On the Clock

Laugh it Off: How Humor Can Help in the Office

Studies show humor, if used properly, can give you credibility in the workplace.  

In the early 2000s, when Caroline Ceniza-Levine was working in human resources, she was wading through resumes of soon-to-be college graduates and came across one from a person named Levi. He had taken his name and added “raq” at the end to form an email handle. When read quickly, it sounded like “leave Iraq,” says Ceniza-Levine, who found it a witty play on words.

And yet, it was a total “failure in professionalism,” says Ceniza-Levine, who now is a career coach at SixFigureStart and does stand-up comedy on the side.

That’s the tricky thing about humor in the modern workplace. It’s everywhere, and necessary, and yet complicated to navigate. According to a large study of humor in the office, conducted through Harvard University, researchers found that 75% of workers could cite a joke they were told by a coworker in the past month.

If done right, jokes in the workplace can improve a person's perceived confidence and competence. 

Digging deeper, researchers found jokes led to increased status, improving a person’s perceived confidence and competence among coworkers—when done right. But if a jokester told crude or inappropriate yarns, the opposite held true, plummeting that person’s standing among peers. Either way, humor plays a “fundamental role” in shaping day-to-day interactions, the researchers concluded.

Here are some tips on how to be funny without crossing the line. 

Remember that humor is subjective.  

Ceniza-Levine was recently at a conference, sitting at a table next to someone who made small talk by poking fun of everyone on stage. The conference was handing out raffle prizes, and he had a one-liner for everything—comparing a cooler to an organ preservation kit, for example. “I wondered if his jokes undercut his credibility,” says Ceniza-Levine, who believes he may have been using them to try and build a rapport.

Even if you’re making jokes to pass the time, it’s important to remember that in kidding around, you’re stating opinions. If there’s a sliver of truth in every joke, then when you make such attempts at humor about politics or the workplace, you’re sharing how you view the situation. Of course, it’s fine if your colleagues feel the same way you do, and it could help you bond. But it could also turn off others, which could end up hurting you down the line—particularly if you offend someone with a differing opinion who is in a position of authority, such as your manager.

Stick with stories.

Let’s face it, not everyone is funny. But that doesn’t mean he or she has no chance of shining within a group setting at work or even making someone chuckle.

The best way to attempt a chuckle in the workplace is by relaying stories or situations you find humorous: the street dancer who wanted you to boogie with him on the way to work, or the funny retort your kid stated after you told her it was time for bed. You’ll need to keep these stories politically correct, of course, but if you let the facts of the event (rather than your stand-up capabilities) provide the humor, you’ll be on more solid footing. Topics that help you toe that line include traffic, kids, and the weather. 

Self-deprecation can end up hurting you.

Self-deprecation can help endear yourself to colleagues, but it’s a tricky line, because if done too much, it can also reduce your standing. After all, you don’t want your humor to reduce how professional you seem to others.

If you find yourself venturing into topics on personal shortcomings, like your love life (or lack thereof), determine why you’re doing it. If it’s to bond with others, then limit the jokes that paint you as clumsy, flighty, or immature. If, instead, you’re knocking yourself simply because you’re nervous and want to break the tension, career pros say it’s better to find another way to ensure others in the office enjoy your company. “You may think talking about your personal life or foibles bring you closer to work colleagues,” says Katherine Crowley, a career coach at K Squared in New York City, but more often than not, coworkers will see you as “someone who exercises poor judgment.” And that’s nothing to laugh at.

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