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Humour in the workplace: When is it appropriate?

Thursday, May 19, 2016 - 18:27

CRACK. You turn to see a young man falling to the floor, the unfortunate victim of a workplace prank. As it turns out, someone had removed the screws from his chair and when he sat down he was left sprawling on the ground.

While a health and safety officer would be shaking their head in disgust, this is just horseplay, harmless tomfoolery - right? But what happens if the young man had been seriously hurt, or if a different joke was taken the wrong way and led to claims of bullying?

Leadership training can help people identify cultural boundaries that regulate humour.

Workplace humour obviously has a number of benefits that can drive morale and engagement. However, there is more to humour than simply that. It's complexity hides a darker side, one that can have major impacts on a leader's ability to galvanise a workplace.

The dark side of humour

The more a person thinks about humour the more intricate it becomes. This stems from the fact it is characterised by a set of dichotomies: Complementary and insulting, escalating and de-escalating, relaxing and stiffening.

Humour is inherently based on building group boundaries. It reinforces in-group relations and demarcates difference, while likeness is made explicit. Typically, this process of demarcation can find itself being played out through stereotypes. In this way, groups identify, define and redefine themselves, while making salient who belongs and who is excluded. 

This plays itself out in a number of ways. Take for instance, the way employees tend to joke about clients. These can and do follow along lines of business ineptitude and commercial illiteracy. Or on the other hand, the way management can stereotype and even stigmatise employees through jokes and internal communications. 

A good example of this was the 2014 Sony hack that led to a huge number of emails being leaked to the public. One particular communication that garnered national attention was an exchange between producers, which included a line "kill me please. Immediately" in reference to Angelina Jolie and her movie Cleopatra.

So humour can be used to prop up the boundaries between groups of people, but if these find their way into the open this can be a major problem for those in higher positions.

Jokes and humour can help employees grow.Jokes and humour can help employees grow.

When can humour be appropriate?

Humour can be used in a number of situations that defy the duality of good and bad. Research from Nick Butler of the University of St. Andrews and Lund found that humour can be used to correct behaviour. However, in his research, participants used mocking and ridicule to accomplish this end.

Yet, knowing and timing jokes very much depends on the working environment. Research from Dr Barbara Plester of the University of Auckland found that there were a number of unofficial boundaries that existed in the many places she studied.

Smaller and less formal companies tend to have staff that are close with each and often know each other very well. In many instances, jokes in smaller companies can be contentious and push the boundaries. However, in more formal settings, such as a law firm, humour is much more constrained and less risque.

The implicit boundaries that are inherent within workplaces can and do lead to major problems when management level staff try to make jokes or encourage humour. Speaking to Fairfax in 2015, Dr Plester said there was a trend for management to create fun working environments as it is perceived to be connected with productivity and decrease staff turnover. 

"Once we talk about creating fun], it becomes very contrived," Plester said.

For leaders then, it is essential to know an organisation before they begin to implement 'fun' activities. In the same way executives must do their due diligence before creating new work processes, they must also ensure they are not breaking any unwritten rules when trying to encourage fun in their office.