Opinion: When workplace humour crosses the line

by Contributor04 Jul 2016
Humour plays a critical role in the workplace. However, a line is crossed when that humour violates the most basic human value: that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences, as Snéha Khilay writes.

An increasing emphasis on the value of inclusive language in the workplace has brought about an inherent realisation that the words we use are open to scrutiny. We are more mindful of how we express ourselves, aware that we are monitored by others. However, those examining the appropriateness of our words often get daubed as the ‘language police’ and it is worth reminding ourselves that these colleagues are simply trying to raise awareness of alternative (and appropriate) language and thereby effect change.

I recently attended a board meeting as an observer, whereby we were introduced to a new member who would be working closely with the Board Treasurer. Having realised that this new member was Jewish, one of the board members remarked, during the coffee break, that the finances would now definitely be in order. The comment, intended to entertain, was considered funny by the person who had made the comment and reflected by the general reaction of laughter from some people.

However, a couple of people complained, finding the comment to be inappropriate. In response, the person who had made the comment insisted that those who had complained were boring and lacking a sense of humour. Others agreed. Effectively, a veil of benign amusement was draped over those who had raised concerns and in essence, labelled as tiresome. The idea of detracting fun from a situation deemed amusing prompted an antagonism towards those who did not find the comments to be suitable or even necessary.

It is known that the human brain can interpret things through two different ‘filters’, characterised as serious and humorous. In humorous mode, characterised by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh, rationality is suspended in the name of fun where a relaxed attitude does not process as quickly, whether comments are appropriate or not. Humour attracts attention and admiration, delineates social boundaries which however can cause a divide amongst the listeners between what is acceptable or not. Whichever way they are intended, discriminatory comments mould perception, creating a reality from an illusion and in turn producing a culture that is tolerant of hostility and discrimination. This reality is sometimes debated by people insisting that there is no malice intended in such comments and that there should be a light-hearted receptiveness to humour in the workplace.

However, the significant factor about the concept of benign amusement is that it negates the imputed stereotype behind the humour, and at times such humour against individuals or groups can act as a mask for disdain and anger. For example, according to recent studies, making and appreciating sexist jokes is a tacit consent to sexual discrimination, in a context in which the listener’s reaction is not dictated by social norms as it is veiled by humour.

The ability to recognise and reflect on the impact of humour is a sign of awareness and personal growth. As society develops, it is important to remember that we are all free to express our opinions on what is and is not acceptable. There is plenty to laugh at in the world without violating the most basic human value: that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences.

“Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour; a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.” – Aristotle
About the author
Inspired by the quote ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ (Gandhi), Snéha Khilay, Director of Blue Tulip Training, is a specialist diversity and leadership consultant/ trainer working in the UK and internationally. She has provided training and consultancy support to a wide range of organisations over the past 20 years. She has advised Board Members, CEO, Executive Directors and Senior Managers on how to develop a strategic and operational approach to problem solving, particularly in relation to changing stance on cultural diversity, equality and unconscious bias.


  • by Bernie Althofer 5/07/2016 12:38:08 PM

    Two people working side by side can make the same comment in the same group of people, and yet, workers laugh with one of the two, and find the comments made by the other person 'creepy'.

    The article highlights the difficulties facing a contemporary workplace about exactly where the line is, compared to where some people think the line is, and where others believe the line should be.

    The 40 of so years that I have been in and around workplaces have seen an ever changing dymanic regarding the acceptability of some comments, from whom they are made, and to who they are directed. It may be beneficial to workplaces to hold discussions about what is meant by above and below the line behaviours, what they actually look like in real terms, and why people do find some comments offensive, when others view them in a jocular fashion. Some comments are clearly above or below the line, and when 'localised' practices are factored in as part of the organisational culture, what is said is done may be significantly different to what the CEO etc expect as the organisational standards.

    It has been an issue for some considerable time that when below the line comments are made to a group of colleagues or workers, is that if no-one immediately speaks up, they should not be complainer later. For example, I have provided advice to individuals caught up in this type of situation. They did not speak up a the time because 1. they did not know how to raise their discontent in the group 2. they were concerned they would be seen as a troublemaker 3. they were concerned about retribution, victimisation etc for not seeing the 'funny side 4. did not know the organisational procedures for reporting such conduct or behaviour 5. did not believe they would be taken seriously.

    Understanding what is and what is not acceptable in the name of humour is important, so workplaces do need to have discussions about this topic. In most cases, organisations will have a Code of Conduct that discusses respect and dignity, and training is conducted on these aspects. However, some people do not really understand what is meant by respect and dignity. For example, I spoke to an employee who had been conducting a series of workshops about a new Code of Conduct. I asked whether there had been any discussion about 'what is meant by respect' and he responded 'everyone knows what that is'. I went on to outline some situations where I had long and involved discussions where it was clear that all parties held differing views. Again, if people at all levels are being asked to treat others with respect and dignity, they at least need to know what is meant by the terms and what respect and dignity actually looks like.