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What is Appropriate Work Humor?

Appropriate Work Place Humor Tim Gard

Harnessed positively, good work humor can be a strategic skill and act as a positive factor in communication, morale and stress reduction. However, bad work humor can not only negatively affect morale and communication, it can also result in complaints, civil rights violations, employee dismissal and lawsuits.

So, just what is & what is not “appropriate work humor” in America today?


Tim Gard Defines Appropriate Work Humor

First and foremost, answer the question:  Do you have the right of free speech – at work – in the United States today?

Some of you are shaking your heads and saying no, of course NOT!  But, in fact, the true answer is YES, you indeed do… but within limits!

In America, we all have the “right of free speech”, but we also have the responsibility of free speech, and this responsibility is critical to keep in mind while at work.  Realistically, if say whatever you like, whenever and wherever you like, chances are you will not go to jail… but depending of the intensity, severity and tone of exercising your right to “free speech” at work, finding yourself FIRED could be a consequence.

It’s important that everyone accept our Constitutional Rights, when applied to what we say and do at work, do not supersede another person’s Constitutional Civil Rights of enjoying respect, professionalism and general ‘non-harassment’ or ‘offense’ in their place of business.

I Want Humor In My Workplace!


So, what’s the difference between free speech at work and at home, you ask?

It’s simple…  The right of free speech cannot take priority over your co-workers or employees civil rights – PERIOD.

At home, if a family member, friend or neighbor tells a joke or says something inappropriate to us, we have the ability to simply walk away or leave.

At work, if we suddenly leave a meeting or go home because someone is telling offensive jokes, they consider this “quitting” or an absence without leave (AWOL).

As we all know, you can be sued civilly or criminally for violation of someone else’s civil rights both in and out of the workplace. It’s a fact, WE LIVE IN A LITIGIOUS SOCIETY TODAY.

Twenty years ago, who would have ever believed that a person could purchase a cup of hot coffee at McDonald’s, then drink that hot coffee, burn their lips and proceed to sue McDonald’s–because the coffee was “too hot”–and win a 7 figure settlement?

Who would have ever believed that a burglar could break into your house, attempt to rob you, then fall off your balcony, and YOU are the one who ends up arrested? It is beyond belief, but both scenarios are documented facts. People will sue over almost anything and we must be aware of that… not afraid, but certainly aware.

But AWARE, When Using Humor At Work

Tim Gard Meme - 8 Character PasswordPeople use work humor in many forms such as jokes, memes, cartoons, various internet hosted humor… the list is never ending. However, all this work place humor is brought in with only one filter applied:

It’s Funny.  That’s it… it’s funny and people want to share the laughter with others.

Although this humor may have a positive impact on the workplace, problems arise at work when people either intentionally or unintentionally misuse humor at work.

This misuse can be in the form of unauthorized copies on office equipment, internet misuse, racial jokes and all other things which have potential to infringe on co-workers’ rights.  I offer this simple to follow, common sense rule, for how to find and share “appropriate workplace humor”:

My personal motto is (which NEVER fails!):  
“When In Doubt, LEAVE IT OUT!”

Good & Bad is REAL & Must Be Respected

For the purposes of discussion upon closing, lets simply focus on two fundamental definitions of humor: “good humor and “bad humor”.

Good humor is humor that may come from pain or stress at work, but it does not cause pain or stress at work.

Bad humor is humor that causes pain or stress at work, and can in fact be the cornerstone for creating a hostile work environment.

Simply asking, “Can’t you take a joke?” after bad humor is used does not make it okay that you’ve inadvertently offended someone.  Just always remember, if you have to argue or rationalize to yourself that something may or may not be appropriate at work, chances are it is not, and so… “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Always keep in mind that simply because you think something is funny does not reliably and instantly make it appropriate to share at work.

-Tim Gard, CSP, CPAE

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Fact Sources:  Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants &  UK Daily Mail

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