Using Humor in the Workplace

Published: 22nd November 2011
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Fact: Laughter is the number one stress reliever. Ask anyone what helps them get over stress and the answer will always be the same: humor. It’s no wonder, then, that humor is a tool often used in one of the most stressful day-to-day settings, the workplace. Recent research shows that humor does, in fact, increase productivity, further creativity, and most importantly, reduce stress. Oftentimes these improvements in the workplace are simply the result of strengthened relationships between co-workers and their superiors due to the occasional joke or chuckle. Yes, despite popular belief, humor can serve as a very effective tool within the office, if used correctly of course. It is also true that humor can create the opposite effect: a workplace with increased stress and lower productivity. The key to using humor as a tool to achieve desirable work conditions is to use and manage it appropriately.

According to Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Robert J. Turlaske Sr. College of Business, laughter and the occasional joke around the office can not only increase productivity, but also employee retention. Robert and a business doctoral student, Wan Yan, were interested in the effectiveness of humor as a tool in the workplace, and performed a study to determine its effectiveness at increasing productivity. They concluded that the ability to create humor is associated with both intelligence and creativity, two highly sought after commodities in today’s workplace. Of course, humor also promotes positive emotions among employees, which in turn, promotes positive productivity. These positive emotions gives a sense of cohesion and unity between co-workers and ultimately contributes to employee retention within the company; when people enjoy their work and are good at it, they are less likely to quit and look for a higher paying job. Another study done by researchers at the California State University found that employees that are having fun on the job are more likely to be productive, creative, innovative, cooperative, and communicative, and at the same time less stressed. Employers today try all sorts of different tactics and methods in order to boost morale and efficiency within the workplace, yet it seems that humor is the only tool a manager needs to achieve both of these goals and more.

In contrast with the results of these studies, many business theorizers believe that humor can be offensive and ultimately counter-productive. In some cases this may be true, however as Chris Robert sees it, “humor [is] the medium, not the message.” In other words, if someone uses humor to criticize or complain, it is not the humor that is offensive, but rather the intention of the employee. Unfortunately, many people in the business field do not see it this way and associate humor and jokes with offensive comments and decreased productivity in the workplace.

The aforementioned business theorizers are correct in many ways, as humor can often be used to offend, criticize, and harass. For example, an employee may make a sexually or racially charged comment and play it off as “just kidding.” In such cases, the employer must step in and take control of the situation in order to prevent any further harassment or lawsuits. Humor used in such a manner, overall, only contributes more stress and tension between the workers, which of course results in less productivity and certainly less employee retention. It is the employer’s responsibility to make sure that his employees know and understand what type of humor is acceptable and when it is appropriate. Managers can follow the following guidelines and present them to their employees in order to best manage the appropriate and productive use of humor in the workplace.

• Always consider the message in your humor. Are you using humor to say something that you would not otherwise say?

• Keep in mind with whom you are “joking around.” Would your humor be offensive to a person, or for that matter, a certain group of people?

• Avoid controversial or personal topics; especially political or religious beliefs. One wrong comment and you can wind up unemployed.

• If you’re not sure about your message or your audience, just forget it. It’s about respecting your co-workers and the people around you, so try to stick to a neutral topic if you’re not sure how your humor will be received in the workplace.

Humor is a great tool that should be utilized in any work situation, as long as it is used appropriately. The occasional laugh or joke amongst co-workers can significantly improve productivity, creativity, interpersonal relationships, and ultimately the conditions for each and every one of the employees within the workplace.


Carolyn Stoll is a frequent contributor to PEO Compare and writes about issues that may affect small businesses such as Staff Leasing, different PEOs such as PEO California & PEO Florida, and Global Human Resources. Contact her at c.stoll@peocompare.com.



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