Careers

Want to get ahead at work? It can pay to be funny

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock
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Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock

In every social group, people fit into a status hierarchy. The workplace is no exception. Many try to climb the status ladder by logging long hours, volunteering for additional assignments and dressing for success.

But there might be an easier way: being funny.

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A recent study titled "Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status" found that a good sense of humor improves professional status at the workplace. People perceive funny colleagues as more competent and confident than serious or boring colleagues — if humor is done the right way. Other findings include:

  • Humor attempts, both successful and unsuccessful ones, increase perception of confidence.
  • Only the successful humor attempt that elicits laughter increases perception of competence.
  • Telling an inappropriate joke makes a joke teller appear more confident, but less competent and decreases status.
  • An effective joke teller is more likely to be chosen as a group leader.

"Humor is often viewed as a frivolous or ancillary behavior. As we show, it is not. It is quite serious," said Maurice Schweitzer, one of the study's researchers and a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Humor leads to higher status, but it can work the other way, too. Greater status gives license to joking. Higher-status individuals within organizations have the luxury of making jokes comfortably and face lower risks. "The higher you are, the harder it is to get fired," said Peter McGraw, an associate professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Sean Joyce, a D.C. comedy promoter, warms up a packed house during a recent show at the Big Hunt
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Sean Joyce, a D.C. comedy promoter, warms up a packed house during a recent show at the Big Hunt

A failed joke greeted with cold reaction is not only embarrassing but can also hurt a career. At the workplace, "even short of getting fired, making inappropriate jokes or being seen as unserious can certainly prevent you from advancing," said Sean Joyce, a comedian and producer at Underground Comedy based in Washington D.C.

Properly used humor serves many good purposes. It builds relationship among employees or with bosses, helps workers maximize their innovative thinking, defuses tension and stress, increases productivity and makes people happier, according to Rue Dooley, a human resources knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management and a stand-up comedian in Washington D.C.

Having colleagues with a good sense of humor is a recipe for a positive working atmosphere, McGraw said. "People want to have fun; they want to smile and laugh. Would you rather go to a meeting with some laughter or nothing?"

Dave Chappelle
American Broadcasting Companies | Fred Watkins | Getty Images
Dave Chappelle

Although a talent in making others laugh is a valuable social and professional tool, it is not relevant to everyone. Jobs that involve people-to-people interactions, such as customer service and human resources, need employees with strong interpersonal skill and humor, but not so much for other positions, such as computer programming, McGraw said.

And being funny doesn't mean you'll succeed at work. Some people in executive positions are not the funniest people, but they are charismatic and good at their job, Joyce said.

The study's author suggests that employers take into consideration job applicants' sense of humor. "Companies hire, train and promote people based upon a set of criteria. Sense of humor should be in that set," Schweitzer said.

Not everyone agrees. "Everyone has a different sense of humor, so hiring managers could run the risk of letting their personal biases and humor preferences impact their judgment of the candidate," said Ketti Salemme, a senior communications manager at TINYpulse, a human resources software company.

Kathleen Carroll, director of talent acquisition for North American Operations at Amazon.
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Kathleen Carroll, director of talent acquisition for North American Operations at Amazon.

Amazon is one of the companies that values employees who demonstrate curiosity and a sense of fun. "We always love bringing on people who seek out the positive and can make others laugh along the way," said Kathleen Carroll, director of talent acquisition for North American Operations at Amazon.

She said her boss surprised employees at a meeting by showing up dressed as an elf. "I love going to work every day because of both the passion of my peers and how much fun they bring to the office," she said.

For those who want to nurture their sense of humor at work, psychology professor McGraw, communications manager Salemme, HR expert Dooley and comedian Joyce share some advice:

Six tips on being funny at work:

  1. Know your audience. While a risqué joke might work with a trusted coworker, it might not be appropriate with your boss or new colleagues.
  2. Know the right timing. In the office, humor is a temporary distraction. You have to learn how to determine when to get a laugh and when to get serious.
  3. Stick to what you know. Don't joke about subject matter you are not familiar with because you have a higher chance of offending someone who knows more about it than you do.
  4. Stay away from sensitive topics. Among them: politics, race, religion, gender, disability, age, diet, physical appearance, hygiene and economic status. "Office is not open mic night, and everyone has different tolerances and views on what types of jokes are appropriate or not," Salemme said.
  5. Use a gradual, trial-and-error method. Try your most harmless jokes with people you're closest to. If they laugh, then expand and take more chances. Humor is all about reaction; if people like it, then you're on the right track, but if you're getting side eyes, tone it down.
  6. Use self-depreciating humor. Target yourself and leave others alone. Downgrading other people for laughter is dangerous and may come off as offensive. But keep a balance because excessive self-deprecating humor may invite unwanted sympathy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY.