Joke's On You: Why Office Humor Can Be Tricky

Photo Credit: © romankosolapov / Adobe Stock

By Michele Weldon

READ MORE: Career advice, Career goals, Career development, Workplace, Colleagues, Personality, Promotion, Workplace relationships

This will make you laugh: If you are seen as genuinely funny at work, you could be more successful. Jokes can speed up your career growth.

This may make you weep: If you blow it with disrespectful jokes and you look like a buffoon, your career growth could be stalled.

In a recent study, “Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status,” Harvard and Wharton faculty researchers found that “the successful use of humor signals confidence and competence. But what can backfire is the use of inappropriate jokes or becoming the ‘class clown,” according to Knowledge@Wharton.

While everyone loves a good joke, the researchers found “sometimes humor can fail because it’s inappropriate, because it’s just not very funny or because we overdo it. In those cases, we signal low competence and that harms our status. And in some cases we’ve seen people get fired because of it.”

So to be clear; absolutely no jokes at anyone’s expense, no sexist, racist, cruel, crude or inappropriate comments or attempts to be funny or outrageous.  Injuries, crimes and deaths are not funny. Many workplaces have codes of conduct. Say something insulting to someone, even if you think it is a joke, and you could be out the door.

New research from Thomas E. Ford, Professor of Social Psychology at Western Carolina University, shows that humor that puts down others for race, gender, class or whatever, can not only be harmful to you, but harmful to others. Being perceived as someone who expresses hurtful jokes can hamper your career growth.

“By disguising expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, disparagement humor,  appears harmless and trivial,” Ford writes in The Conversation. Not only are these jokes not funny, but they influence real life harmful behaviors that are sexist or violent, according to Ford.

You want to be seen as someone with a solid sense of humor, not the person with the reputation of the office prankster who takesnothing seriously.  You want to be seen as witty, but primarily as good at what you do. You are not the company jester.

Keeping all of this in mind, and acknowledging that jokes can lead to a slippery slope in a downward career direction, here are eight rules on how to use humor at work to promote a hearty laugh and possibly a perception of you as a confident leader.

1. Comment on popular culture—songs, movies, TV shows, new books, sports.

2. Use puns and word play.

3. Use the news and current events to say what surprised you—but stay away from politics and religion.

4. Tell stories about your pets, children and relatives that are genuinely funny.

5. Keep it clean, never say anything lewd or sexual. There are sexual harassment codes at work for a reason.

6. Never make a joke about gender, race, ethnicity, disability, orientation or any personal attribute of anyone, including a celebrity or public figure and especially no one at work or a client or a colleague.

7. You can repeat what happens in real life that is funny; something you saw on the way to work or the waiter at lunch misheard your order and brought you something odd.

8. Practice observational humor. Look for the specific details in an everyday situation that could be funny.

According to WikiHow, you can easily learn how to be funny.

“Get your hands on anything and everything that is funny, and consume it like your mom told you not to. Chemists become chemists by reading and practicing chemistry; sports writers become sports writers by reading and writing about sports; you're going to become a funnier person by reading and practicing jokes.”

Try to smile or laugh at least part of every day. If it’s at work, make sure that your humor is uplifting and not obnoxious. Everyone needs a good laugh. And if your identity as a genuinely funny person augments your career growth, you can enjoy the last laugh.

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This post originally ran in Take The Lead.

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Michele Weldon is the editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. 

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