Research indicates that humor at work is a good thing. It builds morale and relationships. But it also hurts if it veers from being a bonding agent to an alienator.
"The minefields are race, sex, ethnicity, religion, politics," Robert said in an interview. "It's important to know your audience. If you're new in a workplace, sit back and watch for context. See who uses humor, what works, what's appropriate."
Surprisingly, teasing is an effective brand of workplace humor, he said. Given that it's done among adults and it isn't always at the expense of the same person or type, teasing can show cohesiveness among co-workers, Robert said.
"Most groups have unconsciously negotiated topics that are OK to tease people about," he said. "Groups tend to develop strong norms about what is or isn't acceptable."
Generally, peer-to-peer teasing is easier to navigate. Managers need to be more careful to not pick on one subordinate or any one kind of person.
"One interesting thing about our research is that people who use a lot of humor are the same ones who are teased most in a group," Robert said. "There's often a balance between dishing it out and taking it."
When that balance is missing, humor loses its positive effect.
"If you're being teased, that can be a sign people are comfortable with you, that you're part of the group," he said.
"Insiders have a certain license to tease each other. Self-deprecation is always OK. And it's the same principle with racial or sexual humor — when you're part of the target group, it's easier to use humor without looking like you're picking on someone else."
Above all, be careful. Words can wound, even in jest.
(Diane Stafford is the workplace columnist at The Kansas City Star. Her "Your Job" blog at economy.kansascity.com features posts about job-related issues of wide interest. Writeto her at Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413 or email@example.com.)