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!