The Three Components of Successfully Using Humor in the Workplace

Using humor in the workplace can be risky, but done right, humor at work can help you be happier with your job, feel less stressed out, and even make you more productive. Follow these three guidelines for using humor in the workplace successfully.

I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve ever had. That’s not to say I’ve had inherently fun jobs–cart-pusher at a grocery store, order fullfiller in a factory, resident advisor, project manager, speaker–but I have found ways to enjoy all of them.

That’s not the case for many people. Fifty-two percent of Americans are unsatisfied with their jobs and more than three-quarters say they would relocate if it meant better vibes at work. What most people don’t realize is that using humor in the workplace is an individual choice you make every single day. You are responsible for your own job satisfaction. And if you choose humor, you will be more productive, less stressed, and happier.

To effectively use humor in the workplace, follow these three components of the Humor MAP:


The medium of humor is all about the how. How is the humor going to be received by the audience? Will it be in a live presentation, pre-recorded on video, or written on a sheet of paper?

Depending on the medium, different types of humor are more effective. One type of humor (e.g. music) may be perfect for one medium (aural) but terrible for others (visual). And some of you may be confused by my classification of music as humor. But humor is anything that is comic, absurd, or incongruous that causes amusement. Music can be all three. Take the chorus from this song by Rihanna:

Work, work, work, work, work, work

You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work

This song was number one in America for nine weeks; it was nominated for two Grammy Awards. It was not because of how the lyrics read on the page. But when you hear Rihanna sing it, that’s a different story.

When thinking about your medium, think about how the humor will be experienced. In real-time conversation, you can use jokes or sarcasm because it’s easy to gauge a reaction and your delivery can help show that you’re being facetious. Emails and texts are more easily misconstrued. “I hate you” seems pretty bad. “I hate you!” seems even worse. “I hate you :)” seems flirty. Choose a type of humor that works best for the medium you will use.


The next component of the Humor MAP is the audience, which is all about the who. Who will be the recipient of your humor? What do they know? What do they expect? What do they need? Understanding this is vital for all communication, not only humor. Had the kidnappers in the movie Taken known what Liam Neeson’s character knew, the movie would have been called Not Taken.

You also want to be clear about what your relationship is to the audience. A joke that you make with a coworker you’ve known for fifteen years may be very different than what you might say to a client you’re meeting for the first time. Sometimes the only difference between humor that is successful versus humor that seems aggressive is your relationship with a person. In general, it’s safest to use humor that is positive and inclusive (think fun activity rather than biting sarcasm).

If you want to use humor effectively, you have to know your audience. That is the only way you can choose the right type of humor to fulfill your purpose. Otherwise, you run the risk of boring, confusing, alienating, or upsetting them.


The final component of the Humor MAP is also the most important because it’s all about the why. Why are you using humor? Is it to increase productivity, expand learning, or develop creativity? Like a five-year-old, you want to understand why, why, why, why, why.

Without knowing why you’re using humor, you’re likely to miss the mark and turn people off in the process. If you want to use humor to help people better understand a concept, including an analogy they don’t get won’t help. The humor you decide to use should be aligned with the outcome you hope to achieve.

This is also how you avoid being seen as a jester or clown at work. When people see that your humor is directly connected to getting better results, they see its value. It’s not that so-and-so is always cracking jokes, it’s that so-and-so is great at getting people to pay attention or leads these really great meetings or really likes Star Wars.

By understanding your Humor MAP, you’ll have a clear idea of what kind of humor to use. And when you’re intentional about the humor you use, you increase the chance that you’ll not only delight your audience but also achieve your goals.

Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first humor engineer, teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. He is the author of Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work and CEO of Humor That Works, a consultancy for human effectiveness. For more information, please visit, and connect with him on Twitter, @drewtarvin.

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