Your Boss’s Sense of Humor

Who among us does not want to be considered funny? Jokes are awesome! They make us laugh and when you’re the person in the room whose got all the best jokes, people love you, right? If you’re the guy in the office whose always cracking jokes in meetings and telling stories across the row of cubicles, you’re the most popular guy in the office. Your co-workers loved that joke about the three-legged horse, and your story about how your crazy Uncle Larry ate all the cranberry sauce last Thanksgiving before remembering that he was allergic to it. Man, they all loved that one! But what happens when you decide to tell that raunchy joke that your buddy told you last week at the bar and no one laughs? Or worse, you told that joke just as your new boss walked up to your desk to introduce herself?

Humor is perhaps one of the trickiest social interactions to navigate, particularly in the workplace. While everyone has a sense of humor, people respond to jokes and stories in very different ways. But even beyond just making your coworkers laugh, how you tell a joke and how successfully you tell it can have lasting implications as to how you are viewed around the office.

In a recent study published by the Harvard Business Review researchers found that participants who successfully told a joke to an unfamiliar audience seemed more confident, compelling, and high status. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example.

In 2009 when Dick Costolo was announced as the new COO of Twitter, he tweeted: “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1: undermine CEO, consolidate power.” (The really funny part, Costolo actually became CEO of Twitter the next year).

Assuming that you have not met Dick Costolo in person, what would you say is your initial impression of him? He’s a pretty funny guy, right? But what else would you say, if pressed? How do you picture this incoming COO? He’s probably a pretty confident guy, right? He just tweeted that he was going to undermine his boss, and in your mind you’re probably thinking he’s also competent enough to do exactly what he’s joking about. You’re probably also picturing Costolo as a very approachable, genuine person. He’s funny, so he’s probably very amiable and approachable as a boss too. Is this sounding like the guy you have pictured in your mind? And remember, you’ve never met him!

Humor can have a lot of perception power. The Harvard Business Review’s study even found that telling a “bad joke” (i.e. a universally recognized terrible or corny pun) can be beneficial. Think about the last time you heard someone tell a really corny joke. You probably rolled your eyes or even groaned when they said it, but corny jokes can actually make you appear confident as well. Very likely the person telling a terrible joke knows it’s terrible, and they’re telling it anyway in hopes of a drawing some response from you. That in and of itself shows confidence. The study also found that even if these bad jokes fall flat and no ones laughs or has much of a reaction to it, they at least are not likely to make you appear less competent to others.

The trouble with humor comes from inappropriate jokes told to unfamiliar audiences. That may seem like a no-brainer, yet I would bet that most of us can think of at least one time that either we or someone we work with told a joke that they probably shouldn’t have. And I’ll also bet that that joke came back to haunt them in some way. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is Ketchum VP James Andrews who, while visiting his client FedEx, made the following tweet regarding the city of Memphis.

“True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here!'”

As you can imagine, that joke not only damaged Andrews, but strained his company’s relationship with one of its major clients and created a nationally covered embarrassment. Now, I’m not suggesting that any lewd joke or sarcastic remark can cause that kind of corporate incident. Sometimes they even work and your coworkers may think you’re hilarious! The conclusion of the study however, was that with crude jokes there is always the possibility of you being perceived negatively. Even in cases of successfully executed inappropriate jokes (i.e. their audience laughed), there was almost no significant reward in terms of perceived stats or competence.

Think about it this way. You told a dirty joke and it made the five people you told it to laugh. According to the study, that’s all you get. No perceived boost in confidence, or competence, and no perception of higher status. That’s a net gain of zero. However, if the joke is unsuccessful and the people you told the joke to don’t laugh (or worse, give you that awkward fake laugh), you can actually do serious harm to yourself and to your career. Imagine telling a dirty joke to a group of out-of-town coworkers you’ve never met before at an office party and one of them doesn’t laugh. You don’t see them for two years. Now imagine that you’re going to interview for a promotion and you see one of the coworkers seated across the desk from you. His/her only perception of you before you even walk in the room is that one joke you told that they thought was crude and unprofessional. Are you liking your chances of getting the promotion?

Everyone’s corporate culture and coworkers are different, but that’s precisely what makes humor inherently risky. We know our friends and we know what they’ll consider funny. But do you know what your boss’s sense of humor is? What about their boss’s sense of humor?

Making people laugh can have a lot of positive impact on your career. The key is just to be smart about how you go about trying to make folks laugh. I don’t mean that prudishly, just practically. Even if the joke you’ve got in your back-pocket is hilarious, there’s no real measurable benefit to telling it at work, and there can be lasting negative effects. My advice? More crazy Uncle Larry stories in the office and save the raunchy ones for the weekends.

Have you had a bad experience with inappropriate jokes in the workplace? Want some terrible puns to use in your next business meeting? Want to learn more about the power of stories in the workplace? SW&A is studying the power of stories in 2017! Head back to Base Camp and join the conversation!

Getting Out Of Your Inbox

One of the coolest things about working in the communication and learning space is that you come across a lot of new approaches to daily business challenges. Some of them work magic (and others we’ll call creative experiments), but the energy that can surround even the smallest ingenuity in the corporate world is always fun to watch.

This week one of the most popular topics I’ve heard chatter about was the French Government’s enacting of a new labor law that effectively allows people to “disconnect,” from work after 5pm without fear of penalty. Most people that I’ve overheard talking about it love that idea at first, but then someone in the group is always quick to point out things like, “France only has a 35 hour work week,” or “well, no one HAS to check their email in America, but if you’re not responsive your company will just find someone else who is.” It’s probably true that no such law is on its way to being enacted in the United States, but is there an appetite for one?  

In our post “You’ve Got Email…Ugh,” we discussed the generational gap between email language and usage, which seemed to really resonate with many of our Base Camp subscribers. So much so that it seems pretty clear that there’s a significantly negative attitude towards corporate email culture, especially among millennials. So let’s dive back into the challenges of email culture and explore this time how a few companies are attempting to reshape how their employees view internal communications. 

Substituting Email: 

First starting back in 2015, Accenture North America’s CEO Julie Sweet outlawed the corporate memo. Instead of sending mass emails to inform Accenture’s employee base, the company has now switched to video messages. Sweet and the rest of the leadership team use a combination of pre-recorded and live-stream messages with the intention of encouraging dynamic and organic conversations, and problem solving.

While not every video can be live-streamed, the idea behind switching to video messaging was that a video could convey emotion better than simple text. By showing executives as more “off the cuff” and informal, employees would feel more connected to their leadership, which would in turn create a more authentic business environment.      

Restricting Email: 

Van Meter, an electronic parts distributor headquartered in Cedar Rapids, IA, recently implemented a ban on sending internal emails from 5pm to 7am during the weekdays and all day on the weekends. As a part of measuring employees’ work-life balance and happiness, Van Meter’s leadership team discovered that many employees did not feel that they were completely unplugged from work, even when at home. They found that the largest common contributor to this was that people felt the need to check their email after every little ding from either their home computers or phones.  


While external emails can be sent to clients and time-critical emails have workarounds, the 5pm cut-off for email is exactly that. Unless it’s an emergency, it can wait. Employees who are on vacation even have their emails shut down! 

Eliminating Email: 

Among many European companies, an increasingly popular trend is not only not to respond to email after hours, but to eliminate internal email all together. Atos, a French IT company, recently eliminated the emails of 80,000 employees. Just plain and simple, no email. At Atos, you have to walk to someone’s desk, floor, office etc. and talk to them. (Egad!).

So Which Path Should We Take?:

Email is easy to hate. Substituting and restricting it are fine, but aren’t there just days when you wish all those little red flags in your inbox would just disappear for good? Email can have a direct impact on company workflow by distracting workers from relevant tasks to deal with less important messages. A study conducted by the BBC in late-2016 revealed that it takes an average of 64 seconds to get back to work after checking a new message and depending on the industry, some estimates can go as high as a few hours every day that are used to answer email!

It’s easy to understand why many employees (and more than a few company leaders), are looking to restructure their internal communications. Think about it. Changing or eliminating email would mean that when you come back from vacation you don’t have to return to 10,000 messages and spend the better part of a day trying to sift through what’s really important. When you go home at night, you’re done with work for the day and can fully un-plug to give full attention to your family (or TV, your choice). From the corporate perspective, changing email culture can mean removing a communication dumping ground. When you don’t have to scroll through dozens of emails every day that are irrelevant to your current tasks, you are a more efficient worker.

But if the pros are so great for changing our email cultures, why hasn’t everybody already done it yet? Well, as you might expect, there are also a few cons. Say we eliminate internal emails completely at your company. Well, naturally if you need something from someone in another division, you’ll need to ask them for it face to face. And if that person works 9-5 everyday, guess what? Now you have to, too. Apart from the obvious transitional challenges that could cause delays or damages to a company, removing an established internal communication system effectively means that your work/life balance timetable has been set for you. Without a means of communicating remotely, companies need their employees on-site at the same time. So, if you’re someone who works remotely or off of the traditional 9-5 path what means more to you: getting rid of emails or maintaining your flexible schedule?

It’s nice to fantasize about what a no email culture might be like. But as we’ve said before in early posts, it’s highly unlikely to think that email is going anywhere. In the U.S. at least email is simply too embedded of a communication system to remove it entirely. However, that does not mean that internal communication is stagnant. Far from it! More and more companies are incorporating alternative communication forms.

Apps like Skype (video conferencing), Dropbox (file transfer), and Slack (honestly kinda a hodgepodge of everything) diversify how we interact with both fellow employees and clients, and arguably increase our productivity. Instead of emailing with a client back and forth twenty times, I can set up a video conference with them and eliminate multiple rounds of delayed responses. And instead of having to email multiple folks to find a certain file or being physically in the office to access our shared drive, I can access the file via Dropbox from just about anywhere.

So whether we like it or not, the reality is that we live in a culture of 40 hour work weeks and email is one of the predominant tools that we use to communicate, despite its unpopularity. But there is the hope for change on the hoirzon! Does your office have a unique solution to email headaches? Is there a specific approach you with your company would try? Head back to Base Camp and join the conversation!      

X