Communication Currents

Humor and Professionalism at Work

December 1, 2009
Organizational Communication

We may not whistle while we work but we certainly laugh and tell jokes. Workplace humor, one type of communication at work, is essential in how we form meaning and negotiate our priorities, roles, and identity at work. It is through everyday humor that many of the workplace tensions are safely aired. Workplace humor is based in employees' concerns within their marketplace, their profession, their company, or personal conflicts at work.

The popularity of Dilbert cartoons, comedies set in an office (The OfficeOffice Space), YouTube videos shared throughout the office, and de-motivating office products, exists because these resonate with our workplace experiences. Yet, workplace humor is typically not scripted jokes but rather emerges in everyday conversation and often takes the form of inside jokes; for example, a secret nickname for a boss. This emergent humor often has specialized meaning for those who both use and laugh at the joke. In this way, humor at work is a basis for bonding with others in the work group while at the same time keeping the outsider (often the target of the joke) at a distance. Humor sets boundaries establishing who is in and who is out, what is acceptable and what is not, and perhaps most important, how we make sense of something new or challenging. The more cohesive the bond, the more prominent the role humor has in maintaining each member's identity and retaining the cohesion of the group.

To find out how humor is present and perceived in the workplace, I worked with professional chefs for a year in a restaurant kitchen. During that time, the restaurant was going through a transition from being an independent restaurant within a niche hotel to that of a restaurant and banquet service for a national hotel chain. Firsthand, I was able to observe what happens when the culinary profession is at odds with the management.

Within this kitchen, both chefs and management used humor to maintain or gain control over the food production process. The chefs also used humor to maintain their professional identity and resist managerial influence in the kitchen. Humor had many functions within the everyday kitchen dynamics, and these can be placed into five major categories: (a) control by management, (b) peer control, (c) maintaining, (d) releasing tension, and (e) resistance.

Managers often use humor to gain compliance from chefs and kitchen employees. This managerial humor takes the form of polite teasing or joking to reduce the sting of authority behind orders. In this kitchen, managers actually used the chefs' professional pride to directly challenge them to do a better job. For example, a banquet manager challenged Mitchell (a cook) that he could make the late banquet salad order quicker then he could. The bet was taken with all the chefs cheering on the contest. Mitchell, forced into the competition by his fellow chefs, knew that if he lost the challenge to the manager he would be ridiculed mercilessly. Mitchell won by a large margin, but in the teasing as the story was retold, the victory became smaller and smaller. The net result of the salad competition was that it pushed the kitchen members to uphold production demands of the banquet manager.

Humor between peers ensures the work activity conforms to ingroup members' standards. Chefs did not tolerate laziness or being “asleep on the job.” A common way chefs would test if you were paying attention was by putting a pot handle in the flame when the user was not looking and then return the pot handle to its original position. The unobservant chef would burn his or her hand. If a chef tried to cut corners on a dish, was un-hygienic, or just lazy, he/she would be called out by others as “trying to coast.” This was unacceptable in a professional kitchen. If you did try to coast, you opened yourself up for a long shift as the butt of the other chefs' pranks and jokes. While on the surface the pranks seem like schoolyard antics and some are not humorous to outsiders, they ensured that chefs paid attention and maintained a level of professionalism.

Humor that maintains group boundaries helps reinforce everyday meanings and everyday routines. An example of maintaining humor was the soup ritual. A chef in conversation with other chefs would go to great lengths to explain and discuss what went into the creative process in making a soup. If asked by a member of the wait-staff or management what was in the soup the chef would shut down conversation with a comment like “it's just scraps.” This quick dismissal of an outsider was met with approval and laughter by fellow chefs but it created a wall between chef and the management. By choosing not to educate management regarding the skill and creativity required to create a soup, the manager is unable to appreciate the chef as an artist. Maintaining humor highlights the (sometimes purposeful) miscommunication and misunderstanding that divides groups at work.

Chefs often use humor to release workplace tension and frustration. For example, chefs use cooking jargon, or terms incorrectly when discussing food preparation with a manager to emphasize the manager's lack of cooking knowledge. One such example occurred when a chef asked a food and beverage director what he thought of a lamb bouillabaisse made with a flour free roux (which is made with flour) to serve as a special during a meeting. It was all the chefs could do to contain their laughter. In this case, humor is more than blowing off steam (or temporary resistance). It was a defensive strategy of reaffirming professional identity for the chefs.

“I was only joking” is a protection that allows a person to say something that is more typically off limits. The power of humor as a form of resistance lies in this protection of only joking. Workers can safely use resistance humor to express grievances or challenge managerial constraints. One such example occurred when the head of human resources insisted that the chefs select and send a member to participate in a cross departmental workgroup. The chefs complained to each other about this “waste of time” group, then devised a plan to send a non-English speaking dishwasher as the kitchen representative. The Human Resource manager complained that the team “was not a joke” but did not insist that the kitchen staff participate in the future. Resistance humor in this case was clearly more than blowing off steam but changed organizational practices when the kitchen personnel were released from participating in this workgroup. Resistance humor, unlike other forms, is episodic and strategic, it has a beginning, an end, and is planned.

Working alongside chefs in a restaurant kitchen, five categories of humor in organizations were identified: humor used for (a) management control, (b) peer control, (c) maintaining, (d) releasing tension, and (e) resistance. As a result, this in-depth study of a hotel kitchen illustrates humor's complex and important role at work. What is joked about at work should be taken seriously, as it is often a window into underlying meaning and is precious to a workgroup. Humor does more than make our work bearable, it helps make it meaningful.