What's Funny at Work These Days?
A guide to what's OK to joke about, what's not and how to respond to humor that crosses the line
When I was in my first job after college, about 30 years ago, my boss was a woman also named Michele. To distinguish between us, co-workers began to refer to us as Big Michele and Little Michele (she was tall; I was not), and even worse, Old Michele and Young Michele.
I felt terrible with these classifications, but being in my early 20s, I wasn't yet comfortable making waves.
"There are a whole lot of gray areas when it comes to humor."
Fast forward: I'm probably the age now that the other Michele was back then. And while I have a great sense of humor and am known to joke around, if anyone working with me referred to me as Old Michele, there would be consequences.
When Humor Is Appropriate at Work
So, when is humor appropriate at work and when is it not these days? And how can workers in their 50s and 60s know what they can or can't joke about with younger colleagues? Well, it's complicated.
"What we find funny — or appropriate — is far from universal. There are a whole lot of gray areas when it comes to humor," says Jennifer Aaker, a behavioral science professor at Stanford University and co-author of the book "Humor, Seriously."
Aaker says that when she and her research team ask people what holds them back from using humor at work, many say it's the fear of inadvertently crossing a line.
"They aren't wrong to have this worry; in the workplace, inappropriate or aggressive humor — like teasing, in the wrong context or with the wrong person — can weaken relationships rather than strengthen them, getting in the way of resolving workplace conflict," Aaker notes.
And, as came to light at the start of the #MeToo movement, if the work humor is sexual in nature, it can be illegal if deemed a form of sexual harassment.
The Upsides of Humor in the Workplace
Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, an executive coach and Aaker's co-author says, "If you believe, as we do, that humor is a superpower, we urge you to remember what every Marvel movie teaches us: that great power can be used for good or, just as easily, for evil."
But Bagdonas doesn't mean that you shouldn't use humor in the workplace — in fact, quite the opposite.
"The upsides of humor are significant. We know from the research that bosses with a sense of humor are more motivating and admired. Their teams are more engaged and creative," she explains. "And laughter quickens the path to friendship."
Aaker cites Anne Libera's theory of comedy to help workers understand what's appropriate. Libera, director of comedy studies at the famed Second City theater in Chicago, says comedy has three components: truth, pain and distance.
- Truth, says Aaker, is the heart of comedy. “We laugh at what we recognize. At the same time, truth coupled with pain and not enough distance may come across as insensitive, hurtful or offensive,” she notes.
- Pain can be physical or emotional. “In some cases, finding the humor in our pain can be cathartic,” says Aaker.
- Distance is how far a person is from the humor. Is your joke focused on a mistake that just happened at work? Then it may not be funny — yet. Distance can be temporal (too soon to laugh), geographical (whether something locally versus halfway across the world) or psychological (relevancy to our personal experience). “For example, I can make fun of my mother, but not your mother. Who, by the way, I hear is a saint,” jokes Bagdonas.
If you're in doubt about whether to make or tell a joke at work, take Bagdonas advice: "Recognize that it's not about you. Don't ask, 'Will this make me sound funny?' Ask: 'How will this make other people feel?' "
The goal, she says, isn't to get a laugh; it's to make everyone in the room feel more at ease. That also means never punching down — making fun of someone of a lower status.
What Not to Say
"When in doubt, go for a shared experience or self-deprecation," says Bagdonas.
Don't make fun of someone in a way that will deliberately hurt them because of a physical characteristic, their race, their sexual orientation or anything you know will cut them to the core. These types of derogatory humor won't make you any friends at work.
"The kind of humor that is appropriate in the workplace is in good taste, used to ease stress and break tension, and brings people closer."
"Derogatory humor doesn't just push boundaries or highlight divisions. It further divides. It can perpetuate prejudice and impact behavior by those with prejudiced views," explains Bagdonas.
This was exactly the kind of humor used against my former boss and me. While you might think that being called Young Michele was a compliment, it actually made me feel like people weren't taking me seriously.
What subjects are off limits with office humor? A person's physical appearance, unique identity and attributes of diversity, as well as areas that are federally protected such as race, gender, age, religion, disability and sexual orientation, says Shirley Davis, president of SDS Global Enterprises, a Tampa, Fla. company helping businesses create inclusive and high-performing workplace cultures, and a human resources professional.
"The kind of humor that is appropriate in the workplace is in good taste, used to ease stress and break tension, and brings people closer," says Davis.
Suppose a younger co-worker keeps saying something like "Okay, boomer" to you, everyone laughs, and it makes you feel uncomfortable. Then what?
"If someone is the butt of a joke, they should not go along to get along. They should address it," says Davis.
If you're comfortable going directly to the person, advises Davis, do so privately and in a timely manner — within 24 to 48 hours — and let them know how the comment made them feel. "If you're not comfortable, either report it to HR or to the next-level leader," she says.
Davis advises employees not to assume that the person was meaning to hurt them, especially if this was a one-time thing. In that case, she suggests, use this as a teachable moment.
If you think you might report inappropriate humor to HR or hire a lawyer to file a harassment claim, Davis says, "document dates, times and persons it was reported to."
Documenting a Complaint About Inappropriate Jokes
Kia Roberts, founder and principal of Triangle Investigations in New York City, says, "Nothing fancy is required. Even making a brief audio recording or writing in the Notes app of your phone is sufficient. Document what was said, the date and time, and how this made you, as the employee, feel."
Documentation, she notes, "moves these concerns from being a general complaint to a matter that HR must take seriously."
If you complain to your HR person and nothing happens, you can take it to that person's boss or, if your employer has one, the General Counsel's office.
If complaining doesn't work, Davis says you have a few other options:
- Depending on the severity of the comment, you’ll need to decide if it’s something you can overcome and hope it doesn’t happen again.
- Consider moving to another division or department or seek employment somewhere else.
- Report the problem to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- Contact an employment lawyer and seek advice.
Should you ultimately decide to file a lawsuit, documentation becomes crucial and helpful. "If an employee has been keeping detailed records of incidents, it's an employment lawyer's dream," Roberts notes.
The bottom line about joking at work: If you wouldn't want it said to you, don't say it to another person. Trying to make a fun work environment is a good thing — as long as everyone there feels the same way about it.