Workplace humour a mixed blessing

20 April 2017 | Research
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A joke in the workplace could have far-reaching negative consequences, according to a new study

Deviant behaviour in the workplace is no laughing matter and a new study led by Assistant Professor Sam Yam from NUS Business has pointed to a possible cause: a leader’s jokes.

...it is very important for leaders to understand the right — and wrong — ways to use humour in the workplace, so the organisation as a whole benefits

The study surveyed more than 400 full-time employees from companies in China and the US, asking respondents to describe their leaders’ level of humour in the workplace, their relationships with their leaders, their own work engagement and behaviour, and their perception of acceptable misdemeanours.

The results showed that a leader’s expression of humour, particularly “aggressive humour” such as teasing employees, may lead to bad behaviour by signalling the acceptability of misdemeanours within the workplace. Examples of bad behaviour include absenteeism, disobedience, sharing confidential information, falsifying financial claims, or drinking alcohol on the job.

While humour can often be an important and effective tool in strengthening social relationships and motivating employees to become more enthusiastic and productive, the study reinforced the idea that leaders should be mindful of their status as role models and minimise their usage of aggressive humour as their actions serve as cues for employees.

“A joke may start out as ‘just a joke’ but for managers in particular, its impact can have far-reaching consequences…therefore, it is very important for leaders to understand the right — and wrong — ways to use humour in the workplace, so the organisation as a whole benefits,” said Asst Prof Yam.

See press release and media coverage.