“Are funny people more successful in business?” This was the question asked recently by Forbes columnist Jenna Goudreau. She noted how humor in a work setting can improve morale and foster trust and cohesion among workers. Lawyers, as a general rule, do not get to use humor in their work very often. For business owners, it can be a fine line to walk. Humor can help build a team, but inappropriate humor can drive people apart.
Goudreau quotes psychologist Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., who has studied workplace humor extensively. He lists three ways that humor impacts people: cognitive, emotional, and psychological. From a cognitive standpoint, humor can help put a problem into perspective for employees, and can help people to relate to a difficult issue. Emotionally, humor can supplant stress or frustration. People who effectively use humor often have a better ability to interact and connect with others, which can lead to a more productive workplace. As for the psychological aspects of humor, people tend to work better when they are happy and feel good, and when they perceive their environment as positive.
Of course, not all situations lend themselves to humor, and not all people can effectively use humor. Some issues are too important, and some problems too critical, to lighten with jokes. Goudreau mentions several companies that have successfully incorporated a sense of humor into their businesses and shows how and why it works.
Southwest Airlines is famous for its funny flight attendants. The airline identified a necessary but rather dull feature of commercial flying, the safety instructions, and found a way to make it more engaging for passengers. They did this without neglecting important information and without making light of the serious issue of passenger safety. Another example is Ben & Jerry’s, a company that produces clever and creative ice cream flavors. The unique personalities of the founders became an integral part of the company’s identity.
A business owner or manager must take care to ensure that office humor does not cross a line into harassment, and this can be a difficult task. Each person has a different sense of humor, and what is funny to one person could be highly offensive to another. Attempts at humor should always focus on bringing workers together, not pointing out differences. This is particularly true if jokes relate to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth. Nothing can tear apart office cohesion like issues of harassment or discrimination, and managers must be constantly on watch for this. Humor that leads to legal liability for a business is clearly not worth the trouble.
Humor should also encourage productivity, not distract from it. This can potentially be even more difficult to monitor than concerns over harassment. Companies like Google, which reward employees for productivity with amenities like games and exercise facilities, might offer a good model. A company should always focus on productivity and providing a safe work environment before trying to be funny. Humor can reinforce office cohesion and improve productivity, but by itself it probably cannot create either.
The New York business attorneys at Samuel C. Berger, PC offer fixed-fee packages of legal services to businesses and entrepreneurs who want to do business in New York and northern New Jersey. To speak to a member of our skilled legal team, contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.
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