As I was watching clips from my favourite comedians at the Emmys (such as Amy and Adam, with whom I am on a first-name basis – at least in my mind), I reflected on the importance of humour, both in my personal life and in the work that I do. When done well, and respectfully, humour puts life’s greatest challenges into perspective and reminds us all not to take ourselves too seriously. Humour is the gel that holds many teams together and a sense of humour is a leadership trait commonly associated with engaged teams and positive, productive workplaces.
Unfortunately, when the content, delivery or context in which humour occurs is insensitive and inappropriate, the “humour” backfires and becomes responsible for the breakdown of many workplace relationships.
Like all communication, successful humour is about being aware of our words and their impact on the audience around us. Whether we are joking around, giving feedback, voicing our opinions or otherwise, our success lies most often in how and to whom we deliver our message.
As a respectful workplace specialist and someone who loves to laugh (and has experienced my share of “foot in mouth” syndrome), here are a few practical tips to consider:
- Don’t assume that “joking around” in the workplace is inherently disrespectful. That is simply not true. A small group of very vocal and negative folks commonly suggest that respect can only be achieved through a sterile somber workplace. Not so.
- When it comes to humour, “timing is everything”. When teams or individuals are in the midst of a significant deadline “crunch” or customer/client crisis, attempts at humour commonly backfire and are seen as disruptive and inconsiderate. Similarly, when someone is presenting at a staff meeting, injection of random humour by others (to the group as a whole or specific people within the audience) might be considered disrespectful of the speaker’s efforts and time.
- Don’t joke around at the expense of any particular societal group while at the workplace. Even if you don’t think you’re being offensive, it is not worth the risk of offending others or triggering an investigation into your comments (regardless of how that investigation might turn out). It is simply not worth the potential damage to others or potential consequences for yourself. Trust me on this one.
- The fact that you are a member of a particular societal group (gender, race, religion) gives you no greater “right” than anyone else to make distasteful jokes about that group. “But I am a woman myself”, for example, will not justify sexist humour.
- If you are going to “tease” someone, be sure you are in a solid “negotiated relationship” with that person. Have you known them a sufficiently long time? Have you built up what I call “relationship capital”? Are you on good terms with them or is there some bad blood that might affect how your humour will be received? Are you truly being funny or perhaps a little mean? If you have any doubts at all about how the joke will land then don’t say it.
- When considering your “audience”, think of everyone in the room, not simply the person to whom the humour is directed.
- The smartest humour does not involve sarcastic/caustic comments towards others, racism, sexism or plain vulgarity.
- If all else fails, make fun of yourself. It works for me every time and I have endless material to work with.
- Sometimes, despite our best efforts, workplace jokesters cross the line and offend someone. This can happen to the best of us (provided it only happens occasionally). In a respectful workplace, that person is told about their “offensive” humour directly and discreetly. And in that same respectful workplace, the genuine jokester is quick to offer an authentic apology.
- At the end of the day, investigators like me who are called in to review complaints of “offensive humour” ask one question: what would a reasonable person – in 2015 – think of the words that just came out of someone’s mouth, computer or smartphone (considering the content, delivery and overall context of the comment). The line “I was just joking” plays no role in this difficult task. Joking or not, intentional or not, if the comment is considered reasonably offensive, it won’t be a laughing matter.
With all of these tips and tricks in mind, and on behalf of self-appointed comedians everywhere, please work to keep your workplaces filled with laughter and levity. When done right, it truly is the best medicine.
– Marli Rusen
If you want to see Marli’s respectful humour in action, come to her Mirror Method workshops, scheduled to take place in Prince George (Oct 20), Victoria (Oct 21), Parksville (Oct 28) and Vancouver (Nov 3)