Does humour have a place at work?

A stand-up comedian, a feminist humour expert, and a researcher offer advice about being funny in the office.
Does humour have a place at work?

Anshu Mor thinks office jokesters have been gravely misunderstood and unfairly maligned.

Earlier in his corporate career, Mor often had to explain his propensity for finding humour in life. He was more inclined than others to crack a joke when meeting a client or to ease the tension in a room with a witty line. Unfortunately, not everyone was amused.

“Somehow, they had the feeling that if you’re being funny, you’re not taking your work seriously,” Mor said of the common perception of business leaders he knows. Mor speaks from experience, having worked for 18 years in large corporations, from a subsidiary of India’s Tata Group and Verizon to his last corporate role as the head of Microsoft Xbox in India.

When he was promoted to a leadership position at Microsoft, he relished the freedom to set the tone of his meetings and conversations. He made office meetings informal in a conscious effort to lighten the mood and help people relax, especially in moments of crisis.

“My fundamental belief in leadership is that people do their best when they’re more relaxed,” Mor said. “They think better, they act better, and they’re more confident in whatever they’re doing.”

Happy employees enjoy going to work

The benefits of humour as a coping mechanism in stressful environments and a tool for social cohesion are widely recognised in the field of psychology. But research on humour in relation to workplace productivity only began gaining traction this decade, said Daryl Peebles, a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s School of Business and Economics, who is also a comedy entertainer.

A few months ago, a chapter co-authored by Peebles published in the book Not All Claps and Cheers argued that positive humour is not a frivolous act that distracts a worker. Rather, it can contribute to increased productivity, teamwork, creativity, and workers’ health and happiness, when used appropriately.

“When you walk into organisations, some are just intrinsically happy, and others are just downright miserable,” Peebles said. An employee who enjoys their work, laughs, and has good relationships with their colleagues is bound to be more productive, he added.

Mental health is identified as one of the five major workplace challenges beleaguering UK organisations in a 2018 report by Great Place to Work, which conducts surveys on workplace culture. Stress, depression, and anxiety due to work demands are the biggest sources of long-term sickness absence, the report indicated.

“If people are not happy at work and they’re getting out of bed in the morning grumpy, there’s no intrinsic value in what they’re doing,” Peebles said. “They’re just going in for the few dollars at the end of the pay week, and that’s not sufficient for people to be fully engaged in their jobs.”

Is your humour inclusive?

However, Peebles emphasised that the humour must be fitting, meaning it is inclusive, uplifting, and beneficial to the organisation.

“If people are using humour that’s derogatory, racial, putting people down, then that’s destructive,” he said. What constitutes an appropriate type of humour also depends on the culture of an organisation. Jokes amongst members of the armed forces and emergency services will be different to those from, for example, a broadcaster, because of the work trauma that the former face, he added.

Understanding differences between men’s and women’s humour is another way of ensuring inclusivity. Gina Barreca, professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut in the US, said that women need to know that just as they don’t need to dress like men, they don’t have to use humour like men to make themselves fit in.

“Women don’t tend to tell jokes; women tell stories,” said Barreca, who wrote a book on women’s use of humour, They Used to Call Me Snow White … But I Drifted. While men may tell jokes that end with a punchline, many women instead tend to share an experience from their day, she said. Understanding the different comic styles will prevent women from trying to fit into the mould of men’s kind of humour in the office.

“Men will go up to a man that’s bald and say, ‘Shine that up for me. I have something in my eye.’ They will see that as something that’s bonding,” Barreca said. “Women cannot go up to another woman and say, ‘Are you three months pregnant or just going heavy on the gravy?’ We don’t say that kind of thing. We’re not mean to each other.”

Barreca added that if somebody tells a joke that is offensive and crosses a line, giggling about it and letting it go won’t help others understand what appropriate and respectful humour is. She teaches women to say: ‘I’ll forgive you for telling that story if you forgive me for not laughing.’

“And that way you get to make yourself heard, and you don’t get into an argument. But you’re not up all night thinking, ‘I should have said this, I should have said that,’” she said.

At an organisational level, companies can at least make sure that good inclusive humour is not discouraged, Peebles suggested, adding that it is not about “turning the office into a circus, or a boardroom into a stand-up comedy club”. Social clubs, staging a charity event, or a weekday where people come into the office wearing funny hats are activities that managers can introduce, but “tread lightly”, he warned of such company policies, because when it comes to humour, it needs to be organic.

Get cracking

Two years ago, Anshu Mor left the corporate world to begin a second career as a stand-up comedian. In one of his first acts on stage, he joked that his decision to leave his “fancy corporate life, international travel, and big boardroom meetings” was a midlife crisis.

Unlike being a professional comedian, being casually funny can happen to anyone, he said. He offered two tips — don’t overthink it, and make yourself the butt of the joke.

“Be natural; don’t overthink in trying to be funny because you’ll never be funny that way,” Mor said, adding that even stand-up comedians need the right material to be amusing on stage.

Mor sometimes finds himself back in corporate offices to talk about using humour in business settings. He doesn’t teach people how to be funny, yet in his workshops, when participants are collaborating, “they accidentally forget that they’re in a suit and a tie, and they’re funny automatically,” Mor said. “But somehow something happens when you swipe your card and enter a corporate office — you believe that it will not work.”

Also, he said, if you’re a beginner humourist, start with making yourself the joke. “It’s the safest way to go about it,” he said. In his comedy acts in India, he has joked about his in-laws’ initial objection to his marrying their daughter despite his “drop-dead gorgeous” looks, and about his relationship with his son and his parenting skills.

The common view that humour and productivity don’t jibe cannot be further from the truth, Mor said. “Being funny doesn’t mean you’re not being serious. There should be an understanding in the corporate world because not everybody gets it,” he said. “You could be involved in the most complex job with all your heart and soul and still be funny.”

Alexis See Tho (Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine associate editor.