Think Before You Joke
They say “laughter is the best medicine,” and it’s true. Studies show that laughing boosts immunity, eases anxiety and stress, improves mood, and decreases pain. Socially, laughing strengthens relationships. In addition to the value of humor in our personal lives, we cannot underestimate the power of humor at work. Humor increases our ability to persuade others and helps us diffuse conflict. In simple terms: laughing feels good, and because of this, we enjoy being around people who make us laugh, in our personal lives and at work.
However not all humor is appropriate in the workplace. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 and other laws all have anti-harassment components. Stereotypical or sexually suggestive jokes can rise to the level of conduct that is considered a hostile work environment which is prohibited by these laws. Jokes that are perceived as inappropriate, even if they are not intended, can still constitute a hostile work environment.
Here are some helpful hints when using humor at work:
- Stay clear from all humor that touches upon any protected class (gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, etc.). This is true even if you are making a comment about yourself; as the comment can still be viewed as offensive to others. If you are bordering on that line, or even approaching that line, stay clear.
- If you are going to single anyone out as the target of a joke in a large group, make it yourself. Self-deprecation can effectively make people feel at ease. The purpose of humor at work is to bring people together. Humor that singles anyone out, even with the funniest of all intentions, can make them feel alienated.
- Avoid humor in writing. We do not always know how written humor will be perceived because the context is not clear and the reader cannot see our expression or hear our tone.
- Avoid jokes in performance reviews or disciplinary documents. Certain documents should remain “unfunny” in order to be taken seriously.
- Lastly, think before you joke. If you are wondering whether a joke is appropriate, the rule of thumb is that if you have to wonder, it probably is not.
Ronald G. Acho is a co-founder and partner in our Livonia office where he concentrates his practice on labor and employment law, business law and utility law. He may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.