Funny or Not So Much?: Get a Handle on Humor in Your Workplace 

We all love a good laugh when the source of that laughter is well-intentioned, well-timed and  downright funny. And laughter loves us. A good, hearty laugh reduces our stress and bolsters our immune system. It exercises our diaphragm and provides a great workout for our heart. We can almost feel these effects when we laugh so hard that our belly hurts. As a young child might say, “Can we do that again?” Oh yeah! 

Laughter also affects our overall sense of well being. It helps us to shift our focus from the emotions that drain us – such as anger and guilt, and allows us to adopt a more lighthearted, hopeful perspective about the things we fear and those that weigh us down. 

Bad Humor: That Wasn’t Funny

Not everything that is “funny” can be classified as “good humor.” An off-hand comment flung in our direction can sting. It catches us by surprise and makes us wonder if the person behind the remark was trying to be funny or had a more sinister intent. Comments that don’t feel quite right have a way of staying with us, making us much more cautious and guarded with our co-workers. 

Psychologist Dr. Joni Johnston observes:

“Our bodies are as sensitive as our feelings; we physiologically respond to hurtful remarks as if our bodies were under attack.”

So much for being funny. 

The Sting of Sarcasm

While cheap shots are sometimes blatant and unmistakable, sarcastic comments may be even more pervasive. These attempts at humor are often intended to both mock and amuse: 

Todd: “I benched 250 last night!”

Craig: “Well, I guess I’ll just have to call you Superman. Hey, Superman, do you think you can get that report done?”

A visual image of that comic book hero might indeed conjure up some amusement…those tights, that screaming S. But, if you’re Todd, and benching 250 is a personal milestone for you, Craig’s comment may feel like an intentional putdown: Was he just trying to be funny? And, what’s up with the report? Does Craig have an issue with me working on it…why else would he bring it up? 

A good laugh is good for us, but when it comes at the expense of another person, it’s just plain ugly. 

The mean-spiritedness of sarcasm often acts as a cover for personal needs or frustrations.  

For example, “Craig” may use sarcasm because he:  

  •  Needs to get the upper hand to feel better about himself. 
  •  Feels under-appreciated by Todd and is taking it out on him.
  •  Has a legitimate concern about Todd’s contribution but doesn’t know how to address it openly with him.  

A Culture of Sarcasm

Leadership Consultant Cynthia Clay notes, “Work teams often develop sarcastic banter as a way of relating to one another. Sometimes one or two people take the brunt of these jokes. But…sarcasm destroys relationships and reduces productivity over time. The repeated victims of sarcasm may suffer in silence rather than speak up and be attacked again. As motivation and morale is eroded, the ability of the team to collaborate deteriorates.” 

How to Stop Sarcasm in its Tracks

Clay offers these suggestions for banishing bad humor:  

  1. When a snappy, sarcastic comment forms in your brain, practice leaving it right there; let it pass. 
  2. Notice when your “humor” has a target. Learn to cultivate humor that doesn’t require a victim and diminishes no one.  
  3. Recognize when something is bugging you. Get clear about it. Then, make a direct observation about your concern and invite open discussion. Awkwardness is a small price to pay for earning someone’s respect and collaboration. 

Craig might have thought about Superman, then paused. He might have simply said “Cool!”  paused again, collected his thoughts and added: “Hey, Todd, let me know when you have a minute to talk about that CO2 project. I’m a little concerned about the timeline.”


In a recent study, 70% of people reported they’d heard jokes that snipe at a person’s age, sexual orientation or weight. A full 40% admitted to making such jokes themselves. Other “popular” subjects of bad humor include a person’s accent, hygiene work habits or relationship with the


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