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Why You Can & Should Still Joke at Work

Dig Insights with help from online panel provider Dynata conducted an online survey among over 1,000 full-time employed Canadians [1] in order to understand how they felt about the state of humour in the workplace. Fieldwork was completed in August 2019.

The information you’ll find below reflects data we’ve collected from Canadian respondents. However, this study was also conducted in the US with 1,000 full-time employed Americans.

It’s Still OK to Laugh at Work

If you wish everyone would just ‘lighten-up’ a little bit and have a good laugh at work together… good news! You are part of the majority.

In-fact, most workplaces still have a lot of laughs, with 8-in-10 [2] reporting that they laugh once a day or more. Yes, some things have changed a bit and while a third of people [3] report having been offended at some point in the past while at work, the majority of those people will ignore it or confront you directly giving you the opportunity to apologize and change your behaviour. If you aren’t using ‘humour’ to cover-up for harassing, sexist or racist behaviour then you likely have nothing to fear.

For those of you who have been offended, if you want the behaviour to change, you should confront the insensitive comedian, according to our study, in most cases they will recognize your POV and will apologize.

Humour is Ubiquitous

Humour and laughter are ubiquitous to every culture and virtually every person throughout the world [4]. All humans are born equipped with the ability and propensity to laugh. In-fact, laughing is generally the second thing that we do after crying. [5]  Multiple studies have shown that most people think that having a good sense of humour is a positive personality trait. [6] A trait that almost everyone in our study believes they possess.

Almost 90% [7] rated their own sense of humour as excellent or very good and indicated that they love to laugh. Finally, 80% agreed with the statement “Humour is an important part of my life.”

The Role of Humour In the Workplace

Positive forms of humour have frequently been shown to be beneficial at work. According to a Robert Half survey, 91% of executives internationally believe a sense of humor is important to advance your career. That same survey showed that 84% believe those with a good sense of humor do a better job. 

A study by the Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were: a) A strong work ethic and; b) A good sense of humor

Humour has been shown in multiple studies to increase collaboration, provide motivation, prevent burnout and create a more loyal and productive workforce. 

In our study, 71% of respondents agreed with the statement “Laughing together is one of the primary ways I connect with my co-workers.”

Finally, almost no one believes that “The workplace isn’t the place for joking around.” With less than 2-in-10 [8] agreeing with that statement.

Is Humour The Unintended Victim of Societal Change?

There is little argument that societal attitudes have changed in a lot of ways over the past few years. Many of those changes have been a long time coming. While society needed to change, you could argue that one unintended victim of this shift has been comedy.

Comedy has always pushed boundaries, like other forms of creative expression it is often best when it’s on the edge and outside the norm. However, the line for what is and what isn’t acceptable continues to move. Some (me included) have stopped joking in the workplace out of fear of crossing that line.

Interestingly, 7-in-10 agree with the statements “I think that people have become too sensitive these days.” And “Society has become too politically correct”.[9] While these numbers are unsurprisingly lower for the younger 18 to 34 year-old age group, the vast majority (>60%) still agree with both statements.[10]

The impacts to humour in the workplace seem to be smaller when compared to the broader societal impacts. While more than half [11] agreed with “I wish people would laugh more at my workplace”, only a third [12] agree “My workplace has become much less welcoming of humour over the last few years”, and “I’m very nervous about being funny and/or telling jokes at work in-case I offend someone” [13]

If you fall into that third of ‘nervous jokers’, you may be over-reacting, the more we dig into humour dynamics at work, the smaller the actual risks appear.

When we asked respondents “Has anyone ever told a joke at work that you found offensive/upsetting?” we found that 34% said that ‘yes’ they had been offended at some point.

However, when we asked what they did as a result. The vast majority dealt with the issue directly themselves or simply ignored it. A little over a quarter [14] confronted those who offended them and the majority, 54% of reported that they did nothing or simply ignored them. In fact only 5% complained to HR as a result of an offensive joke.

That may come as a relief for those nervously tiptoeing, unfortunately, it may also mean that a lot of behaviour that should be corrected won’t be. While a third of people have been offended, only 11% believe they have themselves have ever offended someone else. This data would suggest that either there is a small minority of offensive jokers out there affecting a much larger group, or (and perhaps more believably) most are simply ignorant of how their jokes may be negatively affecting others.

If in-fact that is the case, it is unlikely to change anytime soon. When we asked, “If someone told a joke tomorrow at your place of work that you found upsetting/offensive, what would you do?”. The percentages were nearly unchanged with 34% saying they would confront and/or seek an apology and the majority still indicating that they would do nothing or ignore it. [15]

Encouragingly, when we asked those that knew they had offended others “What happened as a result of you telling a joke that someone else found upsetting/offensive?” almost 70% [16] said they apologized. In fact only 10% of offenders indicated that they were formally reprimanded. Finally, a tiny 1% reported that they were ‘let go’ from their jobs, and remember, that is of the only 11% who were ever actually informed in any way that they had offended someone else, so we are talking about only 1 in 1,000.

Finally, when made aware of their offensive joke, 63% agreed that upon reflection, the person was justified in taking offense, with more than half [17] of offenders reporting that they are now more careful when telling jokes at work than they used to be.

Joke Topics to Avoid at Work (And Maybe Everywhere Else Too)

Freud differentiated between ‘Wit’ which was the negative ‘laughing AT’ and ‘humour’ which was the positive ‘laughing WITH’ (R.A. Martin, 2007). While thinking in those terms may seem like a simple enough way to find the line between acceptable and unacceptable, there are also taboo topics that MOST of us know to steer clear of.

Our study found that most knew to steer clear of jokes related to ethnicity, religion, sex and gender. However, other subjects were still considered ‘fair game’ under the right circumstances (all less than 70% saying ‘never’) for some including: personal relationships/partnerships, Income/Money and Politics.

How to Joke Safely

Finally, for those of you who still aren’t clear on the do’s and don’ts in this brave new world, below is a handy list partly based on personal experience and employee interviews.

Do

  1. Self-deprecating humour. Caveat: As long as you aren’t overly cruel about an issue that someone else might share with you.
  2. Joke about other’s strengths (not their weaknesses). You can joke about what a lustrous head of hair someone has, but not their lack of hair.
  3. Absurdism (Go-ahead, be silly).
  4. Juxtaposition and puns can be funny when cleverly executed.
  5. A safe common enemy (like a dictator or white collar criminal)
  6. Pop culture. It’s ok to make fun of Game of Thrones (though not the fans).
  7. Keep it light (Dark humour can backfire).

 Don’t 

  1. Nothing that ends in ‘ist’. Well MAYBE Marxist is OK, but that’s about it.
  2. Nothing mean-spirited. I know, it makes me laugh too, but not at work.
  3. Nothing sexual. Seems obvious but needs to be on the list.
  4. Never about someone’s work. Just don’t. Ever.
  5. Never about someone’s weaknesses.

So, Keep Laughing!

Overall, things probably aren’t as bad as you feared, and the odds are your co-workers feel the exact same way you do. So, relax and enjoy a few laughs, everyone will be happier, and more productive if you do!

Download our free infographic of the Canadian results below:

[1] Canadians 18+ years old who work full-time at a workplace that isn’t their home

[2] 83%

[3] 34%

[4] Apte, 1985; Lefcourt, 2001

[5] McGhee 1979

[6] R.A. Martin 2007

[7] 86%

[8] 18%

[9] 70% & 68%

[10] 68% & 61%

[11] 59%

[12] 30%

[13] 28%

[14] 27%

[15] 52%

[16] 68%

[17] 55%

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