Jan 07

Humour in the Workplace

There seems to be a lot of information out there at the moment about the benefits of using humor in the workplace. In fact on Google there are about 363,000 results (at the time of writing), so clearly it’s quite a popular subject area. But it’s a topic that concerns me. Gravely concerns me.
Firstly, let me just say that as a humorist I’m into humour (or humor, however you choose to spell it) in a big way. And I mean a BIG way. Apart from being a practitioner (sounds a bit of a heady term for someone who has the ability to make a room full of strangers laugh), I’m big into the history of it both in the theatre and in cinema.

I’m also all for the benefits of humour being able to reduce stress and also help re-frame the serious, sometimes even tragic, moments that life can throw at us. Being able to laugh with a colleague about a angry person you’ve just dealt with on the phone is important I think.

As Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, licensed psychologist and therapeutic humorist, wrote in an article over at Humor Matters that a “Haft International 1985 survey only 15% of workers are fired because of lack of competence. The remaining 85% are let go because of their inability to get along with fellow employees. When asked about the qualities of an effective employee, senior administrators and human relations personnel check humor as one of the choice attributes of a desired employee”.

I’m not sure what the figures would be like in 2009, but based on that old research alone I think it’s important for work colleagues to be able to get on and communicate effectively. Humour is definitely an important part of that. That’s fine with me.

What I’m against is when people go overboard with the humor in order to make the workplace a really fun place to be. The “you-don’t-have-to-be-crazy-to-work-here-but-it-helps” type of people or the “wacky, cartoon tie” brigade. These people are actually irritating. I see the spirit of trying to make work a much more interesting and fun place to be, but, personally, I don’t want to deal with, or work with, a company like that.

People at work shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, that much I can accept, but not to the extent of playing practical jokes at other people’s expence. For instance, I was working in this one job a few years ago and I was chatting to one of my colleagues and I happened to mentioned that I’d performed stand-up. She instantly said “I’m funny” – immediately a warning sign that she isn’t.

Not “Oh, I do stand-up too”, but “I’m funny”. In my experience this person usually isn’t. Not wanting to criticise what she was telling me I let her explain. I do try to be supportive where I can and just get on with people even on a temporary basis. This is what she told me, without any exaggeration from me:

“Sometimes when I’m at my mother’s I’ll hide from her. Then I’ll leap out and squirt her with a water pistol.” (She laughed, after clearly cracking herself up).

I wanted to stab her in the eye with a Biro…

People who describe themselves as being wacky, usually aren’t. They are deluded and need a “jolly good talking to”, as only the English can muster. Granted the scenario she was describing took place out of the office at home, but the seeds of (what I can only describe by neologising) Shunny (a portmanteau of the words sh*t and funny) were clearly there.

On another day I happened to catch her crouching behind some cabinets. “Er, hi. What are you doing?” “Oh. I was going to leap out on you and scare you.” She was lucky that piece of shunny failed. If she had I can only imagine that we would’ve reenacted that scene from The Deer Hunter with her playing the Christopher Walken role, but with a full chamber.

So should we avoid humour in the workplace at all costs then? No, I don’t believe so.  Over at Science Daily there’s research on humor in the workplace by professor Chris Robert, at the University of Missouri-Columbia said: “…particularly joking around about things associated with the job – actually has a positive impact in the workplace. Occasional humor among colleagues, he said, enhances creativity, department cohesiveness and overall performance”.

See he says “occasional humor works”.  Here are three ideas off the top of my head:

1) Witty Banter–  a bit of banter with work colleagues about the workload that you both have, or laughing about a difficult customer. Being naturally funny helps in this situation. Alternatively, re-telling a favourite joke might be useful as along as you’re not offensive.

2) Favourite Comedy Shows– recounting favourite or classic sitcoms or sketch shows. Or discussing the previous evenings TV where you both might have seen the same show. Quoting from shows or comedians that you both find funny works because you both remember how you laughed originally at the source material. So by repeating it you can often get a laugh of recollection.

3) Cartoon strips – One job I had I had a copy of one of my favourite panels taped to the bottom of my computer screen. Whilst it wasn’t fall of my chair funny, it served to make me smile every now and then when I wasn’t feeling my best. I have seen these photocopied and pinned up on a noticeboard.

(Can you suggest any others? If so, write a comment and let me know).

We need to be able to keep our senses of humour intact both at work and at home. But we need to be careful that’s it’s not at the expence of others or detracts from your productivity.

Update 2nd April 2009: Check this out if you need help creating a funny PowerPoint presentation.


  1. Brad Montgomery

    Great post my friend. I agree that humor / humour! is often overdone at work. And I also agree that funny ties and squirt guns leave me cold. But I also think it is important to remember that for some people, a funny tie is a wild stretch. And for those people wearing that tie might be a tool for them to feel more “in the moment” and “fun” and therefore be able to more enjoy their time at work.

    The more I read and talk about this subject the more I’m aware that humor in the workplace doesn’t always mean “what brad think’s is funny.” It means, “What any given individual thinks is fun or funny.”

    For the introverts…. or the wackos …. if a squirt gun boosts their day — and their creativity — and doesn’t interfere with their work mates, I’m all for it. Just keep the damn gun away from me. : )

    thanks for the resources you linked to… I hadn’t seen them. Cheers mate!


  2. Brad Montgomery

    Hey Jason…. do you know about the carnival we are running at http://www.bradlaughs.com ? You should submit this article. Both of our readerships will enjoy it.

  3. Jason Peck

    Hey Brad,

    Thanks for dropping by…

    I’ve reflected on some of the business people I’ve met of the years and you’re right. A “wacky tie” is probably a stretch for some of them.

    And as we both know, it’s about our audiences not about us. We can make them laugh and remind them of their “own funny”, but we can’t be the comedy police if we don’t find what they do fun or funny.

    Yes, keep that squirt gun away from me too. Sometimes I think it’s difficult not to say to them “don’t worry, I’ve died on comedy stages for my country”.

    I’m glad you liked the resources. I’m so pleased I came across them because it helps to support what we do. We both know that humor (!) is good for people and can help improve the bottom line, but there are always going to be those people who go “oh yeah? prove it”

    Now we can.

    Thanks for the idea about your carnival Ill come and have a look.



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