I have been a fan of NBC's popular sitcom "The Office" for quite some time. More than anything, the secret to the show's success is its ability to develop a humorous parody of true life office situations, such as boring meetings, an irrational boss, office politics, competition, even romance. One of the areas the writers work on is humor in the work place. Two situations in particular come to mind: Michael Scott's (the boss) inane ability to tell jokes to his staff, which nobody appreciates, and Jim Halpert's barrage of practical jokes on his nemesis at work, Dwight Schrute (moving Dwight's desk into the men's room was my personal favorite).
In Scott's case, as manager he simply wants to lighten things up in the workplace. Although he genuinely believes he is being witty, he is oblivious to the fact his delivery is not only bad, but his comments are embarrassingly crude and politically incorrect. Although he has the best intentions, his staff is simply shocked by what comes out of his mouth. In other words, instead of easing the tensions in the office, he compounds it.
In Halpert's case, there is considerable tension between Schrute and himself, but because of Dwight's offbeat persona, he makes an easy target for Jim who gets satisfaction watching his foil react to his pranks. This greatly relieves the stress of work, at least for Jim and Pam. However, Jim can become distraught if his practical jokes backfire.
The lesson from both scenarios is there is a fine line between adding levity to the workplace and making matters worse.
There is a trend in management today to promote humor in the workplace in the hopes it will relieve the tedium of work. Although this sounds all well and good, there are also pitfalls. First, not everyone shares the same sense of humor. What one person considers funny may be considered obnoxious or distasteful to another. Second, it is very easy to go over the line and tell a politically incorrect joke, thereby paving the way for a reprimand or, even worse, a lawsuit to be filed against the person, the company, or both.
Sarcasm is perhaps the most common form of humor found in the workplace, but this can get old quickly if done excessively and perceived in a negative context. Imitations of people can be comical, but it also reveals your true feelings about someone, plus, if your target finds out about it, you might earn their wrath or turn a friend into an enemy. To me, imitations of people in the office are the first hint that someone has their foot on a banana peel.
Practical jokes are still around, but not to the degree as exemplified in "The Office." The biggest danger here is if the joke is manifested in front of a prospective or existing customer, thereby affecting business. Company newbies, particularly recent college graduates, beware: be wary of sophomoric hijinks in the workplace. Humor in the office is vastly different than what you experienced in college.
Is there room for humor in the workplace anymore? Yes, the prime intent is to relieve stress, engage the brain, and reinvigorate your coworkers. You should be cognizant though of the fine line between silliness and getting in the way of accomplishing productive work. Like any comedian, you should know your audience and tailor your humor accordingly. No, we no longer live in an era where crude jokes can be openly told in the workplace. We must be careful not to offend, but aside from this, there is nothing wrong with a little levity to liven things up.
And for God's sake, don't try some of Jim's practical jokes at work.