A Sense of Humor in the Workplace
Is it me? Or, was that not funny?
by Edward B. Toupin
When I was first initiated into Corporate America, I had a sense of humor
that went unmatched by any mortal soul. I was quick-witted, smart, sharp, and
knew every gag and joke available to humanity. Most of it, I learned in college.
But, college never really did teach the fact that having a sense of humor in the
workplace is different than 'jocularity.' After a few brushes with career-chaos,
I realized that the definition of 'corporate humor' deals with how one handles
oneself and not how one can elicit laughter.
Where did this come from?
One of my friends came to Las Vegas last week to visit and relax a bit. He
and I went out and checked out some of the local bands. During the course of the
evening, he brought up some issues about his current job situation. After some
introductory words, we discussed the issue that he seems to get blamed for some
of the stupidest things, that he never did, and no one takes him seriously
anymore. Then, he cracked some joke about it and we carried on.
Not being taken seriously by your peers is actually a common problem with
people who do have a sense of humor. But, funny has no place in the workplace
and can easily wreak havoc on an otherwise blossoming career.
So, no more laughter?
Of course, laughter is necessary in life. But, in a professional setting, it
becomes a different type of laughter. One situation you will encounter as you
move through your career is the seriousness of professionalism. Of course, to
some, this is not a problem. But, to those that have a funny bone, this is a big
problem and a detriment to one's career.
You have to realize that when your boss asks if you have a sense of humor,
he's not asking if you're a clown. What he is asking is whether or not you can
accept criticism, deal with difficult people, and gracefully handle mistakes
without snapping people's heads off when things get stressful. It is important
and considered professional to be able to take criticism lightly as it is
sometimes used as a tool of 'turf wars' than an actual personal attack.
Hey, that was funny!
If you begin to crack jokes and make snide remarks, you will eventually not
be taken seriously in the workplace. You will be seen as someone who wastes time
because every time that someone approaches you to discuss a project or other
issues with you, some of that time is spent explaining your humorous comments.
Additionally, many corporate-minded individuals do not have the time to analyze
comments with hidden meanings and will take what you say as absolute. Therefore,
if you make a 'stupid' comment in hopes of eliciting a smile, your comment will
be taken as an absolute and a representation of your professionalism in the
workplace. Finally, if your comments do have hidden meanings or contain humorous
connotations, then anything you say will be taken as unreliable, thus labeling
you as unreliable.
Realize that the corporate culture labels you by 'visible change,' not
completely by merit. What I mean is, the last way you presented yourself is the
way that you will be seen in the workplace. If you are a serious, pleasant, and
hard worker, you will be seen that way. If you crack a joke in the middle of a
serious moment, from then on, you will be seen as a joker.
Look over there!
One thing to keep in mind is that many people crack jokes and make 'humorous'
comments when they are uncomfortable or lack confidence in a situation. If this
applies to you, realize that your peers know this as well. Being overly humorous
under stress gives off a sign of weakness within the workplace and will also
cause you to be ousted from the ranks.
Try to find another outlet for discomfort or confidence issues. Perhaps a
favorite ink pen or a small quartz crystal to toy with in such situations will
remind you to maintain your professional fašade as well as keep you calm.
Watch what you say!
One of the big problems facing corporate cultures today is that, in general,
everyone is 'sensitive' to everything. Instead of working together for a common
goal, there are individuals that stay on their toes looking for that one thing
that they can use to cause some sort of upheaval within the culture. With that,
corporate-minded peers are also on the lookout for those who might do or say
something to upset those sensitive individuals.
Because of this situation, there truly is no room in a standard corporate
culture for remarks and comments that in certain groups might otherwise be
humorous. You have to realize that when you speak within a corporate culture, be
concise, be realistic, and do not add comedic breaks or sarcasm. Since everyone
is taking everything 'seriously' with a 'sense of humor' for themselves, then
whatever you say will be taken seriously and could easily land you in hot water.
To alleviate the chance of being misinterpreted, keep emotion and personal
beliefs out of the context of your conversations. Basically, listen closely and
be concise in what you say. Not only does this eliminate the problem of having
people take you wrong, but it also saves a lot of time.
The Deadly Silence
There are several little games played within the corporate environment to
elicit a fatal comment from the unwary. The most deadly game is the 'long
pause.' In many cases, you might sit before your boss, or peers, and provide
information on a particular subject or project. During the course of the
discussion, you notice that your audience appears to be listening to everything
you say. Then, at the end of your soliloquy, the audience seems dead or stuck in
a mental time warp. This pause can last for as long as 10 seconds.
During this pause, it might seem as though your audience is mulling through
your comments, but this is not entirely the case. They are creating an
uncomfortable pause for you to begin doubting your comments in hopes that you
divulge additional information and demonstrate your lack of confidence and
This situation will get you every single time if you're not aware that it is
only a game. One purpose of this game is so that the audience can acquire
additional information from you that you would have otherwise never divulged. On
the other hand, the audience might be trying to acquire your nonsensical traits
from your discomfort to use during a future turf war. Again, be concise, and
then listen. Wait out the infinite pause without saying a word and you'll see
that they were just waiting for you to speak.
Realize that you can still have fun and enjoy your work without the
frolicking antics of a pubescent employee. One mishap can destroy a lifetime of
kudos making it is easier to fall from graces than to repair a reputation.
Companies want people they can count on 100% of the time, not just when you're
serious and comfortable. Focus, take responsibility, move forward competently,
and produce quality results.
If you've already fallen because of your sense of humor, then you will have
to work hard to get back into the good graces of the culture. All you have to do
is maintain a professional fašade, realize that corporate America is 'not
personal,' and motivate in your career with confidence.
Edward B. Toupin is an author, life-strategy coach,
counselor, and technical writer living in Las Vegas, NV. Among other things, he
authors books and articles on topics ranging from career success through life
organization and fulfillment. For more information, e-mail Edward at
or visit his sites at http://www.toupin.com or