Sense of Humour: Is it Ok to Bring it to Work?

David on Mar 19, 2017

 “We have a new pet policy, when you go away on business, you bring your pet and a polaroid to work, we then guarantee an identical looking pet on your return” (David Oxley at HR Staff Meeting in May 2010)

If you’ve read any of my blogs I know you have a sense of humour. You’d have to. Equally, you will probably have taken some sense of my own delightfully playful, irreverent, somewhat abstract sense of fun. No? I guess that sums up humour; it can get lost in translation. Over the years, my inability to control my sense of humour has got me in trouble. It has also been my saviour. Occasionally it has even allowed me privileged access and insights from senior executives. It’s taken my decades to figure out whether my humour is a blessing or a curse (conclusion…its both). One interesting thing is how many people have attempted to share wisdom and advice on this subject with me. However, this advice has been incredibly contradictory:

“David, you must realise, your use of humour is high risk, at best it may translate 10% of the time but the rest of the time you either piss people off or just confuse them.”

“David, you can’t say that (in response to my cheery welcome of a colleague wearing a black and white stripy shirt one morning with a “Good morning, and may I say you like particularly stripy this morning?”)

“David, I thought that meeting was going south, until you made that joke about HR people never going to heaven, then he seemed to see the light….”

I Blame My Father Among Other Things


I grew up in south east London in the late 60s and 70s. While I played a good deal of sport, my heroes where a combination of science fiction characters and comedians. But not just any comedians; while I liked Monty Python (more the movies than the TV show), I think Python worship is almost a cliché. What I really liked were ‘The Young One’s,’ Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson (but NOT Mr. Bean), the Fast Show (suits you sir), and the team on ‘Not the 9 O’clock news.’ Airplane I still quote from but surely, I’m not serious. The more abstract and irreverent the better. Probably my favourite comedy show for a long while was Red Dwarf. There is one episode (Back to Reality) where they are attacked by a vicious hallucinogenic squirting squid. In the process, they discover a haddock which had apparently committed suicide. Well, this just appeals for its complete silliness.


My father largely encouraged this and took me to see many of the movies which shaped my early sense of humour. So, I think my father and my friends at school are to blame.

Humour and Work – Sometimes Odd BeDfellows


When I started work in 1984 with E&Y, they hired all of me for better or worse. Equally, they hired a very naïve, flawed, if ambitious and driven prospect. My humour was a part of that and over the years, I think it has been refined, focused, and smoothed. I recall the not so politically correct moments such as referring to the tool we used to open windows before A/C as Lech Polesa. The awkward by well-meaning nick names used for work friends, and practical jokes whose very memory are cringe worthy (Liam Carroll remains the king of these).


So, what have I learned over the years? I think my learnings which are shared here for as much an opportunity for confession as sharing my experience with others are:


Humour is a Powerful Tool


When used correctly, in the right context, and with the right intentions, it can be like a magic key to unlock a hidden layer in a client relationship or other business dealing. The skill is knowing when and how to use it. If I refine my experience to a series of Do’s and Don’ts they look like this:


Do’s Don’ts
Use humour as a means to defuse awkward situations – this is a skill as knowing what to say is important, not humour for its own sake but a well timed quip can help break a dark cycle


Make other people, particularly those outside your own team, the figure of fun – this is dangerous
Use humour as a coping mechanism when things seem dark or foreboding – when my teams have been facing tough challenges or dark moments, a story or means to see the situation in context can be really helpful


Over do the humour and make that rather than the task the central mission
Be authentic, be who you are, if something is funny, consider sharing it – but be careful that it isn’t too self-indulgent


Take cheap shots – there are office environments where zingers can be hurtful, personalised, stereotyped, or just plain mean
Be self-deprecating – I have yet to find a team or group of people who haven’t found my own clumsiness or moments of stupidity as deeply funny


Forget you set the tone and that how you behave sets an acceptable bar for others
Encourage others to also be constructively funny – as the leader don’t be aloof if someone really has something funny, poignant, satirical to say, so long as its constructive Forget that humour only works if its constructive and not destructive – fun should never ever be intentionally hurtful, leave people upset, or damaged


So Here are Some of My Stories


I thought I’d end this short blog post with just some of my own stories. The idea here is to give you a sense of my own attempts. Many of these didn’t work and I was told so. In other cases, the attempt created a moment to breathe when we otherwise felt a huge weight on our shoulders. I’ll let you decide which was which:




In answering a question in a HR meeting in Mumbai about making exceptions to a policy Last night when I was driving home we were going down a one way street, I know this because not only was it sign posted one way but I asked my driver is this a one way street and he said yes. Coming towards us was a motorcycle, so I asked whether that was allowed, and my driver said, yes, 2 wheelers are allowed. Then I saw an auto-rickshaw, I asked the same question and again he said, yes they are allowed. Would you believe I then saw a car coming towards us…my driver said…well he probably lives down this street. As we reached the end of the street, I saw a truck coming straight toward us….on this occasion my driver said…well…he shouldn’t be doing that.


Following 3 super serious answers to the role of HR in a small townhall Well I think it’s like the story about the 2 muffins in the oven…the first says … wow I’m just starting to ponder the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, I wonder if we’ll ever find out our true purpose before the great timer rings….to which the other replies…well it is prophesised that one day the door will open and we will be able to converse directly on these deep questions with the Baker.


In answering a question about ethical dilemmas again after several very dry responses


Well the key question is whether you understand the difference between unlawful and illegal. One is against the law but the other…well that is just a sick bird.
In a strategy discussion about whether the plan we have settled on is the right one Well…ladies and gentlemen….that is the big question…similar to whether a tree falling in a forest is made of wood or whether the backstreet boys will ever get back together….gosh I miss them.


I wonder whether you are willing to share some of your stories? I’d love to read them…particularly if they make me smile.


About the Author

David R Oxley is a Leadership and Organisational Change Advisor. Originally a management consultant with E&Y, David has spent the last 25 years working in senior HR positions with companies wishing to transform their operations. Currently David is advising a large Indian energy and consumer business on organisational change. David is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, the University of Phoenix, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, and is currently pursuing his Doctorate at Cranfield University. He can be reached at

Originally published March 2017



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