Humour at work's a good thing, right? Well, yes but it depends on what kind, say the authors of Laugh Out Loud: A User's Guide to Workplace Humour the first authoritative, science-based guide of its kind by University of Auckland academics Barbara Plester and Kerr Inkson.
Dr Plester started studying humour in the workplace after a previous boss decreed there was to be no laughing at work — too noisy, distracting, and clearly off-task. She lasted three months in a no-laughter zone before quitting and going back to university, where she gained a Masters then a PhD on humour in the workplace.
Her 14 years of research include spending a month embedded in each of seven companies, observing how humour was used to include and marginalise, support and take down, reinforce and subvert power.
"We're a nation of piss-takers but piss-taking can brutalise," says Plester. "And there's still the idea that if you take offence, it's your fault for being humourless — 'What's wrong with you, can't you take a joke?'"
Knowing where the line is can be difficult.
"What seems hilarious to one person or a group of people can be really upsetting to a different person or group. We don't always know our colleagues' cultural or religious beliefs, family situation or just things that they are sensitive about, so sometimes the wrong joke can really offend. There are some obvious 'no go' areas at work and I usually advise steering clear of sexist, sexual or racist jokes as these obviously have great potential for offence. Humour shared through technology can go wrong if the wrong joke is sent to someone who doesn't appreciate it, or an in-house joke gets out of an organisation and upsets people outside the company — that can hurt a company reputation. Humour that specifically targets someone can harm and upset and excluding people from 'in-jokes' can be upsetting also. There's lots of potential for humour to misfire at work."
In the book Plester talks of "humour boundaries".
"Humour is influenced by organisational culture — guided by the type of company, the industry, the people and the social rules and values displayed in the company. All of these cultural elements combine to create norms that guide social and professional interaction, communication and humour. A 'boundary' develops over time, where what is acceptable for joking is known and understood by workers that are socialised into the culture. They have a strong understanding of how to behave in their workplace and this includes knowing where the boundaries for good humour lie."
She says that larger companies are more likely to have HR departments that set rules and standards of behaviour and humour.
"In smaller, less formal companies, humour boundaries are looser because most of the people know each other quite well and know what it is okay to joke about and what is not okay, for each person. There is less risk of upsetting a colleague if you know them reasonably well and know some of the topics they are sensitive about — so you don't joke about these. These boundaries are not formalised in any way, just known by company members and when someone is deemed to 'cross the line' and go beyond the boundary, all hell can break loose in a sea of outrage and upset."
Plester advises that if someone is offended at work by a colleague's send of humour, they should talk to the person quietly, calmly and in private and tell them that the humour is offensive to them and why.
"If this doesn't work, a quiet chat to a manager would be the next step — also following the discreet, calm approach. Of course, this is easier said than done, as it's actually quite difficult to tell someone that their joking upsets or offends as jokers are likely to get very defensive and claim 'it was only a joke' making the complainer feel foolish and humourless. It's quite a tricky issue to manage and hence our newly released book."
And with social media's lightning reach a misjudged attempt at humour can compound the mistake.
"It is hard to get the balance right with humour, between being fun and funny, but not overstepping the mark and offending people at work. Work is a specific context that is important to our livelihood and we are becoming increasingly careful to behave appropriately and not offend others."
Asked if New Zealand workplace humour differed in significant ways, Plester said: "That's a difficult question as it depends who we are compared to... I have been involved in humour research done in South Korea and there are significant differences in how Asian/Confucian cultures use humour compared to Kiwi organisations. Korean organisations are very hierarchical. I think one of the defining elements of Kiwi humour is that we are not too fond of hierarchy. Humour can reduce or eliminate hierarchy for a short moment. We even do this with managers at work — we tease them, share banter and mock them a little (hopefully not too aggressively). The colloquial phrase used often by Kiwis talking about their workplace humour is 'taking the piss' and I believe that's a defining 'Kiwi way of doing humour."
■ If it would embarrass you to have your joke told to your boss or printed on the front page of a newspaper, it is probably not a good joke to tell at work.
■ Company sexual harassment policies need to consider humour. One person's "joke" is another person's harassment.
■ Just because people are laughing does not mean they all like the joke or the sentiments in the joke. People may laugh from embarrassment or social pressure and politeness while actually feeling offended and upset — especially if the joke-teller is in a position of power.
■ If you witness an offensive joke but can't call out the joker, try "unlaughter": staying po-faced and stony sends a strong message.
■ Just because you think it is funny does not mean others will too. Try to see your joking around from someone else's perspective — especially if they are a different gender or sexual persuasion or have different values to you.
■Sexual or sexist, racist or otherwise bigotry-based jokes shared via email can cause a lot of distress and can be easily circulated. Just don't.