Try a Little Funny Business: Humor in the Workplace

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Why did the employee cross the road? To work for the fun boss! Making room for humor around the office can pay off in improved morale, reduced stress and increased loyalty among your staff.

OVERVIEW [top]

"Speak softly and carry a big shtick." That's one piece of advice professional humor consultants are giving management these days — and management's paying attention.

According to a survey by executive recruitment firm Robert Half International, 85% of senior managers would hire people who have a sense of humor over equally qualified applicants who are more serious. These managers have learned that humor at work helps bond people as teammates, boosts their creativity and releases stress.

Growing a company is, of course, serious business. But it should involve a healthy dose of funny business, too. No joke — you'll see the benefits reflected in your bottom line.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • How to use humor effectively.
  • How to avoid inappropriate humor.

SOLUTION [top]

No one's suggesting that you and your people should always be yukking it up. In fact, you may be disinclined toward humor yourself, but you can still find ways to brighten the work environment and encourage employees to do the same as you aim for common goals.

Six ways to bring more humor into your corporate culture

  1. Hire people with a sense of humor. You want individuals who are self-confident but don't take themselves too seriously. An upbeat nature and willingness to laugh are good signs. Just be sure they know when to stop with the jokes and get on with the job.

  2. Support the creation of a "Fun Committee." This group can organize playful activities that have a specific purpose, such as generating new project ideas, celebrating achievements or fostering closer ties between managers and subordinates.

  3. Be upbeat when the chips are down. Taking a "these are the worst of times" attitude will only demoralize the very people who can help carry your business through difficult transitions. You don't need to be a great humorist to pull this off. Put the fun quotient back into work by keeping your perspective and remaining the calm, guiding force — "We've come through tough times before and we'll do it again — and celebrate every small gain we make!"

  4. Collect and share humorous stuff. Clip cartoons and amusing anecdotes and jokes from newspapers and other publications. Write down comments and conversations that make you chuckle. Then share the humor on bulletin boards. Forwarding the occasional humorous e-mail might work, too, but don't overdo it — these tend to get forwarded repeatedly, clogging up "in" boxes and killing hours of work time.

  5. Do you have a staff intranet or a staff newsletter? Add a humorous, company-related "Quote of the Month" feature.

  6. Spice your speeches with humor. Even if you don't shine at joke telling, you can slip in an funny anecdote now and then to keep your listeners interested. Remember: Humor is humanizing. If you think being boss may have distanced you too much from your people, lightening up even a little can help close the gap. Staff members usually like it when the boss tells a self-deprecating anecdote once in a while.

Exercise caution with humor

  • Don't use humor as a weapon. Teasing and sarcasm aren't funny. "I'm just joking" is not a valid excuse for thinly veiled jabs that insult or pain others.

  • Jokes that are not funny include those made at the expense of other people, or groups identified by their ethnicity, religion or gender. Poke fun instead at the safest targets — yourself and your own foibles.

  • Avoid dangerous or offensive practical jokes. Example: Placing a "Happy Birthday" whoopee cushion on a co-worker's chair is a harmless prank — unless you know he or she would be offended or humiliated. And don't ever indulge in potentially dangerous tricks, such as the office manager who was fired after handing her subordinate an "exploding" pen bought from a joke shop.

  • Humor can be learned. Some of us can tell a good joke or anecdote. If that's not one of your skills and you'd like to learn, consider taking a workshop from a local stand-up comedian or workplace humor consultant.

  • Negative humor is a poor communication tool. Example: One stressed-out entrepreneur kept her office door open but posted a sign reading, "I only have time to hear one problem a day — and this definitely isn't your day." Better she should close the door and post times she's available.

Consider marketing your products with humor as a powerful selling force. Tie that with a little knowledge of the type of humor your clients probably prefer, and it's quite a one-two punch. Tigi, for example, makes a line of hair care products targeted to the under-40 crowd, with humorous names, such as Bed Head Self-Absorbed Shampoo, Bed Head Moisture Maniac Conditioner and Bed Head Control Freak Serum.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

The Social Committee at Chicago-based Lawrence Ragan Communications Inc., organized a surprise two-hour scavenger hunt in the vicinity of downtown headquarters. "We told everyone to set aside that Friday afternoon and to dress comfortably for an off-site meeting," says human resources manager Lynn Thompson.

Purpose: Team building and having fun in the process. The scavenger hunt seemed to be the perfect vehicle for bringing together people from all departments.

Game plan: At 2 p.m., teams of up to 10 employees (55 people in all — including Thompson and "initially reluctant" Ragan President Dan Oswald) hit Chicago streets, each armed with a 12-exposure camera and instructions on what types of photos to take to earn points. One photo had to feature team members in front of the Niketown store, all jumping up at the same time like Michael Jordan in his Air Jordans. All of a team's members had to be in every photo, so passersby were asked to take each picture. Teams also earned extra points answering trivia questions about the city and collecting various items, such as fortune cookies and Chicago Cubs ticket stubs.

At hunt's end, the scavengers met at a local restaurant for the tallying of scores and the awarding of prizes to every participant. The winning team received Jughead baseball caps and a $25 gift certificate, while a booby prize went to the last-place team.

Results: President Dan Oswald "loved" the event despite his initial doubts about its worth. And another staffer acknowledged that it was a great team-building exercise, especially for new employees, although, she joked, "we still have it in for whoever came up with all those ideas for making us work so hard having fun!"

(Source: "Tip of the Hat to Lawrence Ragan Communications," Hotline newsletter, NEPA, September 25, 2000; www.newsletters.org.)

Two more Real-Life Examples

"Good Humor for Cold Calls," Inc., January 1, 1998

"Humor Helps Customer Relations," Inc., January 1, 2000

DO IT [top]

  1. Practice using humor in your speeches and presentations. Ask trusted peers and friends to be your audience and give you honest feedback and suggestions for improvement.

  2. Encourage fun as a stress reliever. If your people are working extra on a long project, surprise them with a pizza delivery or other treat. Arrange the topping in the form of the company logo, if you can!

  3. Always go along with celebrating birthdays, even during crunch times.

  4. Trust your people to have their fun and work hard too. Laughter relieves tension. Allow people to get downright giddy at times, and they'll return refreshed to the task at hand.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Relax, You May Only Have A Few Minutes Left: Using The Power Of Humor To Overcome Stress In Your Life and Work by Loretta LaRoche (Villard, 1998).

Managing to Have Fun by Matt Weinstein (Simon & Schuster, 1996).


Internet Sites

Connect with Joel Goodman's The HUMOR Project Inc., of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Humor Matters. Steven M. Sultanoff

Article

"Send in the Clowns" by Leigh Buchanan, Inc., September 2000.


Article Contributors

Writer: Kathleen Conroy

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