Cracking a Joke Not So Funny After All

THE office clown has always played a beneficial role in the workplace but with increasing worker sensitivity, cracking a joke with a colleague could be seen as discriminatory or bully-like behaviour.

Clinical and organisational psychologist Darryl Cross said humour is essential in the workplace, but throwing a joke can cross the line into offensive territory and even be seen as bully behaviour.

“Humour is particularly important for generation X and generation Y to have a bit of fun in the workplace and there’s no doubt people would want to enjoy their day. Having a laugh is one way to do that,” he said.

“But the line gets crossed when a joke is played to someone else’s detriment, in a sense it [the joke] puts someone down.”

Cross calls an offensive joke “sniper behaviour” because the bullying is hidden or camouflaged in humour.

“If the joke is demeaning and puts someone down, then I think it’s offensive,” he said.

“But if people are happy to have a joke on themselves, tell stories about themselves, or perhaps do something like for a birthday fill the cubicles with balloons, then that’s appropriate.

“The demeaning sniping jokes that have the effect of putting someone down are not.”

Robert Westwood, co-author of Humour, Work and Organization, also believes a joke that crosses the line can be seen as bully behaviour, but said humour is essential for the proper functioning of humans.

“It’s unreasonable for people in a workplace to become solitary, but there are limits around destructive humour, sexist humour or racial humour, and I think organisations would be within their rights to try and control that,” he said.

Westwood is aware of disciplinary action taken against employees who have taken a joke too far. He said there are a growing number of organisations that try to curb the amount of humour, but believes managers should not rule humour out altogether.

Cross said there has always been a lack of tolerance for offensive humour in the workplace and an employee could be punished for pushing the boundary of what is socially acceptable.

“If an individual goes on WorkCover from the stress a joke has caused, then it’s certainly the employer’s duty to bring the staff member in and give a warning,” he said.

If all this has put a dampener on your sense of humour, do not worry. Both Cross and Westwood encourage office clowns to laugh and have some fun at work.

“Keep up the good humour, but make sure it’s good humour and not at somebody else’s expense,” Cross said.