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HR Handled Right

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Imagine what’s it’s like. Walking time and again into a room filled with sour, annoyed, or fearful expressions. Trying to ignore the looks that suggest I have either a baseball bat or a termination slip hidden behind my back. Overlooking the eye-rolls and snickers that remind me of the ones I gave Miss Griggs in the third grade.

When I began doing harassment/discrimination prevention training eleven years ago, I was ambushed by this less-than-enthusiastic reception. Who, me? I’m a shrink, for goodness sake. I know the health benefits of humor. While I might never host Saturday Night Live, I’ve been known to crack a joke or two. Heck, one of my best friends considers herself a “laughter therapist.” Why would anyone think that I’m the humor police?

Today, I’ve come to expect the still-too-often misperception that harassment/discrimination prevention boils down to eliminating all fun at work. In fact, I enjoy watching the relief wash over trainee’s faces when they realize that I’m not there to remove their funny bone – just fine-tune it. In fact, understanding what is appropriate humor at work can help all of us make the most of a great stress-relieving tool without worrying about creating more stress for ourselves.

I Could Use a Good Laugh

The average child laughs 300 times a day. The average adult? Who knows, but I bet most of those laughs don’t happen at work. Which is a shame; employees are being asked to adapt quickly to change, work harder and faster, be more creative, and keep up with the latest information pertinent to their work. The need for stress relief and creative inspiration are two benefits humor can offer, not to mention the health benefits. Research shows that laughter stimulates the immune system, decreases “stress” hormones, and increases endorphins. In the workplace, humor and fun can increase productivity, enhance team building, and thus improve esprit de corps.

The right humor, that is. Apparently, not all humor is created equal. Research has shown that there is a distinctive difference in the health benefits of positive and negative humor. Negative humor, i.e., humor that is exclusive or offensive, does not have the same positive physiological effects on one’s body and mind. Apparently, our bodies are as sensitive as our feelings; we physiologically respond to hurtful as if our bodies were under attack. Which, in some ways, is true.


In general, strive for humor that is inclusive, creative and captures our human essence. All of us know that sexist, racist, ageist jokes and crude humor are not only inappropriate, but can lead to sanctions, termination or even lawsuits. In addition, be sensitive when telling jokes involving terminations, RIFs and personal tragedies. Their hurt can linger long after the fact. In addition:

1. Pay attention to clues about your co-worker’s mood

One of the most important aspects of using humor effectively is knowing when it is appropriate to use humor. If used at the “wrong” time, humor can backfire and offend, distract, or upset the people with work with. I read an article the other day where a manager sang a few bars of “Laugh While the Whole World is Crying” as he was laying off his employees. I’m not sure where he developed his sense of humor, but it was not the time to display it. An apparent attempt to lighten a stressful situation was perceived as insensitive and callous and the employee felt angry enough about it to blast it all over the Internet.

If something has really upset a coworker and s/he tells you about it, you should adjust your humor accordingly. Similarly, if a coworker comes into work crying, tread lightly. Just because someone is angry or upset does not necessarily mean that you should avoid using humor altogether; humor can help alleviate these feelings. However, you might want to be especially careful about how you use humor.

2. Start slowly

There is no way to predict exactly how a coworker will react to humor. Therefore, it is important to start using humor gradually in order to “test” how they react. If you take the time to build a trusting relationship with a work colleague, the odds increase that you will have an idea of his or her humor style. Perhaps more importantly, if you unintentionally offend someone, that person will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt based on your history of treating them with respect.

3. Trust your intuition

If a coworker is offended, distracted, or upset by your use of humor, you will most likely be able to “sense” his or her feelings and change the way you use humor. Most people can sense if something is wrong and will naturally decide to discontinue excess attempts at humor. This doesn’t mean we have to be mind readers; simply asking “what’s up” when a joke or comment doesn’t get the response you were looking for can quickly enlighten you on how your attempt at humor was perceived.

4. Take yourself lightly – sometimes

Self-deprecation is an excellent tool, but be careful to use it in moderation, especially when you are around authority figures or people who don’t know you. Being seen as a clown or as insecure, rather than a talented employee who doesn’t take herself too seriously, is not exactly a good career strategy.

5. Use humor as the icing, not the cake

Humor in business should be a lightening agent; in other words, it’s sugar to help the serious work go down. The most effective humor at work is used as a seasoning, not a main ingredient.

6. Avoid playful insults

In general, avoid sarcasm or cynicism. While it may indeed be funny, it also can leave a bitter taste or feeling in the workplace. This is a hard one for many people to avoid, but if you can be funny without being overly dependent on negativity, your professional image will be much higher.

IX The ExcusesNay (Nix the Excuses)

Most people have no desire to offend anyone. The number one reason humor backfires at work is when a manager or employee makes the dangerous assumption that everyone is like s/he is. It’s easy to assume that everyone has our sense of humor, to believe that a person will react the way we would, to think that anyone who looks like us has same values and beliefs. Here are the five most common forms of this assumption – and why they don’t work.

She Has No Sense of Humor . . . I’ve been around the block a time or two and I’ve never met anyone with no sense of humor. I have, alas, met people who didn’t have my sense of humor. While laughter is universal, humor is not; it varies from person to person.

I Hope This Doesn’t Offend Anyone . . . Few of us would think prefacing a punch with “I hope this doesn’t hurt” gives us permission to slug someone, but often we think a warning our colleagues that we are about to tell a risky joke alleviates us from its impact. While this preface might have good intentions, it doesn’t let us off the hook in a work environment. Much better to err on the side of caution and, if you think it might offend someone, save it for the Friday night bowling league.

But I Thought We Were the Same . . . I was once in a meeting where the leader looked around the room, noticed there were no individuals of Asian descent in the room, and proceeded to tell a very racist joke. What he didn’t realize is that his customer – also in the room – was the proud mother of a darling Chinese girl. Needless to say, this humorous attempt backfired and the manager had to eat serious crow to repair the relationship.

But We Were at Happy Hour . . . Yes, I know we all have our personal lives to lead and some of actually like to hang out with the people we work with. However, just because we’ve left the building doesn’t mean we’ve left our work roles behind. Managers, in particular, may fall prey to the temptation to show their employees that, outside of work, they can party hardy with the best of them. The problem is that their employees often don’t understand the same distinction between work and play and may see a manager’s rowdy humor at happy hour as “permission” to repeat it in the office first thing Monday morning.

The Bottom Line on Humor

So what is the most effective humor at work? Humor that takes a stressful work situation and makes light of it. Humor that focuses on the commonalities among people rather than the differences. Humor that includes everyone in the audience.
I’d like to hear more laughter in the corporations I work with. However, as Samuel Butler once said, “It is tact that is golden, not silence.” We don’t need less humor at work; we just need to make sure it’s the kind of humor that makes hard tasks easier, collaborations fun and certainly make workdays go faster. Use humor effectively, and the work world still laughs with you!

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