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No Laughing Matter: Be Careful When You Joke With Your Employees

No Laughing Matter: Be Careful When You Joke With Your Employees
Credit: Pro Stock Studio/Shutterstock

While it might seem lighthearted and fun, kidding around with employees can have some pretty severe consequences on your workplace, new research suggests.

A study from the National University of Singapore found that bosses who joke around with their staff open the door for deviant behavior, which can range from being chronically late and ignoring their manager's instructions to sharing confidential information and drinking alcohol on the job.

The research shows that using humor with their employees can signal that poor behavior is accepted in the workplace. This is especially true of particularly crass humor, which acts as a powerful sign to team members that it is tolerable to break rules in negative ways.

"Managers should be careful how they portray themselves to their teams – increasing self-monitoring skills and becoming more aware of what types of humor are appropriate in different situations," Sam Yam, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, said in a statement. "A joke may start out as ‘just a joke,’ but for managers, in particular, its impact can have far-reaching consequences."

For the study, researchers conducted several surveys of 400 full-time employees from companies in the United States and China. The employees were initially surveyed on how humorous their bosses were in the office as well as their relationships with their leaders and what kind of workplace transgressions they thought were acceptable. Another survey had the participants weigh in on their own work engagement and behaviors. [See Related Story: Funny Business? Bosses Should Tread Lightly With Humor ]

The study's authors found that joking around with employees can have both positive and negative repercussions. On the positive side, humor can help workers feel like they have a better social relationship with their bosses. This can result in employees who are more engaged, attached to their jobs, hardworking, enthusiastic and productive.

However, the research also shows that humor from those in charge can lead to an increased perception among employees that questionable conduct at work is acceptable. This can, in turn, lead to more deviant behavior among workers.

The study's authors believe the results show that bosses need to walk a careful line when being lighthearted with their staff members.

"Employees will observe and interpret what a leader does or says, and adjust their own behavior accordingly," Yam said. "Therefore, it is very important for leaders to understand the right – and wrong – ways to use humor in the workplace, so the organization as a whole benefits."

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.