Paul E. McGhee, PhD
Changing Corporate Perceptions of the Value of Humor
"What we are looking for, first and foremost, is a sense of humor... We hire attitudes."
Herb Kelleher (CEO, Southwest Airlines, an American company)
It wasn't very long ago that virtually every American company drew a sharp distinction between the notion of work and play. The same was true in Europe. If you had fun, or were found joking, laughing, or showing a "playful attitude" on the job, it was assumed that you were goofing off, not taking your work seriously, immature, unprofessional, etc. Over the past two decades, however, as the pace of change in the way business is done has escalated, a growing number of American companies have thrown many of their old assumptions about how businesses should be run out the window. There is a new openness to any management strategy that works; i.e., that supports the bottom line. It is precisely this openness that has led many CEOs to consider the idea of putting humor and fun to work. "Increasingly, smart companies and executives are recognizing that humor is one of the most effective ways to deal with workplace challenges and the stress they cause."1
As early as the mid-1980s, a survey found that 84% of Vice Presidents and personnel directors in 100 of the largest corporations in the USA felt that employees with a sense of humor are more effective on the job than people with little or no sense of humor. The organization conducting the survey concluded that "People with a sense of humor tend to be more creative, less rigid and more willing to consider and embrace new ideas and methods."2 Another mid-1980s survey of 737 chief executives of major American corporations showed that an amazing 98% of those completing the survey said they would hire a person with a good sense of humor over one who seemed to lack a sense of humor.3
I have had many companies tell me following a program for their staff that they specifically look for evidence of a good sense of humor in employees they hire (especially for management positions), because they are convinced that this helps them continue to do their jobs effectively without getting "bent out of shape" or overwhelmed on the tough days.
In one recent survey of business executives and Deans of Business Schools, 62% of the Deans responding to the survey said they felt that humor contributed to executive success; and nearly all the CEOs who responded felt that humor has an important role to play in the conduct of business, and that humor helps keep business healthy. The individual conducting the survey noted that nearly all the responding CEOs said that"... all other things being equal, they would hire the job applicant with a better sense of humor." Consistent with this trend, an article in Human Resources Magazine in 1994 specifically called for Human Resources managers to begin instituting programs that help employees learn to lighten up.4 My book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, provides managers the tool they need to begin instituting such a program.
Tom Peters has long had his finger on the pulse of American business. He is now convinced that every company can boost its creativity, team spirit and productivity by building more humor and a lighter style of collegial interaction into the workplace.5
Herb Kelleher is probably the best known example of a CEO (Southwest Airlines) who insists on hiring employees with a good sense of humor. In filling any position, says Kelleher, "what we are looking for, first and foremost, is a sense of humor... We don't care much about education and expertise, because we can train people... We hire attitudes."6 In fact, during job interviews, job candidates are specifically asked to give an example of how they're recently used their sense of humor on the job, and how they've "used humor to defuse a difficult situation." This approach has helped make Southwest Airlines the most successful airline in the country. Employees love working for Southwest, and do whatever it takes to sustain high levels of performance and quality service. And they have fun in he process! If it works for Southwest, it can also work for you.
European companies have been slower to warm up to the idea of promoting the value of humor on the job, but this is gradually changing. I provided a keynote address in the summer of 2001 to a maritime insurance organization in Sweden. Ship owners and other representatives of companies in the international shipping industry (including OPEC ships and major ocean liners) seemed to agree very strongly my message that humor helps cope with job stress and remain productive on the job on the tough days. Even people who had a very serious expression on their faces during my presentation came up to me afterwards and told me that their work makes them much more serious than they want to be, and that they enjoyed their work more when they found something to laugh at. Most felt that it was possible to be professional and competent and still keep your sense of humor on the job.
On the other had, more than half the people in a seminar I did recently in Belfast, Ireland reacted strongly against the idea of bringing humor into the workplace because they felt it was just another ploy by management to force employees to work harder and faster--by enjoying their work! I was amazed at this, since most employees I speak to do want to enjoy their work. It is true that many companies are changing their attitudes toward humor and fun on the job precisely because more is being demanded of employees, and the increasing work demands are creating more job stress. But if increased productivity and quality of service is a natural by-product of having fun at work, is this a bad thing?
1 Cauldron, S. Humor is healthy in the workplace. Personnel Journal, 1992, 71, 63-68.
2 Twidale, H. Nowadays, being "old sourpus" is no joke. Working Woman, March, 1986, p. 18.
3 San Jose Mercury News, July 30, 1986, p. 14.
4. Swift, W.B. & Swift, A.T. Humor experts jazz up the workplace. Human Resources Magazing, March, 1994, p. 72.
5. Peters, T. The Pursuit of Wow! Every Person's Guide to Topsy-Turvy Times. New York: Vintage, 1994.
6. Fortune Magazine, May 4, 1994.