I used to work with a funny guy. Let’s call him Steve. When I first found myself in a meeting with Steve, he joked about every idea presented and I joked right along with him. But this isn’t the writer’s room at Saturday Night Live. We weren’t there to write jokes. We were collaborating, game planning and getting ready for a busy week. While Steve’s jokes were legitimately funny, they were noticeably getting in the way of our productivity. After a few meetings, Steve started getting on my nerves and I realized that trying to match him joke-for-joke would drive down the productivity of our group, and make me look like I wasn’t taking my job seriously.
“There’s a really fine line between having a happy workplace, which is incredibly important, and having a class clown who’s derailing everything and wasting time,” said Jody Foster, psychiatrist, University of Pennsylvania professor and coauthor of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal with Difficult People at Work.
Obviously, humor in the office can create a happy, positive working environment. But too much joking can become a burden. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University found that successful use of humor (aka jokes that land) signals confidence and competence to your coworkers and increase the joke teller’s overall status. Jokes that are inappropriate or lame lower your status.
Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, an author of the study, says humor in the office is generally a good thing—boosting creativity, making executives more approachable, promoting collaboration, and helping coworkers broach difficult or sensitive topics.
“We might joke about receiving a small raise to communicate that we expected a larger raise, without creating an explicit conflict,” said Schweitzer. “Also, humor can help individuals challenge a hierarchy. For example, low power people, who prefer to avoid confrontation with high power people, can make jokes that communicate important information, but does so in a less confrontational way than a non-humorous statement.”
Foster says the right balance lies in having a workplace with “psychological safety”—a culture where it’s okay to joke around, give feedback, and be comfortable with each other without being offensive.
Today’s metric-driven jobs might just remove the class clowns from the office altogether.
“Productivity is so closely measured that people who are just blowing smoke and wasting time tend to get caught and dinged in their productivity metrics—so it self-extinguishes,” said Foster. “If a joker is really causing trouble, it’s going to come out in the numbers.”
Four Easy Ways to Deal With Your Funny Coworker
What are some tactics to deal with the “funny guy” or “funny gal” in the office—without looking like a stick-in-the-mud? Follow these easy steps.
Plan organized activities. Instead of telling the funny person to simply take a break from their constant joking (which might make you look like a square or even a jerk) explain that some fun is just around the corner. C’mon Steve, let’s get this project done so we can have some laughs at happy hour later.
Layout rules of engagement at the door. Let new employees know during the interview process that you appreciate levity but not all the time. Even if you have looser work culture that encourages humor (which is clearly a positive), make sure interviewees know that it’s a work-hard, play-hard environment. And work-hard comes first.
Offer another time to hang out. Tell the office jokester that you’d love to share some laughs—but after I do my work. Offer to hang out another time. Hey Steve, let’s eat lunch together at noon or grab coffee this afternoon. “It’s about gently setting a boundary that says ‘I want to have fun with you but not right now,’” said Foster.
Don’t let someone joke at your expense. If someone is constantly joking—and having fun at your expense—you’ve got to intervene early. Pull them aside and tell them to cut it out. They’ll respect you for it.
“Data shows that 75-80% of people who are simply confronted with behavior that is causing other people trouble will not realize it’s a problem,” said Foster. “We don’t intervene because it’s uncomfortable for us. People really aren’t schmucks they’re just behaving in the way they usually behave. Recognizing it, intervening early, and calling it out directly and concisely gets things right back on track before they blossom into real problems.”