HRVille, part 2: “Comic effect”

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” said the veteran actor on his deathbed.

Exactly which actor first said this oft-quoted phrase is an ongoing source of debate among comedy aficionados (Edmund Kean and Edmund Gwenn are both contenders). But anyone who’s ever had a joke fall flat can relate to the sentiment.

In the workplace, comedy is not just hard: it can be a minefield. But for HR people willing to negotiate it, there can also be great rewards, as outlined in part one. But where to start?

According to Peter McGraw, 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, one of the most obvious ways to cultivate a humorous workplace is to hire funny people.

“Southwest [Airlines] does this,” he says. “They’re very interested in finding people who are cheerful, who laugh easily and are comfortable interacting with customers in a way that is humorous.”

Making this work, however, requires more than just trotting out the hackneyed “Tell me a joke” question in the face-to-face interview.

Southwest executives dress up as The Beatles for Hallowe’en.

Instead, you should think about “good behavioural interviewing techniques [where you put people in situations] where they’re interacting with others and see how effectively they use [humour as a] tool,” says McGraw.

Funny stories

The next step is to give staff permission to express themselves humorously, whether to colleagues, customers or both. This doesn’t mean that everyone is expected to be constantly delivering killer one-liners or engaging in witty repartee.

“It’s not about cracking jokes,” says Steve Cody, CEO of New York-based PR and marketing firm Peppercomm, which requires all its employees to undergo stand-up comedy training with a view to unleashing their comedic talents.

“It’s about telling stories. It’s about understanding that it’s OK to talk about something funny that happened to you last night or on the way into work. It breaks down silos and really encourages a fun, open kind of exchange.”

In addition to these day-to-day interactions, the fortnightly staff meeting at Peppercomm ends with an open invitation for employees to come up and talk about something funny that has happened to them recently.

When and where appropriate, employees are also free to inject humour into presentations or client meetings.

Benign violations

If you’re going to actively encourage staff to use humour, however, some kind of training around how and when to do so is a must.

“Part of the problem with allowing or encouraging employees to be humorous is that although they’re very experienced with comedy they don’t really understand it,” says McGraw.

“That is a matter of giving people a framework for understanding [how] humour attempts can fail. The fact is, there are vast differences in what people find humorous. One of the challenges with humour is that while one person is laughing another can be offended.”

Above all, there must be very clear boundaries. “Some things need to be off the table,” says McGraw. “No matter how skilled the joke-teller, there is a normal list of things that are not appropriate in the workplace, and you know that list: gender, race, religion and so on.”

The good news is that your average workplace provides plenty of other opportunities for comedy. “The roots of humour are actually in potentially negative occurrences – what we call violations,” says McGraw.

“Humour arises from benign violations: things that are wrong yet OK; things that are confusing that make sense; things that are threatening but safe. Well, guess what? A workplace provides plenty of those things.”

Of course, even with clear boundaries, there is still scope for humour to go wrong, which is why any training should include an explanation of why this happens and how to behave when it does, says McGraw.

“[Training] can lead to greater empathy, so the person that tells the well-intentioned joke can understand why it falls flat and can rectify the situation. Oftentimes, the problem is not that someone tells a joke that other people are upset by. It’s the subsequent behaviour, where one person says, ‘Well, that person can’t take a joke!’ and the other person says, ‘Oh my God, that person is so incredibly insensitive!’”

On the other hand, if the joke-teller shows empathy with the person who is offended – and apologises quickly – the situation can not only be diffused but also turned to advantage.

“Just like when you repair a really bad customer service experience, it can actually improve the relationship,” says McGraw.

If enough time is spent on this in training, problems should be self-correcting, agrees Cody, citing an example from his office a couple of years ago.

“We had a softball team and this particular afternoon it just started pouring rain. This guy sent an email to the entire agency saying, ‘I’m really upset tonight’s softball game is being postponed because I was looking forward to seeing all the girls in wet T-shirts.’

“It was completely inappropriate, but I didn’t have to say anything; the human resources people didn’t have to say anything.

“A couple of our other junior people walked over to him and said, ‘What you just did is completely out of bounds.’ And he immediately sent an apology to the entire agency.”

But if you’re worried that specific staff will never get it, a selective approach to training might be worth considering, says McGraw.

“There are people that are highly skilled, and those people could go from being pleasant to being funny and you could reap the benefits. But there are other people who are under-skilled, and those people could go from being boring to being boorish,” he says.

How to be funny at work

Want to introduce humour into your workplace without giving yourself a headache? Learn and impart these golden rules.

  • Know your audience

Stick to topics co-workers or clients can relate to. “I do a lot of observational humour about my travails with United Airlines and storytelling about my 92-year-old father who smokes pot to help with his glaucoma,” says Cody. “I’m a mountain climber, but I don’t do any comedy about mountain climbing because my audience can’t relate to the subject.”

  • Punch up not down

Comedy can either punch up or punch down. “Within business you have to be very cautious about punching down – that is, making fun of or teasing lower-status employees,” says McGraw. “Jokes should be made at the expense of supervisors rather than reports.”

  • Find a common enemy

“One of the things that’s nice about business is that everyone’s on the same team,” says McGraw. “So if you work at Pepsi, you should encourage people to make jokes about Coke. Folks have a common enemy and it’s these shared experiences that unite people.”

  • Be self-deprecating

It may be counter-intuitive in a work setting, but if you’re a manager, making jokes about yourself can make you more approachable. It’s also a great way to be funny. “Pointing out what’s wrong with yourself is almost the definition of a benign violation,” says McGrew.

  • Play it safe

If you’re not sure how a funny story or joke will play out, don’t share it. “Our motto is: If in doubt, leave it out,” says Cody.