Merge's Blog

Subversive workplace humor can be a cover for some uncomfortable truths

My good friend and professional colleague Mike Kerr is known as the Workplace Energizer because of his focus on using humor to create inspiring workplaces.  I am honored to have him as my guest blogger today as he makes the case for not getting TOO politically correct.  Don’t get me wrong … he’s certainly not suggesting that we be disrespectful to one another in the workplace, but he is offering a different and interesting perspective.

Reading Between the Punch Lines

I think we spend too much time, frankly, worrying about practicing “safe humor” in the workplace. Yes, we need to be sensitive about using certain types of inappropriate humor,  and of course there is humor in the workplace that should be off limits.   Racists or sexist or otherwise offensive humor that bullies people or divides people or offends your customers is obviously not what any healthy, inspiring workplace should be aiming for.

To me, it’s about common sense and basic respect: two things you can’t “legislate” at work.

So having said all that, here’s my concern.

First, too many workplaces that are too hypersensitive about this topic risk creating sterile, boring workplaces where all humor is off-limits, risks are minimized and doing anything different gets you in trouble.   Hardly an inspiring workplace!

My second thought is this. Life is messy. Work is messy. Creativity is definitely messy. And humor is definitely messy.  (Okay, so that’s many thoughts, but the gist is the same.)

Being messy is, as Martha Stewart might say, a very good thing!

And being messy means sometimes people will say inappropriate things. Sometimes they will use humor as a defense mechanism. Sometimes they’ll use sarcasm to make a point. And more often that you might think, employees of all stripes will use subversive humor to communicate some uncomfortable truths.

Which means leaders need to listen carefully between the punch lines to hear and understand and empathize with what’s really being said.

Rather than fearing and trying to “control” subversive humor then, leaders should appreciate its benefits. Just as Jon Stewart gets across messages in a highly effective, brutally honest way, your employees can speak volumes through the “inappropriate humor” they practice.

What do you think?  Do your employees or co-workers practice subversive humor?  If so, what uncomfortable truths should we be paying attention to?  Give us some examples please!

Contact Michael Kerr at, or visit any of his websites:,, and

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