Prior to flying out to joining a ship in Singaporeas an engineer officer in 1983, I had to fly first to London,England, to the head office for briefings. At the head office of this distinguished shipping company, it was normal to be escorted to the office area by a very “proper” building porter wearing full uniform and white gloves. Once in the office, hot tea was served by “tea-ladies” with the company fine china. At the beginning of the economic downturn, I went to theLondon office for the usual briefings and was surprised that the tea ladies had been “let go”, and tea was now self-service out of generic mugs. It wasn’t difficult to envision that tough changes were on the way.
As an engineer of nearly 30 years, I have been through company downsizing, restructuring, and even “survival mode”. The cargo shipping company mentioned previously owned 65 worldwide cargo ships, and after a tough downturn, they were left with only 6 ships. I somehow still managed to stay employed. This was a shipping company that had been in business for 200 years.
Three careers and many years later, I reflect back on how I have been successful, surviving lay-offs, even getting healthy pay increases and promotions during tough times. What has helped me become successful includes working hard and volunteering, having a passion to help people, having daily enthusiasm to learn new things, and, most importantly, having a healthy sense of humor.
I would describe my sense of humor as Irish, twisted, witty, occasionally sarcastic, sometimes crazy, and at times over the top. In general, I have put it to good use, and the following is what a previous boss wrote a few years ago in my annual performance review:
“Dave is a master of using his sense of humor to diffuse tension. When he is around, the atmosphere becomes more friendly and cooperative. He always sees the humor in things, helping to avoid or defuse difficult situations”.
Having said that, I have had to learn over the years to be considerate when using humor in the workplace. At times, I pushed my humor too far and I have been lucky that I have not gotten into serious trouble. People nearly always laugh at my off-the-cuff, twisted humor; however, that is not always an indication of it being appropriate. My advice to anyone using humor in the workplace is to be thoughtful of your audience. If a single person would be offended or insulted it is not worth saying. Learn humor boundaries by exposing your funny-bone in little steps. Making fun of yourself is a great starting point. It is usually the safest kind of humor.
The following stories are examples of going over the top. Under different circumstances the misplaced humor could have got me a formal reprimand or even sacked:
The KKK Award
My boss walked into my office unannounced; with him were my two co-workers. They all sat down smiling. I was being presented with a safety achievement award. My boss at the time happened to be a fairly conservative engineer. The award was an engraved glass cube about 3 in. high, covered by a small velvet bag. Without missing a beat, I took the glass cube out of the bag and put it on my desk. I then put the velvet bag over my fingers and shouted out “wow, look at this, a Ku Klux Klan puppet”. My boss and one of my coworkers immediately left my office in shock leaving me with my African-American co-worker who was slowly clapping her hands, laughing and saying, “You are one sick, crazy Irishman Dave”. The bottom line is that the humor was totally inappropriate. My thoughtless intent was to purely get a laugh, but the fact that I made some of my coworkers uncomfortable made it improper.
I was at an upper management meeting in a corporate office conference room as a technical advisor. A few days earlier, the electric motor shaft had snapped on the executive elevator. The automatic safety systems had kept people safe; however, as you can imagine, there was an element of concern.
The upper management had a rule at these safety meetings that if anyone made a sarcastic comment, they had to put 25 cents into a cup which was on the table. At other meetings, I had observed them dropping 25 cent coins into the cup while making humorous cynical comments. It seemed to bring an air of joviality to serious and sometimes conflict ridden meetings. Being a company with a strong focus on safety, the discussion on the table was what we could do differently to make sure there would not be any more elevator breakdowns. The question was posed to me, and the correct answer would have been to “do periodic testing of all the elevator motor shafts to check for cracks”. My wife likes to say that I do not have wires connecting my brain and my mouth, and what came out of my mouth was the statement, “We should limit the elevator to one… ego… at… a… time”. As I simultaneously dropped a quarter into the cup, the silence in the room was deafening. The humor was sarcastic, way off-target, and inappropriate; I was lucky to get away with just getting scowled at.
STAYING ONE STEP BEHIND THE LINE
Flashing Human Resources
The event was the corporate office Mardi Gras party that was being held in a local pub. This was a “pump up the employees” evening event, and the company provided free beer and Cajun food. As an Irishman who likes to relax and have fun, I arrived in a jovial mood. About 100 people had already arrived, and there at the door was the human resources (HR) manager handing out beer voucher coupons. He was throwing Mardi Gras beads at the people lined up to enter. As I was approaching the door, my mind immediately went into “play mode”. My twisted Irish wit slipped into gear, and I mischievously thought to myself what a great laugh I would get if I was to lift my shirt and expose my naked chest at the same time that beads were being thrown at me. Here is the discussion that went on in my head in a flash – “Ok Dave, this prank could get you huge laughs and you could go down in corporate history as the engineer who flashed at HR. Even if you do get sacked for disrespect, what a great story you will get to tell for the rest of your life“. Then the voice of experience and rational thinking came to play, “That would be very tasteless Dave, and in addition, you are married with two kids that you have yet to put through college. What would your wife say when you will have to explain that you got sacked for flashing the HR?”
This rational thinking took a split second, and I was quite happy smiling to myself, imagining what would have happened if I had allowed my recklessness to take charge and if this scene had actually played out. I have matured to the point that I understand (most of the time) when I have the potential to cross the line, to consider the consequences, and most of all, to understand the appropriateness of my actions.
The Two-Headed Baby
It was May, 2009, and I was walking through the chemical plant with a young electrical engineer. During casual conversation, she mentioned that she was three months pregnant. As we were walking to inspect an electrical transformer, she noticed that one of the chemical reactors was being opened for routine maintenance and inspection. She stopped walking and said that even though it was safe for her to be in the area, her instinct as a mother-to-be was to take no risks with her pregnancy. An impish smile came to my face as my twisted Irish sense of humor was toying with me to say the words, “I bet it would hurt like heck to give birth to a two headed baby”. The words were on my lips, yet again I refrained from saying anything aloud.
What can we learn from this?
A healthy sense of humor can help you get noticed and promoted; however, it is very important to understand boundaries. A remark made at the wrong place at the wrong time can literally destroy a career whether you have 1 year experience or 30.
1. Make fun of situations rather than individuals
2. Be thoughtful of your audience, if one person would be hurt, insulted, or embarrassed, then it is not appropriate
3. People laughing does not always mean that the humor was fitting
4. If your humor is off-target, apologize quickly
5. Do not use sarcastic or other negative humor