Is it OK to encourage humour in the workplace?

Everyone knows laughter is the best medicine, but is it OK to encourage humour in the workplace? What are the potential pitfalls?

Is it OK to encourage humour in the workplace?

It’s innate in human nature to laugh and enjoy a joke; helping people bond, stay positive, and even cope under extreme pressure. 

One piece of research found that we are more than 30 times more likely to laugh in a social context than when alone, making workplaces a prime location for humour. This means it can be a valuable tool, even in the most professional of organisations – and another good reason for working in the office.

That said, as everyone has surely experienced at least once in their lives, humour is a two-edged sword. From a joke falling flat on your audience to crossing a line of acceptability, humour can go badly wrong!

Micro-managing humour is hardly a recipe for laughter, but it’s good leadership to let your team know what’s okay and what’s not. Boundaries not only remind people what they cannot do, but also give employees confidence to share jokes on the right side of the line.

Set some boundaries

While black humour or edgy jokes have a place, the workplace is not normally it. A useful guide would be to take the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 as a starting point for what is off limits:

  • Sex
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Gender reassignment

We would also add politics to this list.

In addition to these, it would be commercially and reputationally wise to ensure customers were not the butt of jokes and, for that matter, other stakeholders, such as suppliers and investors.

There is also an element of reading the room and understanding when’s good and when’s not for a joke. This is more of a soft skill that you may look out for when recruiting, or nurture during professional development.

Setting expectations during inductions is a good time to cover this kind of thing.

It is also important to remember cultural differences, as employees from different countries often have a different sense of humour. This can be a good conversation to lead a fun and interesting team discussion.

Structured humour

Hopefully, with the boundaries set and a positive culture, the laughs will flow naturally and appropriately among your team.

There are also techniques you can use to inject more structured humour at key times:

  • A consistent time of month for sharing funny memes or videos, like Monday mornings or the last Friday afternoon of the month.
  • If they feel comfortable, encourage employees to open a presentation with some humour to help them build rapport.
  • Adding a humorous slant to ice breakers at the start of longer meetings or workshops.
  • Base your humour on good intentions and be prepared to be yourself.

Managing the fall-out from a bad joke

Employees will always take cues from you as boss. If you have a good handle on the culture, hopefully you will not have to address such a fall-out. But sometimes people act out of character or make a bad judgement.

Beware the go-to excuse of “banter” from perpetrators, suggesting they were just having a laugh and others can’t take a joke. If the laughter is persistently one-sided, it will sooner or later introduce toxicity into your workplace.

If the joke is so far beyond what’s acceptable, or it’s gone on too long and is, say, perceived as bullying, you will need to manage the individual through the disciplinary process. For other lighter infringements, a more informal approach may be sufficient, with all parties happy to draw a line under the incident.

Sue Tumelty
Sue Tumelty