Workplace Rights

Weekly (11/22/09)

Topic of the Week  The Jokes On You... The rules for humor at work

Humor at work:
• DON’T be hurtful.
• DO be P.C.
• DO ask why.
• DO be upbeat.

Your Rant: As a boss, you can’t even joke with people at work anymore.

911 Repair,

If we ever needed more humor at work, it’s now, given the economy, layoffs and rampant greed. That said, humor between bosses and subordinates is a challenge. Which reminds me of a man who flagged down a police car to help him find his son. They found his kid and car nearby, that’s the good news. The bad? Turns out the guy lost his kid when he went off to buy drugs.

That guy is still paying for his mistake. Just like you could be paying if you make an inappropriate joke at work. Sure, it’s easy to decry the overly politically correct workplace. At the same time all bosses need to remember that since you sign the paychecks for the people who report to you, your jokes can feel more like power, pressure and abuse to subordinates. There are many bosses who’ve had to learn that lesson in court. I’ve included three Do’s and one Don’t for effectively using humor in today’s increasingly tense and humorless workplace. For more, check out “The Levity Effect” by Gostick and Christopher (Wiley, 2008).

DON’T be hurtful. Humor shouldn’t be at the expense of anyone at work, especially if you’re the boss. This may surprise anyone who regularly attends comedy clubs, but it is possible to make people laugh, not be dirty and not make fun of people in the process. It just takes a bit more work and thought, hence the reason why we probably don’t see more of this kind of humor. At work, ultimately you only have permission to make fun of yourself, everyone else should be off-limits.

DO be P.C. Comedians have a field day making fun of race, sex, religion. All of that is off the table for you. Don’t go there. Jokes at work should be able to pass the test of being told in front a kindergarten teacher, a nun and the most humorless member of whatever group you are making fun of. Nothing blue or edgy. Need a role model? Jerry Seinfeld. You can be funny without it being any one’s expense.

DO ask why. Have you ever worked with someone who worked out his or her aggression with “humor”? I put it in air quotes because it usually isn’t funny. You’ve got to constantly monitor where your humor is coming from. Is it to make people laugh? Or is it to flex your muscles over them?

DO be upbeat. I’m a big believer in Lily Tomlin’s observation that no matter how cynical you are it’s never enough. But you’ve got to be very careful about this at work. Untrammeled cynicism just wears people out, like water in a stream wears grooves in a rock. Err on the side of being ironic, not cynical, in your humor.

It is possible to lose your way and get in trouble with humor at work. Use these tips to help you find your way.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning If you have a question for Bob, contact him via

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