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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Joke's on You: The Ultimate Guide to Using Humor at Work

Have you ever heard someone totally botch the delivery of a joke? He starts out great, reeling you in, then, just when it’s time for the punch line, he skips a beat and the joke falls flat. Crickets.

While this scenario would make anyone anxious at open mic night at the Improv, many of us face a similar apprehension when joining a new workplace. We all know a healthy dose of humor goes a long way in the office, but professional, cultural, and societal—just to mention a few—sensitivities can make cracking jokes at work a terrifying endeavor.

Fortunately for you, I’ve spent plenty of time on the stage (so to speak) and have a few helpful tips to keep things light in the office, without crossing any lines.

1. Stop Trying to Be Funny

What’s less funny than someone trying really hard to be funny? Nothing. We all like feeling like we can inspire a few smiles, or even better, some hearty laughs, but trust me when I tell you: The instant you start really trying to be funny, something happens, and you being funny is not it.

Take my first gig as a manager, for example. I had a team of younger employees, most of them just a year or two out of college. They were an energetic group, often laughing and joking around as they worked. Naturally, I wanted to get in on the fun and figured trying to jump in on the jokes was a great way to show how cool I really was. “I’m not just your boss, I’m your friend!”

Oh, the horror. The first few times I tried to interject when the team was on a role, my contributions sounded more like horrible “Your Mamma” jokes than anything that would even remotely make me seem like part of the crew. Tragically, I kept trying, until eventually the team would just stare at each other, looking embarrassed for me, and go back to work. Mood killed.

Thankfully for all of us, I quickly got the picture and stopped trying so hard to be funny. If I had something humorous to contribute to a discussion, I’d pipe up. The rest of the time, I’d just laugh along with the rest of the team. As soon as I stopped working so hard to be funny, there was a lot more to laugh about, and a lot less laughing (ahem, cringing) at my terrible jokes.

2. Keep Up With Pop Culture

Keeping up with pop culture was one of the best tricks I learned when I first started managing. If you’re not quite sure how to get a few laughs out of your team, I promise there will be some inspiration from pop culture you can use. The key, however, is to make sure you’re on the same wavelength as your co-workers.

In my first management job, there was at least a 10-year difference between most of my employees and me. So, while I was still obsessing over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they were rolling over the latest drama unfolding on the set of The Office. Already accustomed to the dreaded crickets scenario (see above) I decided to just keep quiet and gather intel for research.

After about a week, I had noted at least a dozen shows, websites, bands, and YouTube videos I needed to watch, according to my team. And, although I would’ve argued the British version of The Office was way better, I had to admit, my team had pretty good taste in comedy.

After a few weeks of strenuous research, I was able to belt out a quip here and there that referenced a hot topic or show, and a satisfying rumble of chuckles and smiles ensued. Mission accomplished—and I even converted a new Buffy fan in the process.

3. Keep it PC and PG

One of the toughest parts of office humor is keeping it appropriate, especially if you’re basing the laughs on pop culture. While the material may be hilarious, it might not be exactly HR-approved. Something that sends you into a laughing fit at a bar with friends or in front of the tube might not be appropriate fodder for the office.

I had a manager years ago who had a terrible habit of making racist, sexist, and totally not work-appropriate jokes and comments. Nearly every time he tried to crack a joke, he ended up offending at least one person in our office. Nobody’s laughing in that situation.

An easy rule I’ve always followed is to keep things PC and PG. If I’d hesitate making a comment in front of my best friend’s six-year-old or my mother, I’d think hard before making it in the office. Every group is different, but in general, it’s best to steer clear of comments that can make someone feel uncomfortable. Keep the humor on the conservative side, and you’ll keep your team laughing and not offended.

Look, we all can’t be comedians, but the good news is, we don’t have to be. Humor can take many forms, and at its most elegant, a simple laugh or smile can do wonders to endear you to your new team. Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll keep everyone smiling.