Humor at work: Your guide to laughs without the gaffes

Funny co-workers keep things interesting at work and help to lighten the mood. We like them, but too many jokes and silly stories can become overwhelming (or awkward when they cross a line).

So, what’s the right way to use humor in the office? For starters, being funny at work means understanding the right time and place for humor. It’s assessing your audience to know who can and can’t take a joke—knowing what’s appropriate for work and what isn’t. If a joke could negatively impact someone’s well-being, it’s not worth the risk.

And yet, humor is essential. Well-placed levity scores your social points and builds valuable relationships. Meanwhile, the wrong joke could land you in hot water with HR. This is why a sense of humor (stress on “sense”) has become a critical workplace skill.

So, let’s talk about how to be funny at work without getting into trouble.

Workplace Humor Isn’t Like at Home

Work can be a weird place. Some managers and executives toe the line of work-inappropriate humor but get upset when their underlings do the same. Your company culture may be less politically correct than the employee handbook led you to believe, but it shouldn’t impact how you conduct yourself.

Your humor should never leave the realm of what’s appropriate at work.

Being professional means keeping your humor within the “safe for grandma” boundary:

  • No use of the expletives and four-letter words you use at home

  • No graphic jokes or mention of private parts, no matter how funny

  • No loud yelling or weird noises

  • No negativity or heavy sarcasm

  • No personal insults

  • No talking over other people

Again, you need to care more about what you say outside of the work environment. However, when you’re on the clock, people are watching and will notice if you say something upsetting or offputting—even those who say they don’t care.

Humor falls under the same work-life rules that govern discrimination, sexual harassment, and other inappropriate conversations.

This means the following topics should never be used as joke material:

  • Race

  • Religion

  • Gender

  • Sexual orientation

  • Disability

  • Age

  • Nationality

Basically, if you think something could be construed as edgy or offensive, don’t let it get past your lips. You may think aggressive humor makes you look daring and fearless, but your team members will merely remember feeling awkward and uncomfortable.

Using Humor at Work Effectively

It’s hard to explain humor without turning it into a silly adventure, like a safety video where the cartoon spokesperson suffers all the head-bonking injuries they warn against.

The best use of humor can be summed up as follows: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. In other words, joke less than you want to.

Making a good joke takes a certain level of risk while keeping your mouth shut takes none. That’s why it’s important to time your humor well and ensure everyone can laugh easily.

Let’s list out some hallmarks of good jokes.


What’s the difference between a good joke and a bad joke timing? (That was a joke)

Everything has a moment, especially humor. A joke peppered in at the right moment is funny, while the same joke at the wrong time feels awkward.

In author Jay Heinrichs’ Thank You For Arguing, we’re introduced to the Greek word “kairos,” which translates to “the critical moment.” Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Isocrates stressed the importance of kairos in their writings, laying out the practicality of meeting the moment as it arises. For jokers, this means waiting patiently for the right moment and only then taking a stab at a joke.

Heinrichs’ work is in rhetoric, where speakers and debaters carefully time their rebuttals to have the most significant impact. In this context, timing differs between a memorable clapback and a forgettable grunt.

Basically, saying the right thing at the right time earns you points, while saying the right thing at the wrong time is just as bad as saying the wrong thing.

Be patient and wait for the right moment. Don’t try to squeeze a joke so hard that you derail the conversation. If you’re unable to get a joke off in time, the best thing to do is to forget about it and move on.

Never Punch Down

It’s risky to make a joke at someone else’s expense, but it’s unforgivable to target someone who can’t defend themselves. People may laugh, but that doesn’t mean they’re having a good time.

“Punching down” is a term meaning to make fun of something that results from circumstance or bad luck. Making fun of a someone’s beat up car, for example, is punching down. If they could afford a better car, they’d probably buy one.

The same is true of a person’s appearance. Taking shots at somebody’s ugly haircut is more likely to embarrass them than to endear them. A bad sunburn may be impossible to ignore, but it’s better to let that person bring it up than to potentially embarrass them.

And never—ever—make fun of a disability. If you have to make fun of someone, let it be yourself.

Self-deprecating Humor at Work

Strong people know how and when to make fun of themselves. A number of comedians use themselves as subjects for comedy, relying on their appearance or habits to draw a line between themselves and what is “normal.”

Making fun of yourself is almost always safe territory. Not only that, but one of the benefits of humor happens when others join in and share their own laughable moments (also known as affiliative humor). This can be great for team bonding.

Making fun of yourself could include:

  • Flexing some below average biceps while saying how strong you are

  • Referring to your mundane, daily work tasks as world-changing

  • Sincerely apologizing for a mistake but also calling it 4D chess

Because self-defeating humor is a more modern type of humor, older generations may not recognize when you’re joking. Make sure to let them know by saying, “I’m joking.”

Also, be careful not to wander so far into self-deprecation that people start feeling bad for you or questioning your mental health.

Playing with the Absurd

Playful exaggeration can also be funny. If a conversation deals with quantities or concrete facts, introducing an unbelievable analogue can catch people off guard and make them laugh.

For example:

Person A: Twenty balloons should be enough for the CTO’s birthday party

Person B: Oops, I already ordered a thousand

Is it hilarious? Not really, but sometimes a little light-hearted exaggeration is all a workday needs to stay interesting.

Generalizations are on the opposite end of the absurdity spectrum. It’s funny to lump certain things together and make spurious correlations (i.e. “I heard everyone who drinks water ends up dead”), but only if they’re unexpected.

It is not funny to make generalizations or peddle stereotypes about races of people or sexual orientations. These lazy excuses for humor are not only boring, but they are potentially offensive to many people and could get you into trouble. No joke is worth losing your job over.

Being Funny vs. Talking

Reading the room is a key skill of funny people. They know how to match the seriousness of a given group, and they aren’t afraid to keep quiet if the time isn’t right for a joke.

Learn to read the room. If people are being silly, joining in adds cohesion to the team. If you’re being issued a written warning for making inappropriate jokes, it’s time to shut up.

Keeping quiet is an important skill to have. Some people joke not because they want others to laugh, but because they’re painfully uncomfortable sitting in silence. Jokes can ease tension, but people who can’t stop joking come off as more annoying than funny.

People Laugh at More than Jokes

Have you ever laughed at an inappropriate moment? Most of us have. Personally, I laugh when I’m in a haunted house. Is it because the haunted house is funny? No, it’s because laughing helps me cope with the stress of my terrifying surroundings.

Seeing people laugh doesn’t always indicate having a good time. Many people laugh when things get awkward or stressful, and the last thing they want is to keep laughing.

This is why another aspect of reading the room is learning to sense when things feel awkward. If people are looking at you with eyes agape, it’s probably time to abandon whatever you did to cause that expression on their face.

Some other indicators of an awkward moment in groups can include:

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Closed body language, like folded arms or crossed legs

  • Fidgeting

  • Silence

  • Blushing or sweating

  • Overly polite comments

  • People pulling out smartphones

Look, everybody says stupid stuff from time to time. It’s not a crime to make a gaffe, but digging that hole even deeper should be avoided. Ditch the topic, be quiet, and let the moment pass as quickly as possible.

People May Get Offended

While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about why some jokes are dangerous at work. The bottom line is that what was funny 10, 20, 50 years ago may not be funny anymore.

Some jokes get better with age, while others rot in the wake of a maturing society.

For example, before women had rights, it was common to see jokes about keeping them in the kitchen. Those jokes aren’t funny anymore (if they ever were) because women should never have been treated that way in the first place.

In other words, people didn’t become more sensitive—they just stopped laughing at seeing people deprived of their rights.

This is why edgy jokes are almost always a bad idea. They tend to be as unfunny as they are out of touch.

Humor at Work Should Be Fun

Stress decreases when people can laugh. Jokes should be clever, relatable quips that people can understand easily but that make them think different, new ways. At its core, humor is light-hearted and delightful—not depressing.

Learn how to read the room, be patient with dishing out jokes, and learn to change direction quickly if your jokes don’t land. Take some improv classes if you really want to understand and level up your styles of humor at work.

Above all, use humor to make work more fun and increase job satisfaction.