The Rules for Office Humor

Nothing exists like humor to get through a long day at the office. The ability to look at the sometimes absurd nature of the workplace and laugh at it can be the difference between a work day full of drudgery and a job that you look forward to going to in the morning. However, in this litigious society, office humor can be a minefield if a joke is taken the wrong way. Many employers have strict guidelines for what constitutes “inappropriate” office humor that can result in harassment and a hostile work environment.

Inappropriate office humor can be both costly and career limiting

In 1995, Chevron was obliged to pay out $2.2 million as a result of a legal action filed by four female employees as a result of a shared email among male employees on the subject of “25 Reasons Why Beer is Better than Women.” The next year a county Ombudsman named David Krull was fired for sending an email that was alleged to be advice for young brides written by a 19th century minister’s wife that was sexually explicit to his executive assistant who was engaged to be married.

The point of these two stories is not that one should not joke around at the office but rather you should be aware that something that can be funny to one person can also be deeply offensive to another. Demanding that offended people just realize that the intent was not to offend is not an option.

The importance of office humor at work

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that employers like to hire people with a sense of humor. A funny workplace is one which attracts highly skilled employees. Indeed, research suggests that hearing a good knee slapper lights up the same areas of the brain as does a handsome bonus check. Humor can foster smoother interactions between work mates and can inspire creativity.

Some simple guidelines of how to be funny at the office (and how not to be)

Scott Adams, who is the king of office comedy due to his Dilbert comic strip, suggests that if you are not naturally funny, the office is not the place to start trying. Nothing quite embarrasses more than a joke that falls flat or elicits groans instead of laughter. The principles of timing and recovery apply just as much to you as they do for Jimmy Fallon and Jeff Foxworthy.

Don’t tell sexist, racist, or ageist jokes. That kind of humor is a sure-fire way to get a trip to human resources for counseling.

Don’t tell sexually explicit jokes. Some people might find the humor in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Chances are, someone will not.

Don’t put a joke in an email. That magnifies that chance that it will find its way to someone who may be offended. Always tell a joke in person, when facial expressions and tone of voice can be disarming. If you happen to offend, apologize at once and do so sincerely.

Do not be a bully, even if you think abusing an intern is funny. The intern will not find the humor in it. Indeed, a better way to use humor is to lift someone up rather than tear them down.

Do not single people out for ridicule. We are, after all, adults and should have left that sort of thing behind in middle school. The person being ridiculed can strike back by filing a complaint.

Avoid politics and religion. Many people have strong opinions about both and may not appreciate having them made light of.

Finally, try not to spend too much time being the office clown. You and everyone else are there to work, not to carry on a standup routine. Besides, too much joking around can get old after a while.

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