How workplace jokes can go wrong

Monday, 03 December, 2018

How workplace jokes can go wrong

A new guide to using humour in the workplace uses the latest research to ensure nobody is harmed by offensive jokes.

Jokes at work can help to ease tension, build camaraderie and make the day more bearable — but they can also offend, exclude and harm people. However, it is not always clear how to manage humour so it helps rather than hurts people and business.

Laugh Out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humour’, by University of Auckland academics Barbara Plester and Kerr Inkson, is believed to be the first authoritative, science-based guide of its kind in the world.

The authors argue that everyone in an organisation has a role to play in managing humour, not just managers and HR. They use true-life vignettes to unpick common scenarios and develop the idea of ‘humour boundaries’ — where friendly banter slips into harassment, bullying and other unwanted behaviour. These boundaries vary widely, but are generally looser in smaller companies.

The authors explain how to identify where the boundaries lie within an organisation and, if necessary, how to shift them.
There’s advice for everyone — for the jokers themselves, the targets/victims, the observers, the official and unofficial humour gatekeepers who enforce humour boundaries and managers. The authors say the book is written for an international market, but has special resonance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“We’re a nation of piss-takers, but piss-taking can brutalise,” Plester said.

“And there’s still the idea that if you take offence, it’s your fault for being humourless — ‘What’s wrong with you, can’t you take a joke?’ 

“If you think the offence was unintended, you could try saying something like, ‘I know you didn’t mean it like that, but that made me feel excluded/unvalued/incompetent.’ But if you think the person has it in for you or is alienated from the company, you may need to escalate. Keep a record, seek support and corroboration from others at work and tell the person you will lay a complaint if they don’t stop.”

The authors offer the following tips for having a laugh at work:

  • Remember that when groups that are already marginalised become targets for humour, this can increase the potential for harm.
  • If it would embarrass you to have your joke told to your boss, senior colleagues or printed on the front page of a newspaper with your name, then it is probably not a good joke to tell at work.
  • Company sexual harassment policies need to consider humour. One person’s ‘joke’ is another person’s harassment.
  • Just because people are laughing does not mean they all like the joke or the sentiments in the joke. People may laugh from embarrassment or social pressure and politeness while actually feeling offended and upset — especially if the joke-teller is in a position of power.
  • If you witness an offensive joke but can’t call out the joker, try ‘unlaughter’: staying po-faced and stony sends a strong message.
  • Just because you think it is funny does not mean others will too. Try to see your joking around from someone else’s perspective — especially if they are a different gender or sexual persuasion or have different values than you.
  • A sexual or sexist joke may incite a lot of mirth but is never a good idea at work, even when you know your colleagues well. It may be overheard or repeated and is likely to cause offence.
  • Sexual or sexist, racist or otherwise bigotry-based jokes shared via email can cause a lot of distress and can be easily circulated.

Image caption: Authors Barbara Plester and Kerr Inkson.

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