Humor, Out of Context

One man's humor is another's insult.  Or cruelty

I've seen this principle in action in business repeatedly, and learned the lesson myself -- the hard way.

I had a peer who worked with me at a prior employer who was quite funny.  The problem was, his humor was built on the backs of others on the management team.  Whenever we were together, he was cracking jokes at the expense of whatever executive wasn't in the room.  Everyone would laugh...nervously, and we all wondered what he was saying about us when we weren't present.  When he finally left the company, I didn't miss his acidic wit.

Another peer at another employer was extremely quick-witted.  He always had a smart comment on the tip of his tongue, usually very funny.  Unfortunately, sometimes those quickly delivered remarks would offend.  Eventually, they caught up with him -- he probably ticked off his boss one too many times -- and he ended up being exiled to the corporate equivalent of Siberia.  At least he didn't get fired, which could easily have been the result.

My own bad experience with humor came as a result of a poorly executed practical joke.

My HR manager was working with the Operations VP to put together a list of employees who would have to be laid off -- the result of a large and unexpected downturn in the business, and a grim prospect.  Predictably, the HR manager felt we should select employees for the layoff based on past practice, while the Operations VP wanted to be able to select the weakest performers.  And the two of them didn't get along well, which added to the tension wrapped up in the discussion.

I listened to this argument go back and forth several times, and finally called a meeting to settle it -- just the three of us in my office.  But the HR manager was late.  In his absence, I decided to try to turn the situation into a joke.  It would relieve the tension a bit, I reasoned.

When he walked into the office I closed the door and said:  "Fred, we've decided to eliminate your position.  Joe (the Operations VP) is here to escort you out of the building."

He stood there for about fifteen seconds, mouth hanging open, until I said:  "I'm just kidding."

We all laughed, but his laugh was...uncomfortable, and I could tell he didn't appreciate my attempt at humor.  I considered it just a bad joke, and apologized.

Then I forgot about the incident.

A year later, the HR manager (by then a former HR manager) was suing the company, and one of his central claims related to his "cruel and inhumane treament" based solely on this incident.

Our attorneys told me that while the fifteen seconds of discomfort he'd experienced might have been a small thing, it wouldn't play well to a jury.  Eventually, we had to settle the claim -- which irked me greatly -- and the situation became an embarrassment.

Humor is great in the workplace -- it lightens moods, builds comraderie, and makes the day more bearable.  But it can also be a sharp-edged tool that can bite you quickly if lines are crossed.  My lesson learned:  Think before you Joke.

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If you enjoy the ideas presented in my blog posts, then check out my novels. Corporate Thrillers LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of business.