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Make 'Em Laugh: Humor at Work Can Help Your Career

jokes, laughter at work Credit: Prostock-studio

Telling a few jokes and laughing at your colleagues' humor is key to feeling like part of the office team, new research suggests.

A study from the staffing firm Accountemps revealed that nearly 80 percent of executives said an employee's sense of humor is important for fitting into the company's corporate culture.

Mike Steinitz, executive director of Accountemps, said an employee’s sense of humor can boost morale and improve connections with co-workers.

"Creating a positive and friendly work environment can lead to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity,” Steinitz said in a statement.

Humor can also lighten the mood when something goes wrong, according to Steinitz.

"Not all business matters are funny, but a little levity can go a long way, particularly when it comes to defusing tension or recovering from a minor mishap,” he said. “There's nothing like a joke to put people at ease."

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that telling jokes at work does more than just help you fit in around the office. The researchers found that employees who tell jokes, even bad ones, are seen as more confident and competent by their peers.

After conducting a series of studies that compared how people telling jokes were viewed versus those who were always serious, the researchers discovered that the office comedians were often held in higher regard. 

Alison Wood Brooks, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, said the research shows that it is always advisable to tell an appropriate joke. 

“A well-executed appropriate joke makes you seem more confident, more competent, and higher status,” Wood Brooks wrote in an article in the Harvard Business Review. “A flop only makes you seem as inept as a serious response.”

While a bad joke won’t hurt your reputation, an offensive one can. 

“Don’t make inappropriate jokes with unfamiliar audiences,” Wood Brooks wrote. “Even when executed successfully, they don’t confer a boost to your perceived status or competence, and when unsuccessful they can do serious harm to you and your career.”

To help employees, Accountemps offers several tips for using humor at work:

  1. Think about the situation. When telling a joke, timing is everything. It is important to known when it is appropriate to crack a few one-liners. For example, while telling jokes around the water cooler or at lunch is perfectly fine, being humorous in a serious and important meeting probably isn’t.
  2. Tell them in person. When you tell a joke in person, you are likely to get the response you are aiming for. However, when you try to use humor in an email or instant message, your joke might get lost in translation. Jokes in emails or other written messages can be misinterpreted because the recipient cannot see your facial expressions or hear the tone of your voice. 
  3. Don’t be cruel. Never tell jokes that will hurt a colleague’s feelings. You never want to use humor at the expense of others. The safest option is to poke fun at yourself. Some self-deprecating humor shows you are self-aware and don’t take yourself too seriously.
  4. Keep it clean. Besides offending someone else, telling inappropriate jokes can make those around you feel uncomfortable. If you aren’t completely positive that a joke is appropriate for the workplace, it is best to keep it to yourself. 
  5. Show your personality. If you are interviewing for a job, being a little humorous is a good way to build chemistry with the hiring manager. It shows that you are approachable, which is a trait of a good leader. In addition, weaving a little wit into the interview can lighten the mood and alleviate nervous jitters. It is important, however, to strike the right balance. Giving a full standup comedy routine during an interview might not send the best message about how seriously you will take your work. 

The Accountemps study was based on surveys of more than 2,200 chief financial officers from companies in more than 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.