Recently, Christy and I were out running errands and it suddenly occurred to us that it was 7:00 p.m. and we had not eaten supper. We were in the vicinity of a little Greek sandwich shop that we had been wanting to try, so we dropped in for a bite.
While Christy grabbed a table outside to enjoy the beautiful sunset, I paid and got our drinks. It was the typical scenario at most semi-fast food restaurants–they give you the cups, you get the ice and drinks. What I discovered while I was getting our drinks, however, was very atypical.
Some innovative employee with a sense of humor put a little fun into the mundane task of filling a cup. Take a look at the picture below.
For those of you that are not hip and cool, the picture over the ice dispenser is none other than rapper/entertainer Ice Cube. I laughed out loud in the Mediterranean Sandwich shop. Still chuckling to myself, and my cup full of ice, I moved on to get my drink.
Another outburst of laughter! No doubt, the same employee tasked with labeling the ice dispenser did the same for the tea. Again, pop culture junkies readily identify the man in the picture as Ice Tea. However, this time, the employee flexed his/her creative muscles because as you can clearly see, customers have their choice between “unsweetened” Ice Tea on the left, and “sweetened” Ice Tea on the right!
Patrons sitting around the drink area gave me a nod of understanding as I hurried outside to tell Christy how much fun this place was!
It got me thinking…is humor appropriate at work? Is business always meant to be serious? Can work be … dare I say … fun?
Take a look at these photos from other businesses. Wonder if it was the same employee behind all these tongue-in-cheek attempts at work?
Or how about this one?
Even accountants are known to have a calculated laugh. My dad positioned this sign conspicuously at the front of his desk every tax season.
I understand that I may have a biased opinion of humor in the workplace. Every week I attempt to spin stories from our jobs or family life to illustrate a leadership or personal growth concept. You might be surprised to find out that not everyone sees eye to eye with me on this subject.
So, naturally, I did a little research to find out what is good and bad about injecting a little laughter at work.
There is consensus in the research on when humor is NOT appropriate. I have summarized them into four broad categories.
(1) When a certain group is singled out. It’s never a good idea to make fun of others because of their size, sex, socioeconomic condition, age, or ethnicity.
(2) When your laugh comes at the expense of others. (Can you say Donald Trump?)
(3) Using sarcasm. Sarcasm is usually confined to those relationships that have deep roots and long-standing history together. Most work relationships are not of this variety.
(4) When you force it. My dad’s sign on his desk was about the extent of his humor at work. Nobody wants Jerry Seinfeld as a tax accountant, nor do they want you to think that you are him at work.
Having stated the negatives, I will end this blog on a positive note–when humor IS appropriate. Like those above, these categories are usually safe bets among employees, and can even help influence your culture positively.
(1) When the humor is self-depricating. People are much more likely to laugh AT you and WITH you when you turn the situation on yourself. This is particularly true for bosses. When the person in charge can laugh at mistakes, it humanizes the leader.
(2) When it is used to bond a group together. In large group settings, nothing builds team better than laughter. At a recent event I was a part of, the first speaker made a joke about wearing slimming stripes that subsequent speakers picked up on and carried the theme throughout the day. By the end of the retreat, even audience members were laughing and comparing whether their “stripes” or “plaids” or “black top” made them look skinnier.
(3) When it makes someone feel less awkward. When in doubt about humor at work, this is a great litmus test. Will it make the recipient feel more awkward? If you have a doubt, don’t go there. However, if you can use humor to make someone feel more comfortable, it is nearly always appropriate. (Because it usually means you made fun of yourself!)
(4) When it is accepted in your company culture. It doesn’t take long to figure out if humor is acceptable at your office. Usually, the amount of humor is a direct reflection of the leadership in your organization. If, When, and How leaders use humor reveals a lot about the company.
In a recent Forbes article, Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank, says the amount or type of humor you’ll find in any given workplace depends almost entirely on the culture. “In workplaces that encourage people to be themselves–that are less hierarchical and more innovative–people tend to be more open with their humor.”
Obviously, this was true at the Mediterranean Sandwich Shop. My hat is off to the employee who made me (and many others) smile while eating my gyro. Can’t wait to see your encore!
Until then, enjoy this last photo of humor at work!