According to recent research from Professor Christopher LeGrow from Marshall University, workplace humor can help people de-stress, but it can often be offensive. In fact, around 70% of people polled reported that workplace jokes they’d heard centered around making fun of co-workers based on factors like age, sexual orientation and even weight! Additionally, 40% admitted that they themselves had made fun of a co-worker’s age or weight. Other popular workplace joke topics included jokes based on accents, personal hygiene, and work behavior (like poor attendance, asking the wrong questions, or working too closely with the boss).
While there wasn’t a big difference between what men and women found offensive in office humor, women were more likely to be offended at remarks targeting their physical characteristics, such as weight, scars or cleavage.
Often, office jokes intended to be humorous weren’t received that way, according to LeGrow. When workers are offended or threatened by jokes, it’s time for the company to step in and curtail the situation, as it then becomes a liability and a problem for morale and productivity.
So what’s behind this delicate balance of offensive vs. funny office humor, and how can workers enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of humor and laughter without the damaging affects of offensive jokes? It seems that it’s not humor itself that’s the problem, but the use of humor to convey messages that are in and of themselves offensive. Here are some guidelines to remember when you’re telling jokes around the office:
- Think of The Message: Ask yourself what the point, or underlying message, of your joke is. Are you using humor to say something that you wouldn’t say to someone without the joke attached?
- Know Your Audience: If you’re teasing someone about a physical feature, a scar, for example, do you know them well enough to know if they are comfortable enough with that feature to be matter-of-fact about it, or would mention of it be hurtful?
- Leave Serious Topics Alone: Don’t joke about topics that are controversial or painful to someone else, like death, physical disabilities, sexual harassment or racial inequalities (or race in general). Just don’t do it.
- Be Careful of Politics: While a surprising number of people make political jokes, it’s very important to know your audience, and avoid making political jokes that would offend someone of a different ideology if they’re part of the group. Something that sounds hilarious when Jon Stewart says it might sound crass coming from someone else.
- When In Doubt, Leave It Out: If you’re not sure how a joke will be received, it’s best not to tell it. Some people say that society is too “politically correct” or that people offended by certain jokes are “too sensitive”, but it’s about respecting the people around you. Nobody wants to be made the butt of jokes, and it’s best to joke about a neutral topic.
- Emulate Seinfeld, Not The Office: Reruns of Seinfeld, or any of his stand-up routines, provide perfect examples of (mostly) inoffensive but hilarious comedy. Everyone can relate to these jokes because they generally target human nature, the quirks of society, and don’t single out groups based on features like race, sex or other features. Seinfeld makes us laugh at ourselves, and not at the expense of others. Steve Carell’s character on The Office, however, gives perfect examples of what not to do. From belittling people, to constantly adding sexual innuendo by saying, “That’s what she said!” to singling out people based on weight, sex, race and other offensive features, “Michael” is hilarious because he constantly does exactly what you shouldn’t do!
When dealing with people who use workplace humor offensively or aggressively, use assertive communication to stand up for yourself or others, or change the subject and joke about other (safer) topics. Your co-workers should appreciate it, and you’ll be creating a more friendly, comfortable (but still fun) work environment.
Learn more about stress and stress management with these ongoing stress management resources.