Humor Consultants Teach Workplaces How to Laugh Without Offending

Miami Herald, FL
March 18 2004

Humor Consultants Teach Workplaces How to Laugh Without Offending

By Diwata Fonte, The Fresno Bee, Calif. Knight Ridder/Tribune
Business News

Mar. 17–VISALIA, Calif. – Within minutes, Amy Shuklian is telling
you about Armenians, turning 40, and the fad diets that lasted longer
than her five-month marriage.

“People would say things [to me] like, ‘Gosh you had so much in
common it seems like you wanted the same things out of life.’ And we
did. Unfortunately, the same thing we both wanted was a husband.”

Shuklian is warming up the crowd of about two dozen businesspeople at
a meeting Tuesday of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce. She’s breaking
the ice, but also talking about humor in the workplace, tying in some
of the best-known staples of joke-telling: ethnic and gender
stereotypes and self-deprecation.

These days, it seems like workplace humor is as dangerous on the job
as exposed wiring or dirty air. While many employees are taught to
tie their tongues and save the jokes for outside the office, humor
consultants like Shuklian of Visalia work with companies to show that
there is still room for laughter on the job.

Workplace experts say a light-hearted work atmosphere is essential to
reducing stress and improving employee morale and productivity.

But — and there’s always a but when talking about humor — it must
also be appropriate, tasteful and sensitive.

Jokes invoking ethnic or religious stereotypes, as well as those old
standbys — the priest, the minister and the rabbi who go golfing,
for example — can be landmines. Desk toys, situational comedy and
“life’s set-ups” — those perfectly timed moments when a witty
observation can crack up the room — can easily fit into a
professional workplace, Shuklian said.

Alicia Sundstrom, owner of the Financial Credit Network collection
agency in Visalia, took more than a dozen of her managers to listen
to Shuklian’s presentation.

Sundstrom, who keeps a toy leprechaun and an oversized smile mask at
her office, said: “Bill-collecting is not a happy environment. We
work really hard to create an environment that the staff wants to
come to daily.”

Humor consultants help to bridge the gray areas, by reminding
employees that the right kind of humor is both acceptable and
beneficial to their jobs.

In fact, most employers list a good sense of humor as a desirable
trait in a new employee; for example, it improves employee
relationships, said Steven M. Sultanoff of Irvine, a consultant who
holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. It also helps employees
manage stress and crisis, he said.

“The first thing is to look at the target of the humor,” Sultanoff
said. Situations, self and other people are the basic targets of
humor, he said.

“In general, the least threatening humor is when you target the
situation,” Sultanoff said.

For example, poking fun at a company policy or an event is relatively
safe. Another safe target is making fun at yourself, like pointing
out your messy desk.

The most dangerous area is targeting other people, even if you think
they can take a little good-natured ribbing.

“Not only because some people can’t tell jokes, there’s a fine line
between what can draw people together, and an even finer line of what
can draw people apart,” Shuklian said.

For that reason, Shuklian advises avoiding all jokes in the “Did you
hear the one about…?” genre, no matter how benign they might seem.

When the fine line gets crossed, human resources professionals
usually get called.

“You’re trying to create an enjoyable work place. Humor can help
improve the morale; however, when done inappropriately, it can lower
morale, or worse,” said Ward Scheitrum, the president of the Human
Resource Association of Central California.

As a result, some businesses create broad zero-tolerance policies on
top of the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which protects
certain groups from discrimination, said Charles Taylor, a Fresno
employment lawyer.

Those policies, while not specifically forbidding any attempts at
humor, make it clear that the employer takes a dim view of humor that
may involve ethnic, religious or gender stereotypes.