HRVille, part 1: “Show me the funny”

Experts say humour can bring huge benefits to the workplace. In part one of a two-part series, we ask why HR should tap in

In most areas of our lives, we put a premium on being funny. When making friends we’re drawn to those who make us laugh, while in romantic partners we consider it essential – why else are personal ads littered with people boasting about or looking for a GSOH?

Given how much we rate humour in our personal relationships, it is perhaps surprising how little emphasis it receives in the world of work. Despite the ongoing trend for businesses to use humour in their branding and marketing campaigns, most employers still prefer to encourage gravity rather than levity among their staff. After all, while seriousness is associated with safety and credibility, comedy courts controversy.

But, as any great comedian will tell you, being funny does not preclude being serious. And in fact, it seems that employers who are willing to encourage workplace humour could be laughing – if not all the way to the bank then certainly to the top of the best workplaces lists, if a growing body of psychologists and management experts are to be believed.

According to a US study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, humour among employees is associated with a whole range of benefits, from enhanced performance, job satisfaction and workgroup cohesion to decreased burnout, stress and work withdrawal.

The study by the Department of Management at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the Department of Psychology at Florida International University also found that supervisors who use humour are more likely to get better results from their reports, while junior employees are more satisfied with managers who use humour and perceive them to be better performers.

Benefits to morale

Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published last year, agrees that the rewards of encouraging humour in the workplace are clear, most obviously in terms of retaining staff.

“The two biggest predictors of retention are your relationship with your direct supervisor and whether you have a best friend at work. It’s likely that when you enjoy reporting to a particular boss, it’s because he or she shares your sense of humour. And if you have a best friend at work there are probably few people in the world you share a sense of humour with more.”

Another area where a sense of humour comes in handy is L&D. “Trainings are often described as mind-numbingly boring and not something people readily embrace,” says McGraw. “So having trainers who can entertain as well as educate their audience is of great value within companies.”

But for organisations that really make humour part of their DNA there are even bigger rewards to be had, from greater creativity to improved customer service. Crucially, allowing your workforce to tap into their sense of humour can help staff and customers to view each as human beings, with benefits for both staff morale and customer satisfaction.

“There are a lot of companies that employ humorous advertising but that’s where things stop,” points out McGraw. “You have an incredibly funny ad campaign which is helping build your brand, then someone calls your company and has a completely different experience.”

Making it OK for customer service and sales employees to inject humour into their interactions can help solve that problem. And if you expect your frontline staff to use humour as a tool, then it’s only fair to ask the same from your managers, says McGraw.

Stand-up for communication

One employer McGraw believes exemplifies this philosophy is Zappos, the online shoe retailer whose out-there approach to people management – from giving employees a free rein in how they decorate their workstations to holding Tutu Tuesdays and inter-departmental Nerf gun wars – falls firmly into the love-it or hate-it category of comedy [see HRville writer John Eccleston’s critique here].

A company that takes a different, but no less serious, approach to humour in the workplace is the New York-based PR and marketing firm Peppercomm, which requires every one of its 100+ employees to undergo stand-up comedy training, from receptionists to senior managers.

The initiative is the brainchild of the company’s co-founder and CEO, Steve Cody, who started doing stand-up on the side about 10 years ago. Performing in comedy clubs two or three times a week, he started to notice an impact on his day job.

Steve Cody. Image: Peppercomm

“I was becoming a better listener,” he says. “I was understanding how to build rapport with my clients, my prospective clients and my employees. I was really learning how to deal with either a negative reaction in a meeting or, more importantly, a passive reaction or pregnant silence.

“It made me a much better businessperson, in terms of my communication skills and my ability to read non-verbal skills. It also made me a better storyteller, because that’s the key to being a stand-up comedian: it’s not telling jokes; it’s telling stories. So I said to myself, I think my employees would really benefit from this.”

Cody hired his personal comedy coach, Clayton Fletcher, and together they implemented a training programme comprising a half-day workshop in a New York comedy club for about 15 employees at a time, which now runs four or five times a year.

The four types of comedy

The first part of the session is spent discussing how comedy and business intersect. Cody and Fletcher then demonstrate four different types of comedy: observational, anecdotal, act-out and improvisational. Finally, each person is invited on stage to perform a four- or five-minute ‘bit’, which is also filmed.

“Typically we say, we want you to talk about something that really upsets you,” explains Cody. It could be your spouse, your boss, your sports team or your commute to work…. Whatever really makes you angry, come up here and tell us about it, because invariably that’s funny.”

At the end of the session, Cody and Fletcher give immediate feedback on the performance. A week later, Cody goes over the video footage with each person individually to hone in specifically on presentation skills.

While to some it might sound like torture, the response of staff has been almost universally positive, says Cody. “The beauty of it is no one really falls flat. Some people are unbelievably laugh-out-loud funny, some are OK, but what happens in the room is transformational: everybody pulls for everybody else to do well.

“It’s [also] been a great way to find raw talent: superstars we thought were introverts. So many people have been identified for increased roles in client interactions or making presentations as a direct result of this.”

It can even attract staff to the company. “The Millennial generation that grew up going to comedy clubs really like the idea of being trained by a professional comedian and being able to tell their friends they just performed stand-up on Broadway.”

Clayton Fletcher. Image: The Clayton Fletcher Show

Most importantly, the shared experience helps foster a flat company culture where humanity and empathy are demonstrably valued. “Critically, with all of our junior people having seen all of our senior people go through the training with them, we have an open-door policy like you wouldn’t believe. Most of our junior people are not afraid to come to me and say, Steve, have you thought about doing X, Y or Z? Or, I have an idea for a new product or service or whatever.”

The impact on staff satisfaction has also boosted retention rates, says Cody, and in 2012 Peppercomm was ranked number 1 best place to work in NYC by business title Crain’s New York Business in 2012, ahead of around 900 firms including big players such as Microsoft and Oracle.

The initiative has been so successful that Peppercomm now offers comedy workshops as a service to clients ranging from investment banks, defence contractors and pharmaceutical companies to law firms and medical centres. For the most part, the firm is hired by HR managers, says Cody.

Culture change

Bringing humour into the workplace is not going to be for all employers, says McGraw, but it can be a useful tool, whether for getting staff on board with a specific project – the launch of a new product offering, for instance – or for creating an entirely new culture, particularly in new or newly merged companies.

But while the benefits seem clear, successfully cultivating a humorous workplace is no laughing matter. For the averagely amusing or downright dull, being funny is not as easy as the panel on I’ve Got News For You makes it look. At best, humour can fall flat and at worst it can cause offence, potentially leading to all sorts of problems for HR.

To find out how to turn your workplace into somewhere comedy can flourish – without getting sued – check out part two of our series next time.