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

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

Bosses who use humor with their employees are sending a signal that deviant behavior, like showing up late or sharing confidential information with others, is acceptable.

  • Humor has the potential to improve morale and increase overall job satisfaction among employees. However, inappropriate jokes between managers and employees have the potential to create a hostile work environment.
  • Managers need to improve self-awareness to avoid offending employees. When harassment and discrimination trainings are held, management must always be present.
  • Consistent jokes that offend employees or colleagues are problematic and may lead to charges of harassment. Sensitivity training or harassment seminars may be required.

While it might seem lighthearted and fun, kidding around with employees can have some pretty severe consequences for your workplace, 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 include being chronically late, ignoring their manager's instructions, sharing confidential information and drinking alcohol on the job.

Current and past research shows that management's use of humor with 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.

Types of humor that are not appropriate in the workplace

Managers need to lead by example and be conscious of their behavior, including the types of humor they use.

"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," said Sam Yam, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. "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. [Read related article:]

The study's authors found that joking around with employees can have both positive and negative consequences. 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, humor from managers can lead to an increased perception among employees that questionable conduct is acceptable at work, thus leading 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."

Recent research has also demonstrated the detrimental effects of inappropriate humor at work based on gender. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology concluded that female humor is more often labeled as dysfunctional compared with male humor. However, self-deprecating humor was not seen as negatively in women. Inappropriate humor at work presentations were more often accepted when jokes were told by men, the study also found. Although men may not be condemned as often for inappropriate humor at work, no one should tell jokes that are hurtful.

How to deal with inappropriate humor in the workplace 

Getting defensive is not the right way to respond to inappropriate humor at work. Those called out on a poor joke often reply with phrases such as "You're too sensitive," and "Sorry, I'm not being politically correct." An isolated case of inappropriate humor at work is less problematic than consistent jokes that make people uncomfortable, which have the greatest potential to create a hostile work environment.

One challenge is to determine what type of humor is acceptable. Gauge if a joke is appropriate by thinking about whether a particular group or person would be offended by it. Imagine telling the joke in a public setting and decide whether anyone would feel like the butt of it. As a general rule, any type of prejudicial humor is off-limits, as are jokes about a person's sexual orientation. Making crude comments about a person’s body is not funny; it’s a form of harassment.

Knowing how to deal with inappropriate humor at work needs to be part of the company's core values. If you happen to tell a joke that offends a colleague or subordinate, never deflect by placing the blame and stating the person lacks a sense of humor. Instead, apologize immediately. Explain that your goal is never to create a workplace culture that isn't inclusive. If someone else has told an inappropriate joke in your presence, try to mediate the situation. Let the person know offensive humor isn't tolerated at the company.

If the same employee continues to tell inappropriate jokes and complaints are made about the behavior, the issue needs to be addressed immediately. There are trainings for managers and employees to deal with harassment and discrimination issues, and these trainings include examples of inappropriate humor at work. Even if you haven't experienced recent issues with poor attempts at humor, regularly schedule harassment trainings to remain proactive. Sensitivity trainings are vital for managers who don't know how to joke with employees in a lighthearted way.  

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