Humour at work – managing the risks without being a killjoy

[Australasian Law Management Journal,Compliance & Risk Management,General Management,People Management(HR)] July 16, 2018

It comes in many forms and can be a valuable way to break down barriers and lift the spirit of teams, but a true understanding of humour and how it can affect people within a law firm is essential, writes Ronwyn North.

What is your approach to humour at work? Does your law practice have a sense of humour, a collective funny bone that is a hallmark of the firm?

Humour in the workplace can be a minefield. A joke goes wrong and ruins a reputation. Banter becomes a claim of harassment, bullying, discrimination or defamation. A prank turns out to be anything but harmless.

In many instances, the damaging consequences of inappropriate humour are entirely predictable and preventable, but not if insufficient attention has been paid to the corrosive currents and undercurrents of humour as part of the culture of the firm. However, attempting to ban humour at work is neither desirable nor possible, so what is the solution?

There may be no clear line between appropriate and inappropriate humour in every circumstance, but all firms can do more to ensure that acceptable and unacceptable humour at work is better understood, better practised and better controlled.

Understanding humour

Humour is a cognitive concept that involves our mind finding something funny or not funny. These thought processes can be conscious or unconscious, deliberate or spontaneous. Humour can also be regarded as a language. We express humour to each other in our words, pictures, sounds, gestures, behaviour and reactions. Like other forms of language or communication, the meaning of humour can be shared or incomprehensible, appreciated or misunderstood, used or misused to achieve a particular purpose.

Like it or not, what we find funny or unfunny reveals something about how we think, feel and make sense of the world. This is because, like other thought processes, our sense of humour or lack thereof is shaped by a mix of internal and external factors such as intelligence, education, cultural and social norms, life experience and cognitive bias, along with those mental shortcuts and habits of mind which predispose us to think, feel and react in certain ways.

Given this complex web, we should not be surprised that senses of humour can vary from person to person, from group to group and from time to time. What is regarded as funny and socially acceptable to one individual or group at any point in time might be unfunny and unacceptable to another individual or group at another time. We see this in sharp relief in arguments about ‘political correctness’ in relation to acceptable and unacceptable humour about gender, race and disability.

Styles and types of humour – which ones do you recognise?

Within the western cultural tradition, a sense of humour is viewed as a positive, attractive and desirable characteristic in a mate, romantic partner, sports coach, supervisor and leader. However, the scene is set for conflict in relationships because what constitutes a good sense of humour can mean different things to different people. It turns out that there are different kinds of humour and people have stronger dispositions towards and preferences for some types over others. Understanding these different styles and types of humour can help people contemplate the risks and reduce the potential for conflict. As you read on, reflect on how many of these different styles and types you recognise in yourself and your colleagues.

Psychologist Rod Martin is credited with identifying four styles of humour: affiliative, aggressive, self-enhancing, and self-defeating.

1. Affiliative humour focuses on common or shared experiences, bringing people together and enhancing relationships. It is inclusive and might involve jokes, banter or observations about everyday situations to which everyone can relate. Affiliative humour aims to offend no one.

2. Aggressive humour involves insults, putdowns, teasing, ridicule and jokes at the expense of others. Some comedians have elevated aggressive humour to an art form; think John Cleese as Basil Fawlty or the late Joan Rivers. Aggressive humour may well be accurate and astute, but it is unkind. As a tool of bullies, aggressive humour can be discomforting, alienating, and psychologically distressing for targets and bystanders alike.

3. Self-enhancing humour is described as being able to laugh at yourself or making yourself the target of humour in a good-natured way. It can be a healthy reaction to finding yourself in a difficult or stressful situation.

4. Self-defeating humour is described as putting yourself down in a ‘poor me’ situation to gain approval of others. This type of self-deprecation can be an unhealthy defence mechanism to bullying: I will put myself down before someone else does it.

Other approaches to humour include physical, bodily, topical, wordplay and dark. As with the styles of humour mentioned above, these types of humour can be practised with good intent and to good effect, or with bad intent and to detrimental effect.

Physical humour

Physical humour includes pratfalls and pranks. For reasons yet to be fully understood but probably related to promoting feelings of superiority, laughing at other people falling over and being tricked remains a universally popular form of humour.

TV shows such as Australia’s Funniest Home Videos provide examples of physical humour, as do clowns or ‘clown doctors’ who bring laughs to children in hospital. ‘Pranking’ is more controversial and many a workplace prank has gone wrong, causing physical or psychological injury. It is one thing to send the new apprentice to buy a can of striped paint, or to tell a new articled clerk to phone Mr I. Dunnit about a criminal matter; it is another thing altogether to lace a beer with spirits or start a false rumour. However, not all pranks are bad. Law firms have been known to prank clients in the form of an actor playing a bad waiter at a function, for example.

Bodily humour

Bodily humour includes sexual and toilet jokes. Once viewed as the province of men and boys, in the age of equality and ‘raunch culture’ women and girls are catching up. What is a normal sense of humour to some people is crude, crass, disrespectful and offensive to others.

Topical humour

Topical humour makes a point or observation about current events and can take many forms: sketch or stand-up comedy; political satire; a comment in a conversation, presentation or email; or a humourist’s essay or cartoon. While topical humour can seem spontaneous, it is often studied or deliberate and requires a thorough knowledge of the subject and a talent for humorous spin. Conflict arises when some people feel certain topics are off limits or taboo; for example, making fun of God.


Wordplay is the witty use of language such as a clever turn of phrase, an apt analogy or metaphor, a pun, double entendre, or sarcasm. ‘Dad jokes’ and ‘Legal Latin’ jokes anyone? Wordplay is an intellectual humour and not everyone is as intellectual or as well educated as lawyers, so wordplay humour can alienate an audience. Wordplay can also easily cross the line into aggressive humour.

Dark humour

Dark humour is also known as black or gallows humour and makes light of misery and misfortune, or it puts a comic spin on something inherently serious or sad. Dark humour can be very confronting if you are not used to it or expecting it. However, it has a useful function in helping to relieve tension and make sense of an awful situation. Every occupation tends to have its version of dark humour and lawyers are no exception. Lawyer jokes can be a manifestation of dark humour, especially if lawyers are doing the telling.

Promoting a culture of positive humour

The nature, incidence and dynamics of humour in the workplace are worthy of serious attention. How much do you know for sure about the culture of humour in your workplace and whether it is positive or negative? Do you really know the buzz at the bottom, the mood in the middle and tone at the top? Here are some steps you might take towards ensuring a culture of positive humour in your workplace.

1. Become self-aware. Notice and reflect on how you experience humour at work. Are you the humourist, target or bystander? What is your preferred style of humour? What do you make light of, laugh at or object to? How do others react to your humour?

2. Do your homework. Inform yourself about how your workmates use humour and what others find funny. Observe, listen, read and ask questions about what gets said and done in the name of being funny. Notice who are the clowns, the word wits, the butts of jokes. Notice whether people use humour as a shield, weapon, bridge or wedge to spotlight or obscure an issue? Take a temperature check on team dynamics. Notice if group humour is kind or unkind, warm or cold, inclusive or exclusive. Ascertain if there are instances or patterns of humour that you consider to cross the line of appropriateness. If so, what happened? Did it get called out; do people feel safe to speak up? Did it cause harm to individuals or the law practice?

3. Raise the issue. Find opportunities for conversations about humour at work. Get people talking about workplace diversity and the potential for different groups to clash funny bones such as groups by gender, age, position and nationality.

4. Consider potential risk areas. Do the biggest risks of inappropriate humour lie with particular people or practice groups, interactions with clients or other third parties, internal or external communications or presentations, in work time or after hours?

5. Get consensus. Hopefully you will have ready agreement about values such as respect and inclusion, but is there agreement about how these values are manifested or not in workplace humour? For example, is it clear what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable humour, how appropriate humour will be encouraged and how inappropriate humour will be dealt with? Remember, what gets tolerated says a lot about who you are and the culture of the place.

6. Educate before you enforce. Disposition towards positive humour can be learned and towards negative humour unlearned. Provide feedback and counselling. People sometimes need to have unacceptable humour and its impacts pointed out to them, particularly if their humour derives from unconscious bias. Equip people to avoid and deal with inappropriate humour. For example, discuss topics or provide guidelines on cross-cultural humour, how to use humour in presentations, what to do if humour is making you uncomfortable or distressed. Ensure people know that inappropriate humour can cause harm and trigger legal liability. Be clear about reporting lines and consequences for those who break the rules or fail to support firm values.

7. Walk the talk. Humour at work affects everyone one way or another, so the expectation should be that all stakeholders practise appropriate humour. However, leaders have a special responsibility to role model appropriate humour. In case your leaders need persuading, you might let them know that in western cultures, leaders with a good sense of humour are perceived as more motivating, intelligent, competent and desirable to work for!

Finally, people who say they are relaxed by humour and can have a laugh at work believe they are more productive. In fact, the jury is still out on the exact causal or correlative relationship between good workplace humour and an improved bottom line. However, productivity aside, appropriate humour at work can help grease the wheels of the daily grind, unite and engage people, defuse difficult situations and enhance workplace relationships and reputations. Surely these are benefits worth aspiring to and fighting for.

Safe practice!

Ronwyn North is the managing director of Streeton Consulting and a qualified lawyer who specialises in consulting to the legal profession on practice management issues, including risk management. She can be contacted at