New book looks at humour in the workplace - and how things can go badly wrong.

The office worker thought his workplace was "dull and dry", so he hid in a wheelie bin.
When someone passed close by, Pete (not his real name) sprang up, shouting and gesticulating to scare them.

Sounds like a bit of fun. The "victims" turned out to be his boss and the visitor he was showing round the company. They weren't laughing. Pete found himself called in to the HR department to receive a dressing down and counselling about inappropriate behaviour.

That is one of many instances featured by Dr Barbara Plester, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School and well-known author and emeritus professor Kerr Inkson in a new book called Laugh Out Loud.

It covers the full range of the use of humour and how to manage it in the workplace: "It's written to help people," says Plester. "We wanted to help people who don't know what to do when humour – which can be both bright and dark in the workplace – rears its head.


"It's written to help them deal with the fallout when things go wrong and also how to use it – because it is such a wonderful tool, applied correctly, to release and relieve tension."

Like in another office, with tired and bored staff after a gruelling day. An angry staff member rushes in, upset, and shouts a lengthy broadside at her colleagues; she feels they are performing poorly. Still angry, she rushes out again, unable even to finish her tirade.

In the shocked silence that follows, Sofia (also not her real name) says: "This place is a zoo!" There is another pause then Gerhard, the group joker, gets up from his desk and says: "Yup! A zoo!"

He leans forward, stretches his arms in front and walks around the room, grunting like an ape. Mike makes a chattering noise, like a chimpanzee, and pretends to eat a banana.

Sofia becomes an elephant, stretching her arms forward together like a trunk and trumpeting at the top of her voice.

The situation was absurd by any normal standard of office behaviour but, as Plester says, humour did a great job of relieving the stress.

Barbara Plester. Picture / Supplied
Barbara Plester. Picture / Supplied

Plester gathered information for the book by, among other things, 12 years of study, undertaking fly-on-the-wall stints in a series of organisations, including law firms, engineering, financial and IT companies. For all intents and purposes, she became a member of staff in those firms, researching the use (and misuse) of humour in the workplace for her PhD – and publishing The Complexity of Workplace Humour: Laughter, Jokers and the Dark Side of Humour in 2016.

Laugh Out Loud, however, is a practical guide for everyone involved: the humourists, the targets, the observers and most of all the managers who have to 'set the tone' and encourage, control and manage humour.


"You find humour in every workplace," she says. "It is often a really important part of a happy and united organisation – but it can be damaging and divisive too; it definitely has a dark side."

That can emerge when people use humour to make a point or even as a form of bullying: "In Kiwi workplaces, it's known as 'taking the piss'. Sometimes people do it deliberately, it takes the form of jocular abuse. It's very hard to kick against that because, if you do, you are told, 'I'm just taking the piss, don't get upset'.

"Sometimes it starts as a joke but gets personal – it moves into criticising a personal characteristic like body shape, race, ethnic origins, sexual things and the like. It's complex because the person on the end of it is also glad they are in the 'in' group, by being included in the banter."

Laugh Out Loud's focus on managers is also important as Plester says they have a much tougher job when dealing with humour.

"Humour and positions of power don't always go together," she says, instancing the case of former Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority boss Roger Sutton, who resigned after a complaint following his joke to staff about holding "visible G-string Fridays".

Sutton was a capable and personable man – and not all who heard his joke were offended by it – but his resignation showed how power and humour could be poor partners.

"There are plenty of occasions where bosses can make jokes and they think their staff are laughing with them. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, some of the staff are laughing simply because he's the boss. For managers and others in senior positions, there are many no-go areas."