Humor at work for managers: is it serious now?

Apr 21, 2021 5 mins

Humor at work for managers: is it serious now?
author
Rose Costello

Editor and writer

Using humor at work can help to make time fly, ease tensions and create a more supportive atmosphere, but you have to be careful how you use it.


A classic sketch from the Monty Python comedy team revolves around a joke so funny that anyone hearing it dies laughing. (Literally!) First, the author of the joke, Ernest Scribbler, keels over in convulsions. Then his mother dies, followed by the policemen sent to investigate. The government spots an opportunity and works out how to harness the power of this one joke and use it as a weapon.

What is the joke? We are never told, but the sketch is a clever reminder that humor has tremendous power. The question is: can a manager use it to their advantage or is it just too dangerous? While you probably won’t die laughing, it pays to give consideration to how you use humor in the age of cancel culture.

“It’s not always appropriate and can sometimes harbor sloppiness and even discomfort if it’s used too much. At the right moments it can significantly lift the morale of an office and workforce, to the benefit of a business’s performance.” - Haskins

What is different now

Our perception of humor has changed over the past few years, according to Ollie Haskins, the head of HR at Bequest.com, a life assurance broker based in London. “What may have been meant as a light-hearted joke three or four years ago, is now being re-evaluated, analyzed, and more deeply understood as to how it made people feel at the time,” he said, adding that people are considering again how their words and actions affected others. Jay Leno, the American talk show host, recently apologized for years of making jokes based on stereotypes about Asian-Americans in public. Haskins said: “I’ve seen people reach out and apologize for making mistakes in the past, who are now actively seeking out understanding or education on racism, sexism, and bias.”

What behavior is welcome at work?

Getting the balance right is key when it comes to humor, according to Cas Paton, the chief executive of OnBuy.com, an online marketplace with offices in Dorset. “It’s not always appropriate and can sometimes harbor sloppiness and even discomfort if it’s used too much,” he said. “I do however think that at the right moments it can significantly lift the morale of an office and workforce, to the benefit of a business’s performance.”

At Onbuy.com, the preference is to add fun through activities, rather than jokes. “For many employees, group work can be daunting and draining so a little bit of humor can help to relax and enable participants to feel more comfortable,” said Paton. “This allows them to co-operate more easily among each other, generating more engagement and by extension successes in and even after the meeting has ended.”

That’s a popular approach at Bequest.com too. “Humor is not, and should not, be about teasing colleagues or telling drab jokes,” said Haskins, “but more about the times where we can let go, enjoy ourselves and share stories we’re comfortable with. We create a time and a place for humor within our daily work lives, where we can relax and enjoy ourselves as a team.” Bequest.com does that through light-hearted events and dedicated non-work time. “We have shared a team lunch every Wednesday during the lockdown, where we don’t talk about work at all,” said Haskins. “Every Friday . . . we wrap up with a round of games. We’ve played Codenames, Among Us, Kahoot! and quizzes.”

“Humor is not, and should not, be about teasing colleagues or telling drab jokes.” - Haskins

The role of laughter

Taking humor seriously is increasingly popular in business, according to Michael Kerr, author of The Humor Advantage. “When managers embrace a sense of humor, they help set the tone for the entire workplace environment,” said Kerr. “They become more approachable and are more trusted. It helps them to build relationships, break down barriers, communicate more effectively and, of course, manage the stress of their jobs.”

A survey by Robert Half, an international recruiter based in California, shows that almost 80% of chief financial officers believe an employee’s sense of humor plays an important role in how well they fit in with the company’s corporate culture. “Given the role humor can play in defusing serious situations or breaking the tension in serious conversations, there are very few times when it should be considered off-limits,” said Kerr. Never, for example, poke fun at skills that are essential to the job.

He also advises maintaining a sombre demeanor in serious situations, such as when announcing layoffs, or if there is a danger the humor will be viewed as being at someone else’s expense. “As a manager, you have the power, so when you use humor that pokes fun at your underlings, it can seriously backfire,” Kerr said.

Learn to laugh at the things you have no control over at work and, especially as a leader, at yourself—without playing the clown. “The answer is to be self-deprecating and poke fun at yourself. . . Being able to laugh when you make a mistake, or joke about your receding hairline can go a long way. It helps humanize you and build relationships at work. It is a sign of confidence, whereas mean-spirited humor is a sign of weakness,” said Kerry.

Haskins agrees. Keep it respectful. Humor that harms, degrades, or makes fun of an individual, is never funny and should always be called out,” he said. It’s important to have these conversations and to hold ourselves and others accountable for our words and actions said Haskins: “This doesn’t mean we have to stop using humor at work but make sure we check ourselves before making comments that we perceive to be funny, as they could be harmful.”

“As a manager, you have the power, so when you use humor that pokes fun at your underlings, it can seriously backfire.” - Kerr

How to get the right kind of laughs

With that in mind, here are a few simple guidelines that can help you let your wit shine through at work without stepping on any toes.

  1. In meetings: Lighten the tone and open up communication by sharing a funny story of something that happened to you or an embarrassing story of something that happened at work and what you learned from it, said Kerr. “Your meetings are important touch points that should reflect the culture you want to create at work,” said Kerr. Haskins agrees: “You don’t always have to hog the limelight on those Zoom calls. Allow others the chance to speak and contribute to a wider discussion. People’s varied experiences often lead to the funniest moments, so give them the space and respect to share those.”

  2. In emails: When communicating with your staff, add some humor to your emails. Or as the chief executive of Beryl Health Call Centres in the US does, add some humor in a weekly video message. “Paul Spiegelman, Beryl’s chief executive, even though he’s a self-described shy introvert, will wear funny wigs on his weekly video message to employees, or answer funny questions he gets from them,” said Kerr.

  3. At events: Lead by example and be the first person to put yourself out there at any company socials, retreats or meetings where there are activities. Put your hand upwhen someone is asking for volunteers for an improv skit, or someone wants to use funny photos of employees in a PowerPoint presentation”, said Kerr.

When the boss is up for a few laughs at work, it can help everyone to enjoy their jobs more, especially when done sensitively. “If you create an environment based on mutual respect within the team, and create an outlet for fun,” said Haskins, “you can all share at least a laugh a day.” Given the times in which we are living, that’s an attractive proposition.

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