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happy-sadHumor can be a powerful tool in the workplace. It can increase productivity, enhance creativity, reduce stress, and improve relationships.

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But when it comes to humor, one man’s treasure may be another man’s trash–not everyone shares the same sense of humor. What seems hilarious to one person may seem offensive to another. And that’s the key to addressing inappropriate uses of humor in the workplace. It’s not that all humor is inappropriate, it’s that some of it is.

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So how does one take advantage of all that humor has to offer without being inappropriate? And what should one do to address another person’s inappropriate humor use?

Types of Inappropriate Humor

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Before we get into the how, let’s talk about what makes humor inappropriate. Most humor that will be considered inappropriate for the workplace falls into at least one of the following categories:

  1. Inappropriate Subject Matter – Inappropriate subject matter is typically the most offensive, and can take several different forms. Off-color humor, or humor about very grave public events are both examples of inappropriate subject matter.
  2. Inappropriate Target – Humor that takes aim at an inappropriate target is another common way office humor steps out of bounds. If a person is being made fun of, then the office atmosphere can quickly change from being fun and lighthearted to exclusionary and polarizing, which is inappropriate for any place, not just one of work.
  3. Inappropriate Time – Using humor at an inappropriate time can often be just as upsetting as either of the two preceding categories. Some moments are meant to be serious, and trying to lighten them with humor can come across badly. For example, firing someone is not the time try out your witty one-liner about fire trucks.
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In order to prevent instances of humor being used inappropriately, it’s important to be aware of the motivations behind the incidents. Typically, a lot of good intentions combined with very little situational awareness can lead to issues like these.

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Obviously there are exceptions, especially when inappropriate targets of humor are involved. All of the situations present opportunities to educate employees on what kind of humor is appropriate and useful in the workplace.

How to Handle Inappropriate Humor

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So what do you do if someone says or does something inappropriate?

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We already know that people’s senses of humor are unique, just like their taste buds. A dish that Amy finds bland may be far too spicy for Carl, or vice versa. Similarly, an example of humor that Brian feels is innocuous may be very offensive to Denise.

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Generally, a person who has used inappropriate humor at work and a person who has cooked an unpopular dish have made the same mistake: satisfying their personal tastes rather than considering their audience.

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The key for all instances of inappropriate humor is to educate the person about humor and it’s purpose in the workplace. However, different types of inappropriateness may call for different actions:

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Inappropriate Subject Matter

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If someone is talking about an inappropriate subject (race, gender, math), you can simply tell the person that the subject matter of their joke is inappropriate. However, I think using a Socratic style here can be more effective. Often, simply saying you don’t understand the joke and asking the person to explain it can be very educational for the joke teller.

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Having to step through and parse the meaning of what they’ve said will often be enough to make the joke’s inappropriateness self-evident. If they still aren’t getting it, you can let them know you found it inappropriate after they’ve explained it.

Inappropriate Target

If a coworker is picking on another employee (such as a boss or direct report), letting them know that type of humor makes you uncomfortable is often an effective deterrent. By making fun of someone else, that person is implicitly asking you to mock them as well, simply by laughing. It’s also turning a positive thing like humor into a negative way to insult someone.

By withholding laughter and letting them know you disagree with what they’re saying, you send a clear message that workplace humor should be positive and inclusive.

Inappropriate Time

If a fellow employee attempts humor at an inappropriate time, work with the person to help them understand when it’s best to avoid humor. Not every situation can be improved with humor all the time, and that’s OK.

There are a lot of different situations that come up in the workplace, and they all have their own subtle dynamics. Helping your employees to understand what appropriate office humor is and how to use it to their advantage, coupled with education on what constitutes inappropriate humor, should help foster a happier and more harmonious work environment.

Using Humor Appropriately

So what, then, is office-appropriate humor? The key thing to realize is that humor doesn’t just mean comedy. While it can include jokes that are meant to make people laugh, humor is anything that causes amusement and is different from the norm.

This is good news because it means you don’t have to deliver all of your meetings with the precision and poise of a professional standup comedian (which greatly reduces the chance your coworkers will heckle you during a meeting). Just be creative when it comes to doing your work: start your next meeting by having everyone answer an interesting question or by finding out which Disney Princess you are.

While I could give 101 examples of how to create humor at work, I’ll just say this: given the typical goals of workplace humor (to reduce stress, to lighten the mood and to provide a quick break so people can refocus on a task with fresh eyes) effort will play a much larger role than polish in this type of humor.

Remember, you don’t have to be funny, just try to have fun. You don’t have to be the source of humor for it to be effective, just be the conduit for it. You can skip a lot of the hard work just by showing some office humor during the break at a meeting or retelling a story to a peer.

Andrew Tarvin is a speaker, consultant and author of Humor That Works. For more on how and why to use humor, check out his humor blog or sign up for his newsletter.

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