Good Sense of Humor on Job Is Nothing to Knock, Knock

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 22, 2012
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“I just flew in from Pittsburgh. Boy, are my arms tired.”

The joke is ancient, but the ability to bring levity and laughter into the workplace doesn’t go out of style, according to a recent survey on the importance of a sense of humor at work.

A national phone survey, conducted for Accountemps in October 2011 with more than 1,400 chief financial officers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees, found that:

  • *57 percent said an employee’s sense of humor was somewhat important in fitting into their company’s corporate culture.
  • *22 percent said it was very important.
  • *20 percent said it was important.

“Sometimes a little levity goes a long way toward building rapport among colleagues and defusing workplace tension,” Accountemps Chair Max Messmer said in a news release.

Accountemps specializes in providing temporary staffing for accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals.

A sense of humor can also cast managers in a more approachable light and aid in retention, Messmer noted. “All work and no play can erode employee morale.”

That erosion is already happening. Right Management found that 49 percent of North American workers surveyed in December and January 2011 said their job is unrewarding and saps their energy.

“Employees are clearly in a grumpy mood, a trend we’ve tracked for more than a year,” said Michael Haid, senior vice president for Right Management, in a news release. Right Management provides talent development and outplacement services to Fortune 500 companies.

“In better times we probably would have found just a minority complain that their energy is being sapped and so forth, but now it is almost a majority of employed North Americans who seem to be unhappy.”

That bad mood is related to pressures building in the workplace for the past three years, according to Haid.

“In recent surveys Right Management found that fewer workers feel they may step away from their desk for a lunch break or even take all the vacation due them. And we learned that many feel trapped in their job or resent that they’re expected to respond to work e-mails on the weekend. Meanwhile, staffs are leaner and workloads bigger.”

The findings, he added, “are an indicator of poor morale at most organizations.”

‘Universally Applicable’

Scott Christopher, co-author of The Levity Effect: Why it Pays to Lighten Up(Wiley, 2008), observes in an online video that humor at work has its place even during tough economic times.

“Levity and lightening up the workplace is universally applicable, even when times are great,” said Christopher, who is scheduled to speak on the topic during the 2012 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition in Atlanta.

“Right now, yeah, there’s a sense of gallows humor that people fear isn’t appropriate. But the fact is: Even in layoffs and a recession you can still find a kernel of levity and your day-to-day work environment. And when you do it strengthens those who are still there and helps boost engagement even during tough times.”

A good sense of humor is an asset on the job, said attorney Jeffrey Weinstock, who has run a Washington, D.C.-based staffing and placement company, Rhodes & Weinstock LLC, for three years.

“When work gets tough, something doesn’t go right on a project, or just to build morale, having and using a good sense of humor at the right time can help the team get over whatever hurdle they have in front of them,” he said in an e-mail.

“A [job] candidate’s sense of humor is part of their personality. As long as the candidate uses his or her sense of humor appropriately, that can be important to the personality fit that employers look for in a candidate.”

At Occam Education in Washington, D.C., a candidate’s sense of humor, or lack of it, is a hiring consideration, said company founder Patrick C. Brown.

“We view a candidate’s sense of humor as an indicator of how they will handle stress in the business world,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Applicants who take themselves too seriously are more likely to have difficulty overcoming obstacles that normally produce a high level of anxiety vs. those who do not.”

Add a Sense of Fun

A sense of humor can create camaraderie and add a sense of fun to the workplace, said Corliss McGinty, SPHR, president of North Carolina-based Soft Solutions Consulting Inc. She has been in HR for 25 years.

If a sense of humor is important in an organization’s culture, it should be a consideration in the interviewing and hiring process, she said.

She advised using behavioral interview questions with job candidates to “get them to talk about how they use their sense of humor, or a time when it didn’t go over well,” and what they learned or how it helped ease a work situation.

“Assess social management skills. Be very careful to assess this during the interview process, just like you would any cultural aspect of a company,” she said. “There are types of humor that are not funny,” such as sarcasm and making jokes at another’s expense.

And just as with professional comics, timing is important.

“You need an emotional sense of when humor is not appropriate,” she said. A humorous remark between an employee and supervisor may work one on one but can bomb in a group setting, for example.

“Humor has so many dimensions to it, nuances, and in the right way it can be so powerful in a company,” working to bond co-workers. But used in the wrong way, she said, “it can derail a career.”

Neven Lee Gibbs, whose background includes working as a registered counselor, musician, ordained minister and Cherokee Spirit Healer and Tribal Elder, recalls getting fired from a Las Vegas hotel job for being too funny.

“At the time, the head of room maintenance was grousing about how the [air conditioning] units would freeze in 100-degree heat,” he said in an e-mail. “I interjected with a line that had all of the maids and the desk clerk rolling.”

It didn’t help, he added, that he had laughed at the head of the Swedish soccer team when the elevator doors closed on the man’s head. Or that he made an ill-advised retort to a guest’s repeated request for pool balls for the swimming pool.

“The hotel manager called me in at the end of the month with ‘OK, funny guy. Take your act down the street to one of the casinos and see if they like you.’ ”

It was, Gibbs said, “a really good career change for me.”

It’s all about being appropriate.

“There are different types of humor, and it certainly isn’t universal,” wrote Rikka Brandon, an executive recruiter with Building Gurus, in an e-mail. Used correctly, a job candidate’s sense of humor often is perceived as a sign of self-confidence and his or her ability to do the job, she said.

“When people can share a joke or a laugh it helps them feel like they belong.”

So did ya hear the one about the…

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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