Dear Dave: It would be an understatement to say that any forms of humor are not allowed where I work. This means we cannot joke around, tell jokes or circulate any “tasteful” cartoons. I like my job, but I hate this culture. Our managers are like slow-moving zombies who maintain only one facial expression, and that is grim and lifeless. Help! — Y

Dear Y: Personally, I cannot imagine a world or a workplace without humor – as long as it is tasteful, appropriate, and is not at the expense of an individual or group. When I was in sales, I found that every one of my customers enjoyed a joke or a pun to varying extents. And the more I got to know a customer, the more I learned about what would make them laugh.

Humor has its benefits at work. Research shows that teams that laugh together are more engaged and creative. I don’t think this research is telling us anything new. Simply, we almost all make friends of the people we work with, and sharing humorous happenings and moments – as long as we don’t put down other workers – are normal and healthy in my estimate.

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We all know that work can be a grind and a stressful endeavor. And there are many managers who just want to see robots performing their duties. This means these managers believe that jokes and laughter are out of place. But these managers must realize that humor can actually help individuals and teams achieve tough, serious goals – it takes some of the stress away. Humor reduces tension and relaxes people. This leads to productivity and happy employees.

So, how do we bring more humor into the workplace, especially in these trying times? First, realize that you don’t have to be a “class clown” or be onstage as a comedian to be funny. Late night talk show hosts get paid to be funny. And realize that people find different things to be funny. Also, people have work to do, and interfering with their concentration will not be popular. Should I say, “timing is everything?

Tasteful humor at work

I have found that everyone is funny in their own way, and that it’s possible to work effectively with a sense of humor – if we learn to use it in constructive ways. And it is fun to make our colleagues laugh by telling a short joke that is well-received. Accordingly, remember what the research shows: People like tasteful humor, as long as it is not hurtful or offensive.

Humor often seems like some mystical thing only found in special, funny people – but the truth is, it is learnable. The trick is to first be effective in your job and then be able to mention some humorous observations that you have made. I believe we like people who can maintain a focus on their work, while they mix in a few humorous remarks. What we don’t like is people annoying us and wasting our time. Again, be careful what you joke about and know when you should make the attempt to be funny. I think we need to bring more humor into our workplaces and let it be part of the culture – and especially now when there is so much indecision going on and nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow. People are tense; and rightly so. They need some distraction and a few laughs. Humor can change someone from being nervous about a situation to being able to relax a bit and take their mind off the tension they feel.

There is a huge difference between having fun and avoiding work. Smart managers let their workers share a laugh that is appropriate and does not disturb the momentum of the work. And managers can even talk about something that happened and was comical at the same time. Starting meetings with a joke or humorous statement sets the stage for a more relaxed meeting. Employees are human after all and need some spark in their work lives. Humor can be that spark.

However, inappropriate wall hangings and disturbing email pictures and messages may be negative violations of peoples’ beliefs and rights. It is growing common to see cartoons and statements that attack political parties and individuals. Some are funny and some are just plain nasty. Unjustified attacks on religions and public figures must not become part of work conversations.

You can also administer “the inappropriate humor test.” If something appears to be an unwarranted violation of someone’s or some group’s identity, rights or beliefs, it probably is inappropriate and should not be circulated. I think we all know when something may be comical but does not pass the correctness test.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.