It’s no fun: a guide to jokes and humor at work

When I had my first job after college, about 30 years ago, my boss was a woman who was also called Michele. To set us apart, coworkers started calling us Big Michele and Little Michele (she was tall, I wasn’t), and even worse, Old Michele and Young Michele.

I felt bad with those rankings, but being in my early twenties, I wasn’t comfortable making waves yet.

Fast forward: I’m probably the same age the other Michele was at the time. And while I have a great sense of humor and am known to joke, if someone working with me called me Old Michele, there would be consequences.

When humor is at work

So when is humor appropriate for the job and when isn’t it these days? And how can workers in their 50s and 60s know what they can and cannot joke about with younger colleagues? Okay, that’s complicated.

“What we find funny – or appropriate – is far from universal. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to humor, ”says Jennifer Aaker, professor of behavioral science at Stanford University and co-author of the book“ Humor, Seriously ”.

Aaker says that when she and her research team ask people what keeps them from using humor at work, many say it’s the fear of inadvertently crossing a line.

“They are not wrong to have this worry; in the workplace, inappropriate or aggressive humor – like teasing, in the wrong context, or with the wrong person – can weaken relationships rather than strengthen them, preventing conflict resolution in the workplace, ”notes Aaker .

Also see: ‘We will not be silent’: Activision Blizzard employees quit toxic culture at work

And, as revealed at the start of the #MeToo movement, if workplace humor is sexual in nature, it may be illegal if it is seen as a form of sexual harassment.

The benefits of humor at work

Naomi Bagdonas, lecturer at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, executive coach and co-author of Aaker says: “If you believe, like us, that humor is a superpower, we urge you to remind you of what every Marvel movie teaches us: this great power can be used for good or, just as easily, for evil.

But Bagdonas doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use humor in the workplace – in fact, quite the opposite.

“The benefits of humor are significant. We know from research that bosses with a sense of humor are more motivating and admired. Their teams are more committed and creative, ”she explains. “And laughter speeds up the path of friendship.”

Aaker cites Anne Libera’s comedy theory to help workers understand what is appropriate. Libera, director of comedy studies at Chicago’s famed Second City theater, explains that comedy has three components: truth, pain, and distance.

  • The truth, says Aaker, is the heart of comedy. “We laugh at what we recognize. At the same time, the truth associated with pain and lack of distance can seem callous, hurtful or offensive, ”she notes.

  • Pain can be physical or emotional. “In some cases, finding the humor in our pain can be cathartic,” says Aaker.

  • Distance is how far a person is from humor. Is your joke about a mistake that just happened at work? So it might not be funny – yet. Distance can be temporal (too early to laugh), geographic (be it something locally or halfway around the world), or psychological (relevance to our personal experience). “For example, I can make fun of my mother, but not your mother. Who, by the way, I mean is a saint, ”jokes Bagdonas.

If you are in doubt about whether to make or tell a joke at work, follow Bagdonas’ advice: “Recognize that it’s not about you. Don’t ask, “Is this going to make me look funny?” “Ask:” How will this be other people feel? ‘ “

The point, she said, is not to laugh; it’s to make everyone in the room feel more comfortable. It also means never knocking – making fun of someone of lower status.

What not to say

“When in doubt, go for a shared experience or self-mockery,” Bagdonas explains.

Don’t make fun of someone in a way that will deliberately hurt them because of some physical characteristic, their race, their sexual orientation, or anything else you know that will hurt them deeply. These derogatory types of humor won’t make you friends at work.

“Pejorative humor doesn’t just push boundaries or highlight divisions. It divides more. It can perpetuate prejudices and impact the behavior of those with prejudices, ”Bagdonas explains.

It was exactly the kind of humor used against my former boss and me. While you might think being called Young Michele was a compliment, it made me feel like people didn’t take me seriously.

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What topics are off limits with office humor? A person’s physical appearance, unique identity and diversity attributes, as well as federally protected areas such as race, gender, age, religion, disability and sexual orientation, explains Shirley Davis, president of SDS Global Enterprises, in Tampa, Florida. company helping companies to create inclusive and successful work cultures, and a human resources professional.

“The right kind of humor in the workplace is tasteful, used to relieve stress and break tensions, and bring people together,” says Davis.

Suppose a younger coworker keeps telling you something like “OK, boomer,” everyone is laughing and it makes you uncomfortable. So what ?

“If someone is the butt of a joke, they shouldn’t be getting along. They should fix it, ”Davis says.

If you’re comfortable going directly to the person, advises Davis, do so privately and in a timely manner – within 24-48 hours – and let them know how the comment made them feel. “If you’re uncomfortable, report it to HR or the higher-level manager,” she says.

Davis advises employees not to assume that the person wanted to hurt them, especially if it was a one-time thing. In that case, she suggests, use it as a good time to learn.

If you think you could report inappropriate humor to HR or hire a lawyer to file a harassment complaint, Davis says, “document the dates, times and people it was reported to.”

Document a complaint about inappropriate jokes

Kia Roberts, Founder and Director of Triangle Investigations in New York City, says, “Nothing fancy is required. Even making a brief audio recording or writing in the Notes app on your phone is sufficient. Document what was said, the date and time, and how it made you feel as an employee.

The documentation, she notes, “takes these concerns from a general complaint to an issue HR needs to take seriously.”

If you have a complaint with your human resources manager and nothing happens, you can report it to that person’s boss or, if your employer has one, to the General Counsel office.

If complaining doesn’t work, Davis says you have a few other options:

  • Depending on the severity of the comment, you will need to decide if this is something you can overcome and hope it doesn’t happen again.

  • Consider changing divisions or departments or look for a job elsewhere.

  • Report the problem to the Federal Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities (EEOC).

  • Contact a lawyer specializing in employment law and seek advice.

If you ultimately decide to take legal action, documentation becomes crucial and useful. “If an employee has kept detailed incident logs, that’s an employment law attorney’s dream,” notes Roberts.

Related: How much does sexual harassment at work cost over a lifetime? Up to $ 1.3 million, a new study estimates

The bottom line about workplace jokes: If you don’t want to be told, don’t tell another person. Trying to create a fun work environment is good – as long as everyone feels the same.

Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski is an award winning writer who lives in Baltimore. She is the author of the comedy book “The next time I move, they will carry me in a box”. Reach it To

This article is reproduced with permission from, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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