How Telling Jokes at Work Can Seriously Backfire

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Cracking a dumb joke can help you win at salary negotiations, but once you actually land the gig, maybe proceed with caution — unless you know without a shadow of a doubt that you’re really, truly funny. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and highlighted by BPS Research Digest, telling jokes at work is a pretty big gamble. Done right, it can score you some social points with your colleagues, but done wrong, it can put a big dent in your workplace reputation.

To kick off the study, the authors first recruited 457 volunteers to rate the funniness and appropriateness of nine different jokes, each of which was presented to the participants within a story about a workplace exchange. Then, over several experiments, they strategically employed the funny and unfunny jokes to see how each type affected the joke-teller’s image. In one experiment, volunteers heard customer-service testimonials that had been written for a fake company, with instructions to rate how confident they believed the author of each one to be; overall, including jokes in the testimonials led to a higher rating, regardless of how appropriate they were. The same thing happened when participants read stories describing a job interview, plus a little extra: When the interviewee used humor, they came off as more self-assured, more competent, and of higher status than when they played it straight.

That is, when they used humor successfully. A well-executed joke was always a boon to the teller. But when the joke failed, one of two things happened. If it was just harmlessly unfunny, the person who told it was no worse off than before. If it was tasteless or inappropriate, though, their status actually decreased, and made them seem both incompetent and overly confident — not a good look on anyone.

“Attempting to use humor is risky,” the authors concluded, arguing that it “plays a fundamental role in shaping interpersonal perceptions and hierarchies within groups.” When a joke falls flat, in other words, the repercussions can last well beyond the awkward moment that follows. When in doubt, maybe think twice about that pun.

How Telling Jokes at Work Can Seriously Backfire