Fates and Fortunes

The power -- and peril -- of humor at work

8/24/2010 07:01:16 PM

When I first saw this article today at WashingtonPost.com entitled “The Power of Humor,” I thought it was going to talk about how funny people get along better and move ahead faster at work.

In retrospect, I probably thought this because my ego took first pass on this article. I think I’m funny so I I thought, “ha! I was right! Humor is the social grease of the workplace.”

That may be true, but what the author — Joyce E.A. Russell, director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business – actually says is that humor can be valuable in the workplace, but within boundaries.

That’s the part of the article that my superego didn’t like at all, because, truth be told, the sense of humor I value so highly also has gotten me into trouble. Surprisingly, bosses don’t like it when you interrupt their meetings with an ill-timed joke and interview subjects aren’t always amused by my lame attempts to woo them with wit.

So figuring out when my humor is and is not appreciated has been an ongoing process.

In her piece, Reynolds tackles the dos (bring in a kazoo and clown noses when things get stressful!) and don’ts (mostly don’t offend) of office humor. While I’m a candidate for such lessons, when Reynolds started listing the appropriate “company guidelines” of office humor, my mind wandered off to a better place: two of TVs best workplace shows, which are two programs that couldn’t be more different.

The first, of course, is The Office, whether it’s on the BBC or NBC. On the BBC’s version, Ricky Gervais played a blundering, narcissistic goofball who wanders around offending anyone and everyone in his path. He might know he’s offensive, but he really doesn’t care. It’s all about him. Steve Carell, on the other hand, plays a boss who also offends everyone but does it with a charming mix of oblivion, insecurity and honest affection.

The second, Mad Men, is a very serious show with some very funny scenes. In last week’s episode (spoiler alert, people who have yet to watch their DVR), we watched the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce pretend to make a commercial in order to tweak the competition. Watching Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) pristinely ride the sample Honda motorcycle around an empty set was priceless. One of Mad Men’s best episodes featured a drunk employee driving around the office on a tractor lawnmower made by John Deere, the firm’s new client, during a Christmas party. That episode did not end well, with one hapless Brit losing his foot, but the resulting one-liners were bleakly hilarious.

In today’s modern work environment, no one could get away with the antics of a Michael Scott or a Don Draper and that’s one reason we like watching them on TV. If we lived that life every day, we’d never watch it in primetime.

That said, I do think there’s a place for humor in the workplace that involves neither kazoos nor tractors. Most of Reynolds’ advice is obvious: don’t target anyone with your humor; don’t be sexist, racist or overly bawdy; stay away from potentially controversial topics like politics or religion.

And some of it is obvious but wise and worth the reminder: watch the sarcasm, only poke fun at yourself, and give your story or joke an internal run-through before letting it pop out of your mouth.

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s even truer when it comes to someone’s feelings. Once someone — like your boss or hard-working assistant — is offended, it’s hard to talk him or her out of it, even with a really good joke.

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