I really like working for the City, partly because the people around me seem to enjoy what they are doing. We all have tasks and challenges that cause stress or are disagreeable, but the support and encouragement of colleagues makes a big difference in how we feel about our jobs. I think the ability to laugh, particularly at ourselves, is an important part of a healthy work environment.
Humor can also be a source of problems because what is funny to one person may not be to another. My general rule of thumb is that humor is safe when I’m the subject. I may, however, have strayed over the line a few times in poking fun at the Beavers among us, although I have probably taken more hits than I’ve given out in the battle of the universities.
My favorite humor usually comes from stories told by colleagues about things that have happened to them in either their work or home lives. I was at a dinner gathering not long ago when I learned that one of our employees likes visiting garage sales and stopped at a house in a wealthy Portland neighborhood where various items were displayed in the driveway. She saw a nice looking desk chair and decided to try it out when she was confronted by the homeowner who explained that they were simply doing some cleaning and not holding a garage sale.
Sometimes stories that may have been distressing when they occurred become funny in hindsight. I always enjoy hearing our city attorney tell the story of how he inadvertently dumped the previous city manager’s wife out of a boat on a vacation many years ago. Getting soaked isn’t inherently funny, but I can now laugh about falling into a slough a few years ago while I was out doing my morning run. There is a great trail around the subdivision where I live that doesn’t always drain well. During a rainy stretch, someone had pulled some branches across the trail that a nimble person could use to negotiate a fairly large pond that had formed. I successfully used the branches for a few weeks until one day I encountered the first person I had seen standing by the edge of the water. I confidently jumped onto the limb and began running across until I lost my footing and fell into about two feet of water. The person I had passed was kind enough to ask if I was alright and stifle his laughter while I made a soggy exit.
Good humor, like good judgment, can be hard to explain or define, but I think both are necessary for a healthy work life. It really isn’t that difficult to apply good judgment to the use of humor in the workplace by avoiding anything that demeans, embarrasses, or offends someone else. I think most of us know when something we may feel like sharing doesn’t seem quite right, and that’s probably a good indication we shouldn’t say it.