Class Clowns Rejoice: Being Funny at Work Pays Off

If you’re someone who loves to crack jokes, you know there’s nothing quite as satisfying as making other people laugh with something witty you said. But would you ever attempt it in the workplace? After all, make the wrong joke around the wrong person and you’re suddenly wishing you could command+Z in real life.

It’s true, being funny at work is somewhat risky. But it’s a risk that might very well be worth it. Researchers have found that people who make jokes in professional situations are seen as more competent, confident and higher status than those who don’t—although there are some caveats.

Make ’em laugh

Workplace jokesters be warned: In order to reap the most benefits from your humor, the jokes need to land. Only jokers who actually got laughs were seen as more competent, confident and higher status than serious folks in a study by researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. (The study included several experiments, one of which involved testimonials for VisitSwitzerland. The person whose testimonial was funny—”The flag is a big plus”—was more likely to be picked as the group leader for the next task, based on the joke alone.)

Funny at Work pbs rewireWhy do funny people get pegged as more competent? Well, where confidence goes, competence is thought to follow. And it takes guts to crack a joke.

“Saying (the joke) to begin with does take some confidence—a lot of prior correlational work has associated humor with confidence,” said T. Bradford Bitterly, lead author on the study and a Ph.D. candidate at the Wharton School. “Funny people, we tend to view them as more intelligent and more competent—even in the way we talk about them, we say they’re ‘witty.’

Being able to think of a joke in a given situation requires some level of competence. … I remember Joan Rivers saying she had filing cabinets filled with jokes… but being able to recognize a joke in (a) situation and then recall it takes intelligence and competence.”

So, really, the workplace is the perfect place to make a joke—it’s a setting where being competent is the whole point.

But why bother researching humor in the workplace?

“This is a behavior that pervades our daily interactions,” Bitterly said. “It’s a behavior we really highly value.”

He pointed out that when people search for romantic partners they often list “sense of humor” as one of the main traits they’re looking for in a person.

A lot of work has been done on how the use of humor impacts other social situations, like dating, but this is the first study to examine how it plays in the workplace, Bitterly said.

“It’s not like humor stops as soon as we get to the office,” he said.

What if the joke flops?

If you’re trying to muster the confidence to show your true, hilarious colors in the workplace, you might be worried that telling a bad joke—i.e., one that doesn’t make people laugh—could make you look bad. (And if your workplace is lacking in psychological safety you might not feel comfortable risking a joke.)

Funny at Work pbs rewireLuckily for all of us (because who among us has not told a joke that has bombed?), that’s not the case. This research suggests that even people who tell unsuccessful jokes are perceived as more confident than those who don’t joke at all, and they’re not thought of as any less competent than their more serious coworkers. (But please, get some better material, why don’t ya? I kid, I kid.)

The researchers figured this out by getting people’s reactions to a job interviewee who answered the classic “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question like this: “Celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking me this question.” Groan. In some scenarios, the interviewer laughed (meaning the joke was successful), and in others the interviewer didn’t (meaning it tanked).

Obviously people reacted better to the scenario where the interviewer laughed, but they still saw the jokester as confident when the joke fell flat.

What if the joke is offensive or inappropriate?

So, we’ve learned that using humor in the workplace can make you look competent, and, at the very least, confident. But there are situations where this isn’t the case.

The researchers, inspired by the Justine Sacco tweet disaster heard ’round the world, investigated the consequences of telling an inappropriate and unfunny joke. While people still perceive inappropriate joke tellers as confident, perceptions of their status and competence take a hit. They’re seen as lower status and less competent than serious folks. That’s the case even when the inappropriate joke gets laughs.

“Telling a bad joke is all right, but telling an inappropriate bad joke is quite costly,” study author and Harvard University assistant professor Alison Wood Brooks wrote in Harvard Business Review.

Funny at Work pbs rewireOne of the study’s findings that surprised the research team the most was the magnitude of the inappropriate jokes participants said coworkers had told them while at work, Bitterly said.

“The jokes we tested in the paper are mild compared to some of the jokes” people’s coworkers had told them in real life, he said. Some of them were so bad the researchers didn’t feel comfortable repeating them in full in the text of the paper.

In those cases, “although the (joker) is being perceived as more confident, the signal of low competence and less capability and (lower) intelligence overpowers the benefits of confidence,” Bitterly said. That’s kind of an anomaly. “Although confidence and competence typically move together, here we’re actually seeing them moving separately.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.