Humor and diversity in the workplace

John Okamoto
Chief Administrative Officer
Port of Seattle
Seattle, Washington
APWA Director-at-Large, Transportation

Appropriate humor in the workplace is a quandary now more than ever. Why? With greater diversity in the workplace, what might be funny to some may not be funny to others. Also, humor that was once common and accepted in the past may now be inappropriate.

Times have changed. The demographics in our workplace have changed. The standards of appropriate humor have changed.

Should we avoid humor in the workplace? Goodness no! Humor in the workplace can have positive impacts. Appropriate humor can break tension, spur creativity, build stronger teams, increase productivity, and make the work environment more pleasant.

Yet, inappropriate humor in the workplace can be offensive, degrading, damage teams, decrease productivity and, at worst, make the work environment unwelcoming. When persistent humor reaches the point of being "unwelcome and hostile," it can create legal and financial exposure for your organization.

So, what is a manager to do? Allow unbridled humor in the workplace? Sterilize the workplace of any humor to minimize the possibility of offending? What follows are some guidelines that could be useful for humor in the workplace.

When humor is used in the workplace, one should ask:

1. Is the humor derogatory towards a particular race, nationality, gender, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation?

Any humor that contains one or more of these elements should be an immediate "red flag." It is likely the humor is inappropriate in the workplace, and actions should be taken to cease the humor or an organization risks exposing itself to unnecessary legal and financial risk.

Offensive humor can get your organization in trouble even outside of the normal workplace. Even employer "sponsored" events, like a holiday party or company picnic, can expose a company to legal and financial risk if offensive humor goes unchecked.

2. How well do you know the person you are about to engage in the humor? Do you know what he or she might find offensive?

What is considered funny depends on the recipient, not the sender. I am sure you have seen a comedian tell a joke where the audience remains silent or even moans. The comedian might think the joke is funny, but the audience's reaction is the ultimate test whether the joke is funny or offensive.

In a world of greater diversity, our audiences are no longer culturally homogeneous. This means that we must understand the individuals in our personal audiences well enough to know what will be funny to them. In the workplace, this level of understanding may be more difficult to achieve than it appears. We often have the sense that we know coworkers well, but that may not truly be the case. There are many reasons that employees will mask their real reactions including embarrassment, the need to "fit in," fear of offending someone with greater positional power or influence, and the natural desire to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

A common misunderstanding is that appropriate humor is determined by the "intent" of the speaker. As an example, John did not intend his joke to be offensive so it should not be considered offensive. Offensive humor is not defined by the intent of the speaker. Offensive humor depends on the effect on the recipient. Good intentions do not justify inappropriate humor.

While the current complexity of workplace relationships poses new challenges, getting to know our coworkers in a deeper way is often enriching and beneficial in the long run. Real relationships allow for real exchanges of ideas and use disagreement as a springboard for creativity.

Humor in the workplace is a double-edged sword. It can enhance a work environment, or it can destroy a work environment if used inappropriately.

The American Public Works Association recognizes, appreciates and fosters the synergy which is created when the work environment values the differences in individuals and practices inclusiveness and open communication.

John Okamoto is the Board Liaison to the Transportation Technical Committee and a former member of the Government Affairs Committee. He can be reached at (206) 728-3832 or