Career Coach: The power of humor

Monday, August 23, 2010; 15

Some people these days feel overwhelmed with everything they have to do in their lives -- jobs, family responsibilities, educational pursuits, house chores -- you name it. We all feel the never-ending pressure to do things faster, assimilate more information, learn new skills and take on more responsibilities. So what's an employee to do? Maybe a little humor at work is in order.

The power of laughter and humor

I often tell executives I coach that sometimes they need to just lighten up and bring a sense of humor into the workplace. Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have for coping with any source of stress in your life. In addition, laughter is contagious and seems to brighten up the feelings of everyone around. In fact, making work fun helps employees sustain peak performance and consistently provide quality work.

Ways to show humor at work

There are lots of ways to bring humor into the workplace. Telling jokes and stories, using team-building games, bringing in comics and using improv have all been incorporated by companies to have more fun at work. Some firms even have talent shows or host hula-hoop, limbo, dance or Wii Sports competitions. Some bring in stress balls or magic tricks, play games like Simon Says or Mad Libs or and bring in other games. On particularly stressful days, they bring in kazoos, clown noses and other party toys. It just gives employees a break in the day and a chance to laugh at themselves. That short reprieve can really jazz them up and keep them engaged for the rest of the day.

Uh, oh . . . Watch your humor to make sure it is appropriate

Of course, it is important to use appropriate humor at work. Humor should be about laughing with rather than laughing at others. We have probably all witnessed jokes that seemed to alienate or harass others. For example, jokes making fun of employees for their age, sexual orientation, race, weight, personal hygiene, religion, etc., are not only harmful to the person, but can create a hostile work environment and can even spark lawsuits. There are legal precedents regarding humor in the workplace.

Even if the jokes or comments were intended to be humorous, they may not be received that way. I have even heard speakers make slight dirty jokes to audiences, thinking they would be seen as cool, when in fact the audience complained about the speaker's lack of ethics or taste and he or she lost credibility as a result. In another case, I heard about a manager who was out partying with colleagues and kidding about how the boss liked certain people more than others. While the intent was to make a joke, such comments actually had damaging effects on individuals in the firm.

To use humor appropriately in the workplace, here are some guidelines:

Company guidelines

-- Have a written policy in place as to what behavior, including humor, is and is not acceptable at work.

-- Make sure there is an avenue for complaints by employees.

-- Make sure participation at company social events is voluntary. That way, individuals will not feel that they have to attend events that involve pranks or fun.

-- Provide suggestions regarding boundaries needed for celebrating holidays.

-- Have a policy on e-mail humor (e.g., forwarding jokes).

-- Have a policy on horseplay at work (e.g., wrestling, grabbing, etc.).

Individual guidelines

-- Focus the laughs on yourself -- laughing at yourself helps to humanize you in front of others and to make you more likeable.

-- Know your audience -- when making a comment or joke, do you know how your audience might take the comment? Will people take it seriously or will it seem hurtful?

-- Don't kid or joke about serious or controversial topics. Talking about a person's race, age, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, religion, ethnicity, gender, weight, etc., is never a good idea. Talking about politics can also offend people unless you know your audience really well. If you aren't sure if the topic is controversial or how others will take it, just don't tell the story or joke.

-- Think about your motive for telling a story or joke -- what is the point of it?

-- Watch the use of sarcasm -- it is often perceived by others as mean-spirited, so you should avoid it.

Humor, if appropriate, can brighten the workplace and reduce some of the stress we are all experiencing. So take a moment to smile, laugh and help us all to feel happier at work.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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