I had this strange experience the other day: years ago I had put in a requirements document a requirement that the team would deliver a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a system we were building. Those who have read system requirements document know how boring they are - I thought I'd add a little levity in what is normally a mind numbing process. What was interesting was the reaction: my peers got a chuckle out of it and moved on, never thinking twice about it. The higher up the management chain, it wasn't so funny. In fact just the other day a high level manager was talking to a group of folks and brought this up as an example of unprofessional behavior. My reaction was: this happened five or more years ago and this guy is still concerned about this?

This isn't an isolated case either, I've got other examples where someone was being funny and it was the peers that laughed and moved on, while the management got concerned. I'm not talking about dirty jokes, racial slurs, etc.

Is this a DISC model thing where most people higher up are D's and they don't react well to humor? Is there some unwritten professional code of conduct that says there are guidelines for humor in the work place - who to joke around with, who not to, kinds of humor? Is it okay to be funny? Is it just that there are those kind of people who aren't into humor, don't worry, just be yourself? Should I apologize to the manager?

I can't believe I'm asking this - sounds pretty stupid - but when a manager has negative memories that last more than five years, maybe I'm missing something.


TomW's picture
Training Badge

Maybe because I'm a high D, but I believe written humor has no place in management or professional practice. To management, humor in a deliverable is something that could tick off a customer, invite a lawsuit, or lose a customer.

I think humor requires vocal delivery, and even then in non-professional situations like the lunch room, the water cooler, and after-work parties.

ccleveland's picture

BLUF: Humor is fine… Humor in written communication is not a good idea.

With humor, you always have to consider the recipients. In the case of something that’s in a document and passed around via e-mail, you have no idea who’s going to see it. In the context of your meeting, everyone thought it was funny, but elsewhere, someone didn't appreciate your humor.

Like Tom, I tend to be pretty straight forward most of the time; however, I don’t mind it when one of my team members is joking around…as long as they’re professional and effective when they need to be.

Several corporations have had significant legal trouble because of “alternate” interpretations of humorous intent. I can name one company in particular. That particular company now has required training for all of its many thousands of employees explaining the need for good business communication practices.


WillDuke's picture
Training Badge

I LOVE humor. I joke around all the time. I abhor it in written documents. I hate it in employee manuals.

Have you ever met someone who just can't tell a joke? Their timing is never right. They always slaughter the punchline. That's what humor's like in manuals. It just isn't funny.

Interestingly, I laughed when I read you post about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That delivery method worked.

How about making it an inside joke? Start each bullet point with a letter and spell out peanut butter and jelly. People on your team get it. They remember all the steps, thy spell out peanut butter and jelly, and people who aren't in on it don't notice. You'll have to get creative writing it, but then you could have your cake and eat it too.

I'd leave out the overt jokes.

asteriskrntt1's picture

Humour has no written rules, just organizational norms. Many of us have heard lots of stories of how MicroSoft coders put various mini programs into Windows or Office and if you found the magic keystrokes, weird things would pop up.

Until recently, Google maps had a fun quirk in its directions feature. One could put in a start point of say New York City and an end point of Paris. It would give you detailed directions to get to the ocean, then instruct you to "Swim 4,934 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to France." Sadly, they have taken that little bit of comedy out of the system.

Generally, the bottom line is go verbal.


jhack's picture

I'm not sure how to respond to this thread except with random thoughts.

Of course humor belongs in the workplace. It's an essential part of human interaction.'s a minefield due to differing norms, etc. (I promise no digressions into the theory of humor unless forced to do so...).

Racial, ethnic, gender etc jokes - bad idea. Jokes at someone else's expense - bad idea. Laughing at shared tribulations - can be good.

Gut check question: could a customer or employee or anyone at all find it offensive?

Better spoken than written, perhaps, but it's the content that matters.

I use humor, both written and spoken. Less so written, due to my uncertainty about how it will be read in Germany, Shanghai, or Bangalore.


kddonath's picture

The humor example I gave above was internal and no external customers were involved - I agree with the statement that humor with a client or customer is probably a bad idea unless there is a special relationship.

Interesting comment about written vs. verbal. I work almost exclusively virtually with team members and lots of the communications is written.

I have three interesting humor examples, each with a good size sample set (10-15) people and the reactions have been very interesting - these examples had no ethnic, crude or derogatory content:

- I was surprised when people where thankful for the humor, saying that they were having a bad day or were ticked off and the humor helped them. It wasn't just comic relief for them, it was helpful. Mark/Mike usually emphasize: does this action help the performance of the team? It seemed to in these cases.

- In ever case any manager involved either took it more seriously than intended (that in and of itself was pretty funny) or said that it was inappropriate.

A colleague made the following observation: higher in the organization power is very important. Any humor written down could be used by other power players who have an axe to grind. I wonder if that's true.

cwatine's picture
Training Badge

Well, I am supposed to be a high D and I think work would be such a pain wihout humor ! Humor is like oil in the engine ... Or salt in your meals ... Or vine on the table ... Or color on a picture ...

I really don't understand why humor should not be used in verbal or in written communications, or should only be for internal ... I even think that using a little bit of humor helps you selling, most of the time. And I think no humor in a group is generally a VERY bad sign.

At the same time ...

- [b]The humor you put in your communications should not be the purpose[/b] of the communication, but just way to ease the process. If it decreases clarity, then it is bad. (I would be carefull with Duke suggestion ... If you are not VERY GOOD at it, you risk adding bullets just for the fun !)

- [b]Humor is really a cultural issue[/b]. I know from experience that English humor is not very appreciated by German. But as a French, I just love it. So there is always a risk ...

- [b]Some people don't like / don't understand humor[/b], so when you use it in your external communication, you know that some customers won't like it. But, Hey ! Just as Seth Godin would say, it is just an excellent way to be remarkable ! It is just a choice. Being remarkable is a risk.

[i]If I can give an example : We had a humoristical new year card, showing our employees in funny situations.
Nearly all of our customers just loved it and called to contragulate us. One sent it back to me with a post it on it saying "it is stupid and you are
lying about our performances"
Oh yes : we had a picture showing one of our employees with 6 arms ... And an other one showing our overweight-sales-guy flying in the air like Superman.
Or was he making humor (third degree) ?
Well I don't know and I don't regret it one second. Anyway, his orders did not decrease ...[/i]

- As usual, if you [b]pay attention to the other person[/b], you know if she will appreciate or not humor. [b]Don't generalize things[/b] : "D don't like humor", "top managers dont like humor". It is just untrue, and this is not how we should use DISC. Maybe this manager just has something against you and uses this to punch you, as he would use any other reason.

So, I don't think there is any relation between being profesionnal and making humor. I even know that humor is an excellent way to decrease your stress ... Better than sports. It is proven.

And ... The MT podcasts I prefer are those when Mark and Mike make jokes. What about you ?

Continue to have fun.

corinag's picture

I was reading about the Seattle Fish Market. I first heard about them in a little moralizing book called Fish!, but researched it afterwards, and it appears that it is a workplace in which humor works. So maybe no humor is not the way to go.

I guess there would be rules about it though. Or steps. But it takes a podcast to learn them :-)

lazerus's picture

Rather than being amusing, some humor is seen as making a mockery of things the company takes seriously. So, is it worth a good laugh at the expense of your professional reputation with your boss?

Personally, I thought the peanut butter sandwich joke was pretty funny... :twisted:

slymcmosa's picture

I agree with lazerus about the potential for perceived 'mockery'. I would say that at any time you use humour in the workplace, you run the risk of giving someone the impression of disrespect.

Humor is all about surprise and a lack of control. That is why we seek it out. It is easy to see how some people might regard that as opposition to what they are doing as 'managers' or 'leaders'. Humor relies on, as comedian Lewis Black states, nothing being sacred. To some people deeply invested in the people and organization they lead, some aspects of the business operations are almost sacred.

At the very least humor can be seen as unpredictable, and that is exactly what many managers are most trying to avoid.

I'd also like to point out that there is no common sense equivalent of inoffensive humor. So the subject matter is irrelevant. Any on at any time can find offense at humour. Think of a PC enthusiast seeing a Mac advertisement.

So you can always offend. Even not getting a joke can rub someone the wrong way, and is a form of offense. Sure they could choose to not be offended, but you can choose to not give them the opportunity to be offended.

If it is important to you, I would seek out a company that has an atmosphere for humour. The same way you would prioritize any other aspect of a company’s culture.

xaniel2000's picture

The first thing to consider before using humor: [b]Know your audience.[/b]

I've had to write several technical manuals for software processes (internal use only) and I use humor extensively for enhancing the content. It's always been well-received and appreciated because I know the readers and they know me; there's already an established relationship of jokes and interaction. Since we know each other and I feel that I'm subjecting them to awfully boring material, I spice things up with a few peanut butter sandwich jokes, and that in turn helps keep them awake and turning the pages.

I think humor has its place in written materials, but it's obviously very sensitive to inappropriateness.

tcomeau's picture
Training Badge

When I put humor in documents, I usually make it separate. Early in my career I ran across a technical manual where each chapter had a separate, short paragraph that included something related to, but not part of, the chapter subject. (Sometimes pithy, sometimes funny, often a classical reference.)

I try to include a little humor, though I tend to put it in chapter headings or in footnotes. (My wife, an attorney, learned humorous footnotes from an appellate judge with an awful predilection for puns.)

But as others have pointed out, know the audience, and the situation. If you're doing a plan for a project manager with no sense of humor, skip the jokes. And for sure no off-color jokes!


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge


I think a lot of senior people DO react negatively to some simple humor.

Some of that is risk aversion - they fear that being seen as laughing at a joke might embolden someone with LESS sensitivity to throw in a joke that was in poor taste.

I understand the risk aversion - senior execs see a LOT of dumb stuff, and stuff done poorly, and they often think, "no wonder stuff isn't done well - they're sitting around making up jokes!"

This is not to say I agree with what is. I like humor. But I would pause if I read it in a document...because of the risks of it spreading and creating a problem. Stupid people tell stupid jokes, and stupid jokes nowadays are actionable.

If I were mentoring you, I'd probably call you and say, "Nice one, dude! And your back there. We have to live in the workplace that is, and if the only exposure you get to my peers is that joke circulating, it might make things a little harder...(even if I spoke up for you and told my peers to get a life.)

Humor tends to lose its crispness with distance (and crispness is important in humor, in my experience.) So, since you can't control the distance a written joke will travel, it's probably best to behave with caution there.

I would've laughed, no question.


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

I meant to add that the vast majority of humor I hear these days - particularly television and stand up comedians - is pejorative.

But self deprecation is almost always tolerated. Coming from a manager, it's a breath of fresh air.


dhkramer's picture

All of us think we're funny.

Unfortunately, half of us are below average.

In a room, the humor-challenged among us can hear the other people laughing and recognize that they shouldn't be offended.

Doesn't work so well in email or tech manuals.

Be careful.