A little levity Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Employees love a boss who has a good sense of humor and, according to a new survey, most bosses already have a funny bone. Ninety-seven percent of professionals polled felt it is important for managers to be able to laugh at themselves or at difficult situations; and 87 percent of workers surveyed said that their supervisors were, in fact, witty.

The survey was developed by Robert Half International — the world’s first and largest staffing service specializing in accounting, finance and information technology — and included responses from 492 full- or part-time workers 18 years of age or older and employed in office environments.

“The bosses most people enjoy working with know how to laugh and look at the lighter side of things,” says Lisa Morgan, branch manager with Robert Half International’s Akron, Ohio, office. “It’s not only the wittiness that people enjoy, but it is the fact that a sense of humor makes you more approachable and personable.”

Smart Business spoke with Morgan about how work and humor can mix and how levity can be used to build rapport with staff and ease stressful situations.

Why is it important for a manager to have a good sense of humor at work?

If you think of the times when you had to be around a dour-type personality, you already know how difficult it can be to work with someone who never cracks a smile. Approaching someone who is always serious can be difficult. Subordinates are less likely to approach this type of manager to express ideas or ask questions. It is much harder to build rapport with staff if a manager never laughs. Frankly, these people are missing out on a lot of great exchanges with their employees because they are not as approachable as the more lighthearted bosses.

What does a ‘good sense of humor’ in the workplace mean?

When you are defining a ‘sense of humor’ in a boss, it is not someone who is always clowning around, has a roster of good jokes or is always quick and witty. Not everyone has those talents, or is a natural-born comedian. But, a manager with a good sense of humor can appreciate humor in situations or laugh at others’ jokes or humor. Often, a boss can show a good sense of humor without even saying a word, but by simply laughing at a good joke. Bosses with a good sense of humor also laugh at themselves or poke fun at their own foibles.

Can humor be taken too far?

Yes, it can. Managers need to be very careful not to make one person the target of all the jokes. It is okay to make fun of situations or yourself, but not any one person in particular.

There is also a time and place for humor. While injecting a humorous comment in a tense situation is often a welcome relief, there are times when humor is inappropriate. For example: During a serious performance discussion, or in a crisis situation when quick action is needed. The bottom line is that if humor hurts someone, you have crossed the line.

Also, the primary function of the work-place is to get work done. So if someone is cracking jokes all day, he or she is probably not very productive.

Would you consider sarcasm a form a humor that’s appropriate for the workplace?

I think sarcasm is a dangerous form of humor. The problem with sarcasm is that there could be a problem differentiating what a person’s sarcastic comment means, and that uncertainty can put people off. When a person uses a lot of sarcasm, others often don’t know when that person is kidding or serious. So, I would stay away from sarcasm.

Do you have any advice for the overly serious manager?

Our survey indicated that 87 percent of employees said that their superiors had a good sense of humor. For the 13 percent of those bosses with little to no funny bone, I would suggest that they lighten up a little. This doesn’t mean they have to start cracking jokes, but maybe start small by simply smiling at a joke made by a co-worker. You can find humor in almost any situation, and a mutual joke helps a manager build rapport with someone quicker — and helps to gain respect.

LISA MORGAN is the branch manager of Robert Half International in Akron, Ohio. Robert Half International has more than 350 staffing locations in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and offers online job search services at www.rhi.com. Reach Morgan at lisa.morgan@rhi.com or (330) 253-8367.