At Zappos.com, the online shoe business, the person answering calls is not the “receptionist”; he’s the “director of first impressions.”
At Texas-based BerylHealth, where health care workers advise clients by telephone, the company pairs employees with executives in a spoof of “Dancing with the Stars.”
And at San Diego-based Red Door Interactive, a business consultancy, one of the core values is this: “We are 100 percent jerk-free.”
Plenty of surveys suggest that humor in the workplace inspires creativity, produces happy employees, helps people get ahead in an organization and even leads to company success.
“When you display a sense of humor, when you laugh at yourself, it helps your corporate image,” said international business speaker Michael Kerr, who advises businesses on humor in the workplace. “It can help your business come across as more humble, as more human, as more personable. It can put a human face to what we otherwise perceive as being a very sterile, corporate, soulless entity.”
Levity by the numbers
Robert Half International, an executive recruitment firm, surveyed 492 full- and part-time professionals and found that 97 percent believe it’s important that managers have a sense of humor. Nine out of 10 said humor is important for career advancement, while 84 percent think that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.
The Bell Leadership Institute, which provides executive education, found that the two most desirable traits in leaders are a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.
A study by market-research company Ipsos showed a statistically significant correlation between managers’ sense of humor and their employees' willingness to remain with the organization. And in a CareerBuilder survey, employers presented with two equally qualified job candidates chose the one with the better sense of humor.
Humor tends to thrive, Kerr said, in industries where the work can be inherently sad or stressful. Take morticians. Kerr finds them to be among the funniest people he’s ever met.
“It’s not humor they’d share with grieving family members, but in dealing with the constant stress and tragedy they see, they have to have a healthy sense of humor to survive,” he observed.
As for emergency-room doctors and nurses: “They need that healthy perspective,” he said, “and it can be a very black, gallows humor.”
There are other workplaces where too much levity tends to be frowned upon.
Government agencies are an example. They “tend to have a challenge when it comes to humor,” Kerr said, “partly because they don’t want to be seen by taxpayers as being frivolous. They can mistake being taken seriously with being too somber.”
Dampening levity at work can backfire, he noted. “It stifles innovation when people can’t be themselves. It breeds conformity and can lead toward more groupthink. People start to speak like robots in that bureaucratic, dry lingo with acronyms and buzzwords that nobody uses at home on Friday afternoons.”
Jokes that fall flat
Obviously, some types of humor can be unprofessional or offensive.
Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri, published a paper in 2012 in the journal Human Relations that examined how humor in the workplace affects emotions, mentoring, leadership and job satisfaction. He cautioned that what seems funny to some people may be offensive to those of another culture.
In India, for instance, making fun of religion is taboo, while in China it’s considered bad taste to criticize political leaders.
“Humor is based on a lifetime of understandings and assumptions that we develop about the world,” he said. “We in the U.S. understand it’s perfectly OK to spear our politicians. In China, however, there’s no cultural understanding that it’s OK to criticize politicians, and so that type of humor is inappropriate.”
Moreover, people don’t respond well to humor that skewers people or topics they consider sacred.
“With all this government-shutdown discussion going on right now, you see conservative and liberal humor. It’s often the case that the other side doesn’t find it funny. You only find something to be funny when it basically agrees with your views.”
Eighteen months ago, CEO Jennifer Walzer began requiring applicants to include a joke in their resume.
“We would get a ton of resumes, and they were just too generic,” said Walzer, whose organization, Backup My Info! Inc., provides businesses with online backup and recovery solutions. “It was obvious [the resumes weren’t] really geared toward us; so we hired an outside consultant who suggested we should do something crazy -- like make people give us a joke.”
One of her favorites: “Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn't much, but the reception was excellent.”
Kerr said a job applicant’s sense of humor can convey self-confidence and an ability to handle stress. “Applicants who take themselves too seriously are more likely to have difficulty overcoming obstacles,” he said.
Humor and the bottom line
When humor is nurtured, the result can be successful workers and happier customers.
Southwest Airlines has become celebrated for the jokes of its flight attendants, who instruct passengers that if they must choose which child they should fit first with an oxygen mask, “decide now which one you love more.”
When Johnson & Johnson customers boycotted the company’s feminine-hygiene products after a popular item was discontinued, Johnson & Johnson posted an online MTV-like video featuring a man belting out a lovelorn apology.
“You could type in your name and the whole video became customized, and the guy sings his apology to you specifically,” Kerr said. “It’s brilliant. How can you stay mad at somebody who makes you laugh like that?”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
© 2013, Society for Human Resource Management.
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