Christmas Warning-Taken with a pinch of festive spirit

Why 'The Office' humor doesn't work: Bad bosses shouldn't make jokes as it annoys and offends employees, finds study

  • Success of boosting morale with jokes is dependent on relationships
  • Study found bosses who don't have a good relationship will upset their employees, regardless of whether the joke is positive or negative in nature
  • Contradicts belief that positive humour in the workplace improves morale

By Ellie Zolfagharifard For

Published: 01:04, 8 October 2015 | Updated: 06:16, 8 October 2015

There's a reason why Michael Scott could never get on with his employees in the TV show, 'The Office'.

New research suggests bosses - especially ones who are bad at their job - shouldn't make jokes with their employees.

The study contradicts conventional wisdom that any positive humor in the workplace improves team morale.


There's a reason why Michael Scott (played by actor Steve Carell in this image)  could never get on with his employees in the TV show, 'The Office'. New research suggests bosses - especially ones who are bad at their job - shouldn't make jokes with their employees

People also tend to believe that bosses should avoid negative humor, such as sarcasm, though actual scientific support for that belief is scarce.

The study by the University of Missouri found that the success of jokes in improving job satisfaction depends on the quality of a boss' relationship with employees.


'Generally, people think that positive humor, which is inclusive, affiliative and tasteful, is good in leadership, and negative humor, which is aggressive and offensive, is bad,' said Christopher Robert, associate professor in the Department of Management.

'In our study, we found the effects of humor depend on the relationship between leaders and subordinates.

'Specifically, both positive and negative humor use by leaders is positively related to their subordinates' job satisfaction when the relationship between the leader and subordinates is good.

The study contradicts conventional wisdom that any positive humour in the workplace improves team morale. Pictured is a scene from the US version of TV show, The Office

'However, when the leader-subordinate relationship is bad, both negative and positive types of humor are associated with lower job satisfaction.

'In other words, for leaders, sometimes good humor has bad effects and bad humor has good effects on subordinates.'

To test their theory, Professor Robert and his team developed two sets of questionnaires, one for bosses and one for employees.

Researchers studied responses from about 70 leaders and their 241 subordinates in 54 organisations.

'The findings suggest that if leaders wish to integrate humor into their interactions with subordinates, they should first assess whether or not their subordinates are likely to interpret their humorous overtures positively,' Robert said.

'If a good relationship between the leader and the subordinate exists, then humor - be it positive or negative in tone—will only help to maintain the good relationship.'

Professor Robert also suggested that these results have implications for boss' strategic use of humor.

'Instead of using humor to build relationships, leaders should work to build strong relationships through other means such as through clear communication, fair treatment, and providing clear and useful feedback.

'Humor then can be used to maintain those strong relationships.'

He cautions that a good relationship with employees doesn't necessarily gives bosses free reign to use any type of humor in any context.

For instance, he points out that jokes that leverage racial or sexual stereotypes may not be accepted positively by employees.


Bosses who shout and send demeaning emails to employees can cause conflict throughout their team, researchers have claimed.

They say the abuse is 'toxic' and can spread through the workplace. This leads to everybody suffering, they concluded.

The Michigan State University study, conducted in China and the United States, suggests the toxic effect of nonphysical abuse by a boss is much broader than believed.

The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails. Employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team.

Researcher, Crystal Farh, said supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers' attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another.


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