Guide employees without being the fun police

by Stephanie Zillman19 Sep 2013

A good sense of humour is a trait often sought after in ensuring a good cultural fit. Yet alongside a backdrop of sexual harassment and bullying concerns, HR can be the meat in the sandwich against the long list of off-limits topics for workplace humour.

Humour must be inclusive to rule out harassment and discrimination concerns, and there are substantial liability risks for unguarded employers if they are seen to have condoned the behaviour. In communicating the purpose of strict limits on humour in the workplace to employees, it is important to highlight that by no means is ‘fun’ being eliminated, or that the company is regulating how colleagues relate. It is simply about setting boundaries to foster a healthy work environment, free from hostility and legal exposure, which will ultimately make everyone happier and more relaxed at work.

As lecturer and psychologist Dr Joni Johnston points out, not all humour is created equal and research has shown that there is a distinctive difference in the health benefits of positive and negative humour. “Negative humour, that is, humour that is exclusive or offensive, does not have the same positive physiological effects on one’s body and mind. Apparently, our bodies are as sensitive as our feelings; we physiologically respond to hurtful humour as if our bodies were under attack,” Johnston said.


Male vs female humour

A study undertaken by Dr Margaret Byrne of Sydney-based UGM consulting identified extreme differences in the way men and women communicate in meetings. When sharing a joke, it seems men and women may as well be speaking different languages. According to Byrne, men use a more aggressive and competitive style of banter, using mockery and shock value for laughs. When women use humour, the style tends to be self-deprecating, with jokes more of a group effort, rather than using an individual as the punch line. “The two different styles of humour do clash when women and men come together,” Byrne said.

As a rule of thumb, certain types of comments, jokes, and pranks are never appropriate in the workplace and should not be encouraged or tolerated. Many topics are legally mandated as “off limits” in the workplace, and polices should prohibit employees from innuendos, and making comments or references about:

  • Sexual orientation or acts
  • Religious or political practices or beliefs
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Social status, gender, or age-related stereotypes
  • Physical appearance and attributes
  • Weight-related issues
  • Disabled persons, or persons with any form of diminished capacity
  • Any other topic that targets an individual or group as being inferior


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