No laughing matter

How jokes in the workplace can jeopardize inclusion

How jokes in the workplace can make or break an inclusive culture

Have you heard about those new corduroy pillows? They’re making headlines.

Jokes are powerful. They unite us, creating humorous memories and anecdotes we can treasure for a lifetime. The dictionary definition of a joke is surprisingly broad; “Something that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline.” It covers many bases; from the witty and deadpan one liner, to a prolonged, protracted story where the punchline is inevitably spoiled by a waiter bringing the amuse-bouche. But this broad definition is telling – it doesn’t differentiate between what’s causing the laugh. If it brings a smile, it’s fair game. This puts jokes in a unique position. They can help us foster an inclusive culture. But they can also tear it apart.

Humor can bring teams together. It can create a collective identity, an effective means for getting people to put their individual identities aside and see themselves as a member of a wider group. In turn, this group identity often results in ‘in-jokes’. These further cement the collective identity, bringing diverse people closer together and creating inclusion in a team.

But in-jokes can also shut us out. Many of us have felt it. Is there anything more awkward than being in the company of people sharing in-jokes that have a back story we are not privy to? And it hurts. In fact, it hurts us in the same part of the brain as where we feel physical pain (in the anterior cingulate cortex, since you’ve asked). An exclusive joke is akin to a slap across the face. Something to remember the next time the team welcomes a new joiner…

We can be hurt by jokes in other ways. Our personal identities make the perfect target for jokes from others because of a concept called ‘out-group contrast’ – we put people down if they aren’t in our social groups to help us feel better about ourselves. And this tallies with a key reason why we find jokes funny, as discovered by renowned psychologist Richard Wiseman. He set out on a quest to find the funniest joke, and found many of the top rated jokes make us feel superior to others.

We might laugh when we first hear one of these jokes, but this is usually followed by a wince, a frown or a general feeling of discomfort. This is our unconscious reacting to the slight against an out-group, followed by our conscious realizing social norms, and responding to those. This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance, and will have been experienced by anyone watching an offensive stand-up comedian.

How can we take action when we see someone suffer from a joke? It’s no longer an option to just laugh it off and hope for the best. With a need to be proactively inclusive, reacting to a joke can be the hardest thing to do. We might not want to look ‘politically correct’, preachy, or head of the fun police. Taking action also requires standing up for the minority group against the dominant group – never easy. But if we want to be inclusive, we need to lead from the front.

So what can we do?

Overcoming an exclusive in-joke is easy – simply taking the time to explain is enough. But prejudiced humor is trickier. We have a few options:

  • It’s difficult, but try not to laugh. Laughing validates the joke – by not laughing we immediately side with the person who’s at risk of exclusion.
  • You can choose to communicate the inappropriateness of the joke. The teller may not have meant offence, so simply communicate how it affected you: “I’m sure you didn’t mean offence, but that joke was a bit over the top – it made me feel uncomfortable.” Making it personal makes it meaningful, communicating zero tolerance at the same time.
  • If your unconscious tripped you up and you found yourself laughing at an inappropriate joke, you can still take action. Reflect on the joke and bring in the science: “It has humor because of its shocking nature – but do you think it’s really appropriate to tell it here?”


It was mentioned earlier that Professor Richard Wiseman searched for the funniest joke. He looked across 40,000 jokes, receiving over 1.5 million ratings from the public. Here it is, in all its glory:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

Most people will agree that life is better when we’re laughing. Sparing people from exclusive jokes and bringing people together through an amusing tale or punchy one-liner can make a huge difference to life at work. Just remember the secret of telling a good joke – it’s all about the timing. Avoiding the waiter is a good start.

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