Jokes and Humor in the Workplace—OK, but be Careful!

happy-business-people

Good Sense News – Volume 3, Issue 1

Hey, did you hear the one about…? That line usually tends to cause people to pause and listen closely, because it just might be followed by something worth listening to. And after you’ve listened to whatever comes next, your opinion of the person making the statement will be reinforced one way or another: either  “Yeah, he’s a funny guy,” or “Yeah, she only thinks she’s funny.” No matter the outcome, the telling of a joke is something that can have a profound effect on how coworkers perceive an individual’s credibility and confidence in the workplace.

There’s really no way to know with any degree of accuracy how many stand-up comedians there are in the world, but some sources feel it’s way less than one ten-thousandths of a percent of the population.  On the other hand, it often appears that in a given workplace there are several natural-born comedians who just can’t pass up the opportunity to crack a joke or deliver a witty one-liner. But as probably all of us have seen from time to time, there is a level of risk associated with that urge to launch into humor.

So, what’s the risk in telling a joke? Believe it or not, serious studies have been conducted to measure this risk, and also to determine how the ability to tell a joke can influence your standing in the workplace. One such study was published last year by a team at the Wharton School in Philadelphia[i] which, as reported in their abstract, sought to demonstrate a relationship between humor and relationship status. The study also explored how the use of humor reflects individual confidence and, consequently, how the appropriateness of the humor affects status.

The Wharton study concluded that while “making a joke presents an opportunity for individuals to increase their status” in a workgroup, the actual outcome on one’s standing relates to the appropriateness of the joke itself. In other words, this mean that an appropriate and well-accepted joke will typically cause members of a workgroup to look at the joke teller as being confident and competent and thereby higher in status, while an inappropriate joke can cause the reverse.  Inappropriate jokes make the joke teller appear less competent, something that detracts from status in the workgroup. The key is for the joke teller to always correctly measure the appropriateness of the joke, and to only proceed when confident that the joke will be well-accepted by the workgroup.

Risk aside, it’s depressing to picture a workplace devoid of humor. Mark Twain said it best: “The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Scientists report that laughter releases endorphins into the body, charging us with a chemical 10 times more powerful than the pain-relieving drug morphine and, besides that, a good, hearty laugh burns up to three and a half calories. A survey of CEOs some time ago suggested that 98% preferred job candidates with a sense of humor, while yet another survey suggests 84% of executives thought that employees with a sense of humor do a better job than people with little or no sense of humor.

So, go ahead a crack that joke, but make sure it’s appropriate for the time and place, and by all means be careful to stay away from sarcasm. Many people think that sarcasm is funny and, in a stand-up comedian sense, it often can be. But you’re not George Carlin or Don Rickles. The fact of the matter is that those on the receiving end of sarcastic wit tend to feel put down or that they are the object of derision, something that is akin to the impact of bullying. Also, they and the people observing the delivery of sarcasm often tend to look at the sarcastic person as angry, insecure, and overly negative individual…someone they really would prefer not to be around.

[i] Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


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