Be a Joker, Not a Jerk: 7 Dos and Don'ts of Workplace Humor

by Staff - Original publish date: January 18, 2012

Research shows that humor works wonders for your health by relieving both physical and emotional stress and connecting you to others.

Because of this, appropriate office humor is one of the best ways to relieve on-the-job tension, boost morale, and promote teamwork.

But not all humor is created equal. Used inappropriately, humor can also alienate co-workers and create a hostile environment, which, in turn, can contribute to excess stress.

How do you know when you've crossed the line? This article explores seven dos and seven don’ts of workplace humor.


Don't alienate

When the honey-haired mail clerk makes her rounds, avoid whipping out your repertoire of "dumb blonde" jokes.

Don't tell jokes that are sexist, ageist, or racist. A good rule of thumb is to avoid humor that labels any person or any group of people as inferior.

Not only does this type of humor create exclusions and an uncomfortable office environment, it could also lead to legal action.

Do play it safe

Share universal humor. Who doesn't enjoy cartoons from The New Yorker, or chatting about their favorite reruns of Seinfeld?

Fun humor that explores human nature or the absurdities of life without getting specific about certain types of people is the safest bet.

Don't make fun of others

There may be endless punch lines in your co-worker's '80s mullet, but one too many quips could get you punched.

Don't tease someone to get him or her to loosen up, feel more relaxed, or feel included unless you are positive he or she will take it in the manner in which it is intended.

Good-natured teasing about someone's habits, physical features, or actions can backfire.


Do make fun of yourself

Develop your sense of self-deprecating humor. Make fun of your obsession with cats, or your inability to operate the copy machine.

Sharing a laugh at your own expense is a great way to lighten the atmosphere, relieve tension, and connect with others.

Don't be funny in email

No matter how many emoticons and "winks" you use, sending your messy co-worker an email saying the producers of Hoarders are on their way over to clean out his or her cubicle may come across as mean, snide, or sarcastic.

Do share your humor in person

Rely on your voice, smile, and body language to reveal your true intentions.

Delivering a joke in person is the best way to make certain your meaning isn't misconstrued, and provides an opportunity to bond with others.

Don't be a bully

Tripping the intern every time he walks by or constantly focusing on one person's foibles is not okay.

Don't do it yourself, and don't encourage or accept aggressive or offensive humor from others by laughing, egging them on, or simply standing by.

Do participate in harmless pranks

Go ahead. Switch the "M" and "N" keys on your co-worker's computer, and enjoy the ensuing confusion!

At appropriate times, such as on April Fools Day, it's perfectly fine to participate in harmless, fun, inoffensive pranks. Just don't go too far . . .

Don't go there

Don't assume everyone wants to hear your commentary about a raunchy scene from the latest Will Ferrell movie, or what Chelsea Handler had to say to Howard Stern on this morning's radio show.

Remember that vulgar or explicit humor can make people uncomfortable, even if they don't say anything.

Save the R-rated humor, if it's your style, for friends you hang with outside of work.

Do share the wealth

Your co-workers will have fun reading the amusingDilbert cartoons you tack to your office wall, viewing the funny slideshow you put together from the office party pics, or listening to entertaining stories about your vacation gone awry.

Don't be the office clown

If you spend more time acting like the office jester than you do getting your work done, you might want to rethink the role you play and the effect it's having.

Going overboard by attempting to turn every moment into a humorous one is annoying, reduces productivity, and makes it hard for people to take you seriously.

It's nice to have a good laugh, but remember that sometimes people just want to do their work.

Do use comedy to build camaraderie

Did you delete your entire email inbox with your nose . . . by falling asleep on your keyboard? Instead of letting office chaos put a damper on your day, simply laugh it off.

Guaranteed, others will join in. You'll feel the stress melt away as your burden is lightened.

Don't push your taste on others

Don't tell someone they "have no sense of humor" or are "too sensitive" if one of your jokes falls flat or is perceived as offensive, even if you -- and everyone else in your office -- thinks it's hilarious.

Do make amends

Did this morning's stand-up routine at the water-cooler fall flat? If a well-intentioned joke is found to be offensive by a co-worker, or if you mistakenly make a gaffe, apologize sincerely.

Follow the simple rules of office comedy

It's important that you and your co-workers enjoy the benefits of humor in the workplace, but it's also important that humor doesn't cross the line and become damaging or offensive.

By following some simple rules, you'll create the kind of laughs that relieve stress, increase productivity, and enhance bonding. Have fun, but do it responsibly!