Workplace humor done right

A good laugh can bring coworkers together, release tension and even boost productivity. Learn the best ways to make humor work for you and your workplace.

Workplace humor done right

Joan Steffen worked in a high-pressure sales office. On one particularly stressful day, Steffen decided to lighten the mood.

“The boss couldn't find something she needed, so she hollered, ‘That does it! I WANT EVERY THING IN THIS OFFICE CORRECTLY LABELED BY TOMORROW MORNING!’” Steffen explains. “So I labeled all her file folders correctly—and stuck small labels to everything else. Desk. Chair. Copier. Phone. Stapler. Dead Bug in Light Fixture.” It got everyone in the office laughing and relaxing—including the boss.

“Laughing releases tension and creates a feeling of camaraderie and connection among people,” explains Mark Chalfant, artistic and executive director of the Washington Improv Theater in Washington, DC. “When people feel closer to one another, it's a lot easier and more pleasant to work together. Plus, if you make everyone laugh, maybe they will forget that you took the last glazed doughnut at the team meeting.”

Find your funny bone

You don’t have to be a candidate for “Last Comic Standing” to make humor work for you. Much of what makes people laugh isn’t snappy one-liners, but cogent observations through a slightly twisted lens or making light of the obvious absurdities of life.

“Levity is a learnable skill that can enrich your workplace culture and your personal life,” notes Scott Christopher, co-author of The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up. “It's not something you have to be born with. If you're a brow-knitter or a jaw-clencher by nature, it's not too late.”

To get your funny on, follow this advice from Steven Sultanoff, a professor at Pepperdine University and past president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor:

  • Teach yourself to look and think outside the box.  
  • Poke fun at events, not people.  
  • Look for absurdity and incongruity in situations to develop your sense of humor.

Suppress your inner Rickles

One person’s joke is another person’s insult, so humor in the workplace shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. “Always double-check your attempts at humor to make sure they wouldn’t generally be considered offensive to most people,” counsels Cathy Hart, vice president, human resources and central services for Opus Corp. in Minneapolis. “Mean-spirited humor isn’t, in fact, humor at all. It’s a passive-aggressive way to take out stress on others.”

How do you know? “If you have to say, ‘I was only kidding’ or ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ then you are likely using hostile humor,” Sultanoff says. To keep it playful, “use props like foam balls, wind-up toys, humorous signs, etc.”

Get playful

For instance, when tensions get high at Social Sauce, a user-generated content and communication platform in New York City, combatants break out foam swords. “In an office of mostly Internet and tech males, the sword fights diffuse tension by allowing coworkers to play similarly to the online games they play or develop,” explains Jenn de la Vega, a marketing assistant there.

“I believe that the playful attitude associated with the swords allows a degree of comfort where coworkers can talk to each other honestly and approach each other when they disagree,” de la Vega adds.

Realize the value of workplace humor

In the end, levity among the cubicles isn’t just good for you and your coworkers—it benefits the business. “Fun and humor at work are proven characteristics of organizations with higher retention, engagement and profitability,” Christopher says.

“We worked with the Great Place to Work Institute—you know them from Fortune's annual Best Places to Work issue—and found that companies that scored the highest in fun and levity were the ones that made the list,” Christopher explains. “These companies, incidentally, produced up to five times higher returns on investment than the S&P 500 in one study."