In my first serious job in my early 20s I remember being called into the manager’s office and told that I was not paid to be the office clown. I responded with the ‘I know everything’ attitude that only a 20-something can possess, retorting: “You don’t have to pay me – I am perfectly happy to do it for free because I can’t help myself.” Smart move!
I have often been guilty of using humour for humour’s sake and sometimes it completely backfires. As you become older and wiser you tend to be more in tune with what is appropriate humour and what is not. But unfortunately we can all still get it wrong.
Take, for example, Tim Mathieson – the partner of Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Recently, he was hosting a reception for the touring West Indian cricket team at The Lodge.
Being the government’s men’s health ambassador, Mathieson was talking about the importance of men having regular checkups for prostate cancer. He said: “We can get a blood test for it, but the digital examination is the only true way to get a correct reading on your prostate so make sure you go and do that, and perhaps look for a small Asian female doctor is probably the best way.”
In the room there was laughter, but behind Mathieson was Gillard herself with a smiling face that turned instantly to an “I can’t believe you just said that” face. And, of course, the media had a field day.
Tony Wright from The Age newspaper wrote “Uh-oh. In three words, he’d contravened an expansive sweep of the proposed anti-discrimination decrees. Small (sizeist, you might think); female (sexist); Asian (racist). We won’t even go near digital penetration.”
What can seem like a perfectly innocent, spontaneous but poorly-considered attempt at humour can backfire, especially if it has even the slightest hint of sexism or racism.
Someone shared with us an experience he had when buying a car. During negotiations the car salesman emerged from the manager’s office and said: “The boss is in a good mood – he must have got a bit last night.” The potential buyer found the comment to be in such poor taste, and so patronising, that he left and bought his car elsewhere.
Please don’t think you can never be funny at work again; the world of work would become a dreary place. Humour does have a place in business. It can be refreshing, it can be genuine and it can make business fun. But used inappropriately, it could lead you to spend a lot of time apologising or wondering what went wrong.