“I’m a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third”. Ever since The Office’s cringeworthy manager David Brent became a global phenomenon, the concept of humour in the workplace has been tinged with danger. One cheesy gag too many can see you witheringly labelled an office joker; meanwhile, a string of high-profile employment tribunals demonstrates how easily ‘banter’ can escalate into something extremely expensive.
For Dr Barbara Plester, senior lecturer in management and international business at the University of Auckland, being funny at work is a serious business. In her new book – Laugh Out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humour, co-authored with Kerr Inkson – she forensically examines the origins, nuances and consequences of office humour. People Management asked her what she learned along the way.
What’s the point of office humour?
First of all, it offers a really great relief from the pressures of work. When we’re stressed or struggling, the right sort of quip gives a sense of release. It also bonds us with the people around us and gets us all on the same wavelength. But it can also be really destructive if it’s used in the wrong way.
What are the golden rules of fun at work?
You have to know who you are enjoying humour with. When you don’t know them well, or you come into a new workplace, you need to tread carefully and know where the line is. What sort of jokes can you share and what might be the hot spots to avoid? Context is huge – you’d never joke in a meeting about downsizing, for example.
Alcohol is often associated with fun and that’s a whole other can of worms. I love a drink as much as anyone but you have to be careful – I shy away from drinking with colleagues because there’s too much to lose. Maybe have a person or two who isn’t drinking and can keep an eye on things, moving people on when they’ve had too much.
Is it possible to design a fun workplace?
Engineering humour is really difficult. Ideally, it happens spontaneously when you just get the right chemistry. Managing it often backfires because who’s doing the managing? Is it the 20-year-old who’s just started or the 60-year-old who’s been there for years? Their ideas of humour are going to be very different. If you’re going to have fun events, get different people to organise them each time. And don’t forget that some people already think work itself is fun. Saying ‘stop what you’re doing – we’re having fun now’ might actually be less fun than what they were already doing.
Should we ever ‘banter’ at work?
Banter can be a great thing when you know people well enough to cross the line a little bit, but not too much. But plenty of times I have seen someone say something too quick-witted that is just a little bit too clever and someone is really offended. In that situation, all you can do is check in with that person and say ‘was that OK with you?’
Where banter often goes wrong is when someone new jumps in too quickly without knowing the boundaries. But let’s not forget it can be a nice way for managers and subordinates to interact. It pushes back a little bit on the hierarchy and evens things out. Interestingly, banter tends to go upwards – managers are a little bit more wary of teasing their subordinates. They think it’s just too risky.
What’s the worst case you’ve seen of humour going wrong at work?
The worst thing I’ve seen was an email joke in a law firm that started as a dig about political correctness and ended up in the national media. It demonstrated why you should never put a joke in an email. More broadly, anything involving horseplay is a no-no – just don’t let things get physical at work.
And the funniest?
It was a guy who had a sock he’d drawn eyes on. It was called Barry the Singing Sock and he’d do voices and songs with it. He was a joker, and you have to be pretty good at it to pull that off. People would walk past and ask how Barry was. It still makes me giggle thinking about it now.