Does Humor Belong in the Workplace?

Humor in the workplaceApril Fool’s Day.  What does it mean to you?  Do you have a favorite workplace prank that you pull out each year to spring on your unsuspecting co-workers?

April Fool’s Day can be a great chance for some spirit-lifting fun at your business, but pranks can also land your company in hot water!

Some work pranks are harmless:

My father always looked forward to April 1st.  He’d put a spool of thread in the inside pocket of his suit coat and, with the help of a needle, he would pull the thread so that it poked out through the front of his jacket.

All day long, unwitting well-meaning people would pluck the thread off his coat, attempting to help him with his grooming, only to find themselves pulling and pulling at a never ending piece of thread.

My dad never tired of his prank.

And some work pranks will get your company sued:

In contrast, consider the racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the Richmond, California Police Department.

Plaintiffs claim that the administration made racial jokes against black officers and blocked their promotions.  They cited the fact that a picture of the Assistant Chief was posted on the bulletin board with the words “Master of the Universe” below it.

The black officers were offended by the word Master.  When questioned in court about this, the Chief claimed it was part of an April Fools joke gone bad.

April 1st isn’t the only day people play pranks at work:

Pranks in the workplace aren’t always just a part of April Fools Day.

You may remember the Tennie Pierce lawsuit.  Pierce, a Los Angeles area firefighter, settled a lawsuit for $1.5 million in a case where his coworkers pranked him by mixing dog food into his spaghetti dinner at the firehouse.

Pierce, a black firefighter who was known to say, “Feed the big dog!” during volleyball games, referring to himself by a nickname, successfully argued that it was a case of racial discrimination.

Does humor belong in the workplace?

What does this all mean?  Should we not allow fun and humor in the workplace?

Of course not!  We know that the workplace is a place of stress.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tells us that 25% of workers say that their job is the primary cause of stress in their lives, and 75% believe workers today grapple with more stress than those in the previous generation.

Scientific studies have proven that laughter produces hormones that reduce our stress.  Therefore, it only makes sense that our employees will benefit by having some fun during the workday.

How do we create a workplace that includes non-problematic humor?

How then do we create a workplace that includes humor, without opening the door to lawsuits?

By setting a good example and implementing a positive work culture, we can protect the company and create a fun work environment at the same time.

Think before you speak:

You may have a comfort level with a good friend which allows you to kid around about personal things.  Those same subjects, when overheard by others, might be considered offensive.

It’s important to consider the audience whenever jokes are made.  Workplace jokes should never target protected classes, because most workplaces contain individuals in every protected class, making the company vulnerable to a lawsuit.

Only use positive humor:

Humor that makes fun of someone, is belittling, or makes someone feel foolish, doesn’t belong in the workplace.

Even if it’s meant in good fun, when it’s replayed in a lawsuit, it becomes hard to defend.  The words, standing all on their own, can often appear to be very close to harassment or a hostile work environment.

Remember that today’s workplace is diverse:

When our workplace contains multiple cultures, five generations, two genders, a variety of religions, and complex blends of family and home lives, we no longer have a homogenous workforce.

This means that a joke does not hit any two people in the same way.

Don’t joke in writing:

Remember that written communication in an email doesn’t contain inflection, and the reader cannot see your face or read your body language.  You might be saying something in jest, in an attempt to be funny, but the email’s recipient might not know that.

Your written words will take on a life of their own, and they cannot be taken back.

Avoid problematic topics:

Christopher LeGrow, professor at Marshall University, studied humor in the workplace.  He found that:

  • More than 70% of jokes were targeted at subjects such as co-workers’ age, weight or sexual orientation
  • 40% of those he surveyed said they themselves had made fun of their co-workers’ ages or weight.

These topics, of course, can easily stray across the lines of protected classes.

If you are a supervisor or business owner, you have a duty to stop inappropriate humor when it starts.  Let employees know what types of humor and jokes are acceptable in the office, and which are not.

The benefits of fun and humor in the workplace:

Study after study show that fun and laughter lower stress and make our jobs easier.  We know that it:

  • Is good for our circulation
  • Boosts our immune systems
  • Lowers our blood pressure
  • Helps our muscles, including our hearts
  • Stimulates our brains

Good humor in the workplace can also boost morale, increase productivity, retain good employees and foster feelings of inclusiveness and belonging.

Make sure to keep it positive and fun for everyone.

A few more examples of workplace pranks gone wrong:

This April Fools Day, just keep the pranks from landing your business in court!  Here are a couple of pranks that backfired on businesses:

The case of the free Toyota:

In 2001, a Hooter’s restaurant in Florida offered a “free Toyota” to whichever staff member sold the most beer.  At the end of the winning waitress’s shift, she was blindfolded and led out to the parking lot, where she received a plastic Yoda doll.

She wasn’t amused, and in the lawsuit that followed she received enough money to buy any Toyota she wanted!

Dental implants gone wrong:

An oral surgeon in Auburn was installing dental implants on his surgical assistant.  While she was under anesthesia, he thought it would be funny to install boar tusks and take some photos of her.

He then proceeded to install her normal implants, and she was none the wiser, until her co-worker gave her a copy of the photos for her birthday.  Naturally, she was humiliated, and the courts awarded her $250,000 in compensation.

The wrap-up:

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just live by these words of Judi Dench?: “I think you should take your job seriously, but not yourself — that is the best combination.”

Leave a Reply