Humor at Work: How to Be Funny Without Being a Jerk

In the national bestseller Flow, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests two key factors determine our overall happiness:

  • Our relations with other people
  • How we experience our work

You can improve both areas by bringing humor to work each day.

Harvard Business Review (September 2003) reports that executives with a sense of humor climb the corporate ladder more quickly and earn more money than their counterparts.

Stu Robertshaw, a University of Wisconsin professor emeritus of education and psychology, cites a study in which a firm experienced a 21 percent decrease in staff turnover and a 38 percent decrease in Friday absenteeism after incorporating humor into the workplace.

And in another study, management professor David Abramis of California State University, Long Beach, determined that employees who have fun on the job are more productive and creative; are better decision makers and team players; and have fewer absentee, sick and late days.

A sense of humor offers many job benefits:

  • Reduces stress
  • Stimulates creativity
  • Boosts motivation and morale
  • Strengthens teams
  • Makes meetings more effective
  • Facilitates open communication
  • Improves customer services
  • Improves the bottom line

A good laugh reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate, massages internal organs and reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. It boosts blood flow to your brain, which means you learn more, forget less and feed your curiosity.

Humor also keeps your life in balance, allowing you to more effectively juggle personal goals, family commitments and work demands. You’ll maintain your sanity and perspective as you reduce tension in stressful situations and rise above crises.


Humor encourages creativity, allowing you to view challenges from new angles. You’ll enjoy playing with a variety of ideas and making innovative associations.

You’ll be more willing to step back and observe, often with a beginner’s mindset. As you begin to search for the exaggerations that make something funny, you use the same parts of your brain that help you create new solutions to old problems.


For the 99.4% of us who are continually wrestling with major workplace changes, humor can make your professional life much less frightening. It encourages out-of-the-box thinking and flexible attitudes — two important traits in people who manage change successfully.


Workplace humor keeps the mood light and maintains a climate of positive energy. When morale is high, coworkers get along better, people enthusiastically do their work, and employees are more committed to goals.

Successful organizations celebrate milestones on their journey to achieve goals. That’s why many use fun and even wacky ways to reward employees for a job well done.


Teams that laugh together work well together. Humor breaks down stereotypes and promotes a sense of unity. It can build company traditions and a sense of shared history, which reminds employees they’re playing for the same team.

In meetings, humor encourages participation, minimizes conflicts, helps people retain information, opens up dialogue and sparks creativity. It livens up dry business correspondence, softens authoritative messages and improves the delivery of presentations.

Including your customers in the fun helps you connect with them on a human level, helps ensure loyalty and makes service memorable.

More managers are embracing their sense of humor as a way to build rapport with staff, communicate more effectively, show their human side more openly, develop trust and foster a supportive workplace climate. And as we succeed at what we enjoy doing, laughter improves the bottom line.


Joking and sarcasm will earn you a few chuckles, but there’s often an element of negativity in funny remarks.

You must avoid crossing the fine line that transforms comic relief into hurtful jabs. As with anything in life, execution can elevate or sabotage your intentions. A gentle poke at someone’s weak spot may be just that, but perception is in the eye of the person receiving the poke.

Often, humor falls flat. Even worse than not being funny is inadvertent destructiveness. The problem occurs when we fail to recognize how what we say in jest can turn negative. We assume the recipient knows we’re “just kidding,” but research shows:

  • Nasty interactions have a 500% greater impact on one’s mood than positive interactions.
  • It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the loss of energy and happiness a jerk can cause in a single hurtful episode.

Laughter can also work against you if you diminish others or offend people by laughing at what they consider too crude or sacred. People rarely enjoy being the butt of jokes. This is why it’s best to laugh at yourself or an immediate situation you face at work, as opposed to others, their backgrounds and idiosyncrasies.

But be careful to avoid laughing at your own career competence, as those around you want to see courage and confidence. Otherwise, you risk undermining your position, and people will have a hard time taking you seriously.


Timing can be everything when it comes to humor. Follow these guidelines to increase your chances of getting a few chuckles after your next one-liner:

  1. Watch for a playful mood before you tell a joke.
  2. Keep your stories short and simple.
  3. Laugh at your own jokes when a room goes silent. It’s contagious.
  4. Link laughter to something people already know: place, work or climate.
  5. Avoid laughing at other cultures; instead, laugh at your own.
  6. Laugh at your own ego.
  7. Listen to people who make you laugh, and mimic a few tactics they use.