Humor at Work, Are You Kidding?

by | Aug 1, 2019 | Professional Growth

Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air and you.”
Langston Hughes

The record-breaking heat wave this summer has been oppressive; we could all use a little summer rain.  Humor can also be a cooling remedy when our workplace becomes overheated.
In the work environment we are expected to be sensitive to others and treat people with respect.  We have codes of conduct, diversity/inclusion initiatives, and other formal and informal cultural boundaries in place. Working well with others is expected and rewarded.
An overlooked skill in collaborating effectively with colleagues is humor – the caution is understanding the dos and don’ts.
The good news is that humor and respect for others are not mutually exclusive. 
At work, we sometimes take ourselves too seriously.  Our careers are carefully built and managed, fearing missteps such as being guilty of inappropriate humor.  Beyond the workplace, life looks very different.
Babies laugh, on average, 400 times a day; people over 35, only 15 times a day. A recent study of Gallup data for the U.S. found that we laugh significantly less on weekdays than we do on weekends.  The pattern is clear – as we age and go to work our smiles can turn to frowns.
Research has confirmed that laughter can build relationships, encourage creativity, and reduce tension: 

  • A Robert Half Company found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement, while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.
  • Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.
  • Wharton, MIT, and London Business School found that laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.

I recall a meeting years ago where a senior leader asked, “who made that dumb decision?”  The room fell silent and he waited about five seconds before saying “I’ll tell you who – it was me!  What was I thinking – sure wish I had that one back.  Let’s regroup and together make the right decision.” 
He did not deflect blame – he used self-deprecating humor and humility to lead.  His credibility went up, not down, following a mistake.
Three keys to effectively deliver humor in the workplace:


  • Sometimes the joke needs to be on you.

A study published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal reported that leaders who use self-deprecating humor appear more approachable and human to subordinates.  Individuals who bring others down to elevate their status are narcissistic – they are not leaders.  Focusing humor on your mistakes or shortcomings is a message to others about your humility. 


  • Poking fun toward things, processes, and yourself carries lower risk than targeting individuals or specific actions. 
  • Descriptive language centering on individuals can be hurtful and offensive. 

Where can you find good, clean material?  Everywhere!  You don’t need a library of joke books.  There is humor all around us.  Pay attention during your daily routine – grocery shopping, driving, or attending a sporting event.  Good taste needs to be your standard – know your audience and test your material on a trusted colleague if in doubt.  Material to avoid includes sarcasm and personal insults.


  • Setting. Ask yourself if these words should be in private or public. If you aren’t comfortable making the joke in public, it’s likely not appropriate for work. 
  • Beware of your use of virtual humor – you have no control over how the content is used and an archive is created.

Too much humor can turn a strength into a liability as other may not take your seriously, and your credibility is impacted. Pick your spots to lighten the moment.  

We all enjoy a good laugh, and the workplace certainly needs some fresh air.  Remember, the most effective laugh may be the one on you!

All My Best,