know you’re a good person, wanting to do the right thing, but that comment really hit the ground with a thud. I hope you don’t mind me calling that out, but that’s not language that people are using anymore and I’d hate you to be embarrassed or make someone else really uncomfortable.’”
What do you think about Ita’s comments. Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
HR leaders who are looking for advice on how to lean into those hard conversations and unlock that ‘soft power’ in leaders can try Ignition Training’s short course on conflict management.