Humour At Work? Don’t Make Me Laugh!


Picture the scene at ‘Utopic Inks Inc.’ company that employs a group of highly motivated staff, where they know their respective duties; understand how their responsibilities intertwine with their colleagues’; have shared values and are focused on their collective goals; their supervisors work closely with them, giving constant encouragement and support; hard work and accomplishments are accepted by all as the measure of personal success so, the whole set up functions as a well-oiled machine.  Everyday office life can only be described as a positive atmosphere with occasional talk about non-work-related topics such as sport, family matters, music, films, social media, exchange of jokes and harmless quips, and the sound of shared laughter rings out in the office few times a day to lighten the load and defuse stress.  Great, isn’t it?  If only every office was like that.

In its most benign form, humour in the office is a powerful means of building team spirit and relieving pressure.  We all enjoy ‘innocent humour’, with no malicious or sinister overtones, that does not target and denigrate specific types based on gender, race, ability etc., and making them the butt of the joke.  In other words, people laugh with each other and not at each other.

However, there are three types of malicious humour I particularly find worrisome, even if I occasionally respond to it with laughter, laced with some guilt.

Bully Humour: Making derogatory remarks at the expense of junior colleagues or less capable members of staff can be hurtful and in some cases, may be downright abusive.  I shudder at the thought of what was once acceptable ‘humour’ that targeted weaker members of staff with sexist remarks and racist jibes.  Thank goodness, now a-days such behaviour is discouraged in most, but not all, organisations.

While overt bully humour may have receded, I believe it is still alive and kicking in an office near you.  Sexism, ageism, racism and a bunch of other ‘isms’ are still practiced but in hushed voices or disguised as camaraderie banter, which makes it harder to eradicate.

Over the years I have witnessed the mild put downs of junior staff at consultancy firms being referred to as the “Bag Carriers” to constantly remind them that they should restrict themselves to carrying the senior consultant briefcase on client visits, to the very offensive jokes about being brainless, stupid or worse, much worse.

Boss Humour: Have you heard the one about the boss with a sense of humour?  No, nor did I.

There is a natural law that is as certain as daily sunrise and sunset which goes like this: For every boss’ attempt at saying something funny, there is an infinite number of sycophantic juniors who are prepared to laugh at his jokes.  It cannot be helped, no matter how poor the joke is.  Can you imagine a dictator (fill in any name you like here), telling a joke and his entire audience not wetting themselves with laughter?  It’s either that or they wet themselves in fear for their lives a few minutes later.

Laughing out loud at the boss’ inane remarks or unfunny jokes maybe a good survival tactic but, over doing it can be extremely irritating to others.  Clearly, if something is funny, then by all means, laugh.

Occasionally, “Boss Humour” becomes truly buttocks-clenching in its embarrassment.  A boss tells a joke (funny or not) naturally, he gets a positive reaction from the audience.  He is pleased with himself and makes a mental note to repeat his newly found skill of joke telling.  Boss gets another opportunity to tell the joke again and does, expecting to get the same reaction.  Unfortunately, he is as likely to repeat his amazing joke to the same audience, expecting a similar reaction to the original one.  Ok, he is forgetful as he has a lot on his mind BUT, there are people out there who are prepared to laugh every time he repeats his infernal joke!  So, come on backside kissers, give it a break, try kissing your dignity for a while, you might like it.

Covert Humour: This is perhaps the worst type of office humour because it is rarely aired in the presence of the victim.  It is used by people who are threatened by more capable individuals to gain unfair career advantage over them.  It is not so much the use of humour, even with genuinely funny lines but, the drip, drip, drip effect of the assault which makes this type of humour truly ugly, nasty and damaging to the fabric of any organisation.

The group who are most targeted by this type of humour assault are without doubt, women.  The day a woman starts a new job, the journeymen of the office are suddenly motivated.  Instead of focusing on their work, they attack her physical appearance, the way she dresses, the way they allege she uses her sexuality, the way she does NOT use her sexuality, her emotional state, her passiveness, her aggression, the list is almost endless.  It seems that we men always make the working assumption that the woman who has just joined us is better than us so we go to work, so to speak, on destroying her before god forbid, she becomes our superior.

No doubt, we are all guilty of at least one of the above, to some extent or another.  As imperfect creatures, we indulge in the not-so-innocent humour and in spite of ourselves, we laugh at it and therefore, encourage it.  After all, wicked humour can be hilarious, especially if it is not aimed at us personally.

That last point is at the heart of the problem; we tolerate such behaviour because we are not the target.  It is like being at a variety show where the stand-up comedian picks on a member of the audience; everyone else in the theatre is so relieved it is not them they start laughing before the comedian delivers his insults.

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