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Your job is a joke

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 10:57 a.m. CDT

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

A priest, a rabbi and a kangaroo walk into a bar ...

Oh, you heard it at the office. I’m not surprised. It used to be that if we wanted to hear a bunch of bad jokes, we’d go to a comedy club. Now, all we have to do is go to work.

Take it from Sue Shellenbarger, the Work and Family columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Sue recently published “Secrets of Effective Office Humor.” According to columnist Shellenbarger, the ability to make your co-workers laugh can not only help you succeed at your job, it can also get you a job.

It’s true! The research proves that “employers like to hire people with a sense of humor.” But being funny in the workplace is not all fun and games. “The office can be a comic minefield,” Shellenbarger writes. “Making colleagues laugh takes timing, self-confidence — and the ability to rebound from a blooper.”

(I assume Shellenbarger means it is difficult to make people laugh with you. Making people laugh at you is easy, as you proved on your first day on the job.)

Before you consider if it is the right time to tell a joke, you should first decide if it is the right place.

You know that no one is funnier than an insurance actuary. Yet, consider the case of actuarial funster Fred Kilbourne who “cracked a joke in the middle of a serious discussion by a committee on auto-insurance risk, prompting a fellow participant to say, ‘You know, we’re trying to get something serious done here, and this is not helpful.’”

Poor actuary Kilbourne was shamed into silence. Of course, if this incident happened at your job, everyone would collapse in laughter at the thought that what you are doing is important.

Navigating the dangerous shoals of office humor is a specialty of Michael Kerr, a Calgary, Alberta, humor consultant. “Office jokesters must be ready with a funny comeback if they drop a clunker,” he says. “Making sure they deliver it in a warm, non-sarcastic tone.” Turning the poorly received witticism back on yourself is Kerr’s solution. He suggests language like, “it takes a special human being to do what I just did,” or “This is great. I was feeling a little under-stressed today.”

That kind of subtle, depreciating humor might work in Canada, but not in the U.S., where workplace success demands that you never admit you made a mistake, especially if you have. I recommend a more outer-directed response, like “Are you hard of hearing, or are you just an idiot?” or “Soviet Russia called; they want their sense of humor back.”

Delivered in a warm, friendly tone, these witty comebacks will surely get everyone laughing, though, I have to admit, this technique works best if you’re the boss.

One very effective way to use humor is to “allow people to disagree or deliver criticism in a playful way, without arousing anger or defensiveness.” For example, “A boss might joke with an employee about spending $80 on a hotel minibar during a business trip, making a point while also getting a laugh.”

This subject is definitely comedy gold. I can hear your routine now: “Did you spend the entire $80 on candy bars? Because you sure are fat. And what about those charges for porn on your bill? I didn’t think you’d need to watch porn, considering all the hookers you charged on your expense account.”

No way an employee is going to feel angry or defensive when that barrage of comedy is headed their way, especially you can arrange to have this laugh fest in the presence of employee’s wife.

Personally, my favorite workplace jokester described in the article is Beth Slazak, “whose part-time job in a physician’s office requires taking calls about medical records from people who are often tense and rushed.” To add a needed soupcon of humor to a stressful situation, Ms. Slazak answers the phone with fictitious job titles, like “This is Beth, Office Ray of Sunshine,” or “This is Beth, Zombie Defender.”

As you could expect, Ms. Slazak’s office co-workers think these responses are hysterically funny, though you do have to wonder about how this killer material is received by callers in the midst of a medical emergency. But, hey, why throw cold water on a funny comedy routine, just because someone is having a stroke.

That’s the trouble with people with life-threatening diseases; they just have no sense of humor.

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