[Two cents] The fine art of office humour

Getting co-workers to laugh with you, and not at you, requires practice.

Picture this scenario. You are in a meeting, and two of your team members are not seeing eye-to-eye. The tension is palpable and growing by the minute.

One of them makes a slight at the other and you can already see the dissention splitting up the lunch group.

You know this is not going to end well for you, because you like both of them and don’t want to have to pick sides. It just goes against your peace-loving nature.

At this point, you make a split second decision on going “all-in” to diffuse the tension. So you blurt out: “Alright, and the winner is Lim!”


You feel a fever coming. Why is no one reacting? Finally, confusion.  And then a chuckle. Phew.

Nothing is settled yet, but at least the two warring co-workers understand your intention and the mood in the room instantly lightens.

This little story shows how humour can be used as an important conflict remediation tactic.

We’ve all had a boss who delivers bad news deadpan (the punchline-less kind), and another who somehow makes every negative update tolerable because of their charmingly amusing articulation.

The message is still the same, but the person with the lolzy delivery gets the last laugh when everyone melts to their bidding. Cue: evil laughter.

Just in case you’re wondering, I didn’t make this stuff up. A Robert Half survey found that professionals tend to believe colleagues with a good sense of humour are also better performers.

Behavioural experts have also long agreed on the benefits of workplace humour, and here are six vital ones (because listicles make me feel relevant), based on their findings. 

  1. Draws attention to your message
  2. Gets people to listen
  3. Makes your argument more persuasive
  4. Diffuses tension and conflict
  5. Helps workers to bond
  6. Breaks down barriers

But as useful as humour is, there’s a fine line to walk when cracking jokes at the workplace. Too soft and it ends up flatlining, achieving the opposite of the intended effect. Too biting and you might find yourself in a meeting with the HR leader (or yourself) after.

It’s a trade secret among comedians, but being funny tends to only come with lots of practice. Fortunately, there is an art to it, so you too, can get others rolling on the floor laughing, or “ROFLing” as the internet people say.

Think about it, there are many sub-genres of comedy. Satire, slapstick, sardonic...the list goes on. And depending on your office culture, one of these is bound to make at least one person laugh every time... although perhaps out of pity.

Or, you could simply use generic lines that apply in many situations, such as my personal favourite: “that’s what she said” – no one knows why it gets the giggles, but it does.

I personally love a dry one-liner (sarcasm is an HRM Asia specialty), but I can also appreciate the fact that it doesn’t always land well.

Of course, not everyone should try having a go at their co-worker (especially if no one has ever found you funny, not even your mother), but if you still insist on doing it, here’s the first rule of comedy:

Be funny.

Who knows? If you succeed at mastering office farce, you could become the next viral stand-up sensation.

But before I end this elegant prose, here’s an HR-specific joke: “I thought I wanted a career. It turns out I just wanted pay cheques.”

Didn’t laugh? That’s OK. It wasn’t mine anyway.  

The Two Cents column sees HRM Magazine’s Kelvin Ong offer his "#NoFilter" take on the latest HR and business happenings from around the world. Head to the forum now for more of such opinion pieces. 


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