Humor in the workplace: How to get serious about laughter

Elaine Ambrose
Tags: business management

Did you hear the joke about the priest, the prostitute and the politician who walked into the employee break room? Probably not. While there is a time and a place for jokes, it’s a bad idea to attempt to be funny at work with stories featuring religion, sexuality or politics. However, a well-timed anecdote about the befuddled customer who forgot his address can be the perfect icebreaker to dispel tension in a serious staff meeting. While timing should be considered, experts agree that laughter in the workplace can be a real asset to profitability and productivity.

After 30 years of working in the super-serious, chuckle-challenged business world, I know there is one essential truth: A sense of humor will save your job and probably your life. My wicked and warped sense of humor proved to be my best asset in times of terrible trouble.

Harmless humorous antics in the workplace are now encouraged by many corporations, including General Electric, IBM and AT&T. Companies of all sizes, services and products are adhering to a philosophy that advocates humor programs to improve morale, relieve stress, build camaraderie and positively impact the bottom line. In an attempt to turn the office into a quarterly comedy club, businesses are hiring professional humor consultants who encourage employees to lighten up and get serious about laughing.

Modern medical experts agree with the ancient admonition that “Laughter is the best medicine.” A hearty belly laugh can lower blood pressure, and laughter exercises the lungs, pumps more oxygen into the bloodstream and activates endorphins that make people feel good. We were born with the ability to communicate with our emotions, and that includes laughing and smiling. Yet it’s sobering to know that young children laugh or smile more than 400 times a day while adults are lucky to muster up a few daily chuckles. Kids shouldn’t be having all the fun.

It’s important to know that humor has a proper time and place. You don’t want to become known as the joke of the company because of tasteless and silly behavior. Before you start wearing a clown nose to work every day, there are some guidelines to remember.

1. Know your audience

Knowing your audience is the first and most important aspect of using humor at work. First, don’t use humor to insult or offend anyone. Among friends, it may be common to gang up on one friend, joking about an embarrassing memory or funny comment, but that is certainly not appropriate among co-workers. Also, don’t even think about jokes or anecdotes that include sexuality, religion, politics, ethnic background or someone’s personal appearance. It’s a good idea to avoid gross stuff as well, as the office is not the place for stories that include bodily functions. During a briefing of a company’s new health plan, the male facilitator joked that mammograms would now be conducted at Hooters. The men laughed. The women threatened to sue.

2. Be sure to laugh at yourself

People enjoy self-depreciating humor that’s not too pathetic. A middle-age speaker can win her audience by joking about her age. For example, “I turned 50 years old and decided it was finally time to travel and see the world. Unfortunately, many of the historical sites are younger than I am (pause for smiles).” Or, “I try to wear those tailored business suits, but every time I suck in my gut, my ankles swell.” As a warning, don’t go overboard on the self-depreciation or they’ll start to agree that, yes, you are a loser.

3. Include company anecdotes

It’s always a good idea to joke about the things employees can relate to, including stories about products, competitors, difficult customers and production goals. Remember, a joke about a co-worker from a different department is not acceptable. However, there are a few occasions that you can incorporate personal stories about an employee. While you would never comment on a worker’s weight gain, you could compliment someone who has lost a significant amount. “Look at Roger. He’s our shinning positive example of corporate downsizing!”

4. Use humor to diffuse tension

The workplace can be a very stressful environment! Humor is a great way to diffuse a high-tension situationand reduce potential personnel problems. Companies often go through times of high stress, especially if quotas are increased and sales are down. You could start a presentation with a mock exaggeration. “The light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to budget constraints.” However, avoid the temptation to criticize the boss during times of tension. One employee actually told this joke during a heated meeting: “James is a seagull manager. He flies in, make a lot of noise, dumps crap everywhere and then leaves.” The employee who made the joke was encouraged to take his humor to a different job.

5. Remember … there is still work to do

While everyone deserves his or her daily dose of humor, it’s important to remember that you’re paid to do a job, not to be the class clown. A few daily laughs will make the workload better for everyone, but don’t let jokes distract you from your work. Also, avoid e-mailing jokes on company time and on company equipment … that’s not in your job description. For example, an employee sent out a blanket e-mail that stated, “Can I trade my job for what’s behind Door #2?” Unfortunately, he inadvertently included his boss in the e-mail distribution. The boss returned the following e-mail. “Yes, you can. Door #2 is the Unemployment Line. Good luck.”

The latest business studies indicate there is room in the office for both a work ethic and a sense of humor. Companies that incorporate humor into the workplace experience a notable decrease in staff turnover and absenteeism. Surveys reveal that most employees list a sense of humor as an essential quality for their managers to have and use. To foster healthy humor, employees are encouraged to create tools that promote positive attitudes. Even simple ideas, such as a humor bulletin board or a weekly joke calendar, can boost morale.

You can find more information about humor in the workplace by researching online for related books and articles. Preview national speakers bureaus and speakers associations to find someone suitable for your organization or business. Contact recommended facilitators and inquire about their costs and programs. Then, schedule a regular humor session for your office and enjoy the rewards of working with happy people. That’s so much better than working with crabby, stressed-out employees who wouldn’t know a punch line if it hit them on the funny bone.

About the author:

Elaine Ambrose is an award-winning comedic author and speaker who motivates business audiences to use humor to survive and thrive in the workplace. Her 30-year business resume includes being a manager at a Fortune 100 corporation, bank officer, television news reporter, magazine editor, and most recently, co-founder of Mill Park Publishing. Currently she is co-writing a comedic book for middle-aged women titled, “Menopause Sucks.” To learn more, contact Elaine at 208-630-4217 or visit