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Confronting Workplace Sarcasm

Dear Crucial Skills,

I work in a large international company and lead a team of eight experienced human resource managers. Several of the managers use irony and humor to downplay their colleagues, and I strongly feel that this creates a bad atmosphere because most of the colleagues do not appreciate this way of talking. Should I confront the issue with the entire group or should I deal with the misbehaving colleagues individually?

Wisecrack manager

Dear Wisecrack,

This is an interesting challenge because it deals with the use of humor at its worst—humor used as a tool for taking shots at people, but done in a way that maintains plausible deniability.

“Hey, I was just kidding, can’t you take a joke?”

I know a fair amount about this particular tactic because it was a huge part of my influence repertoire during, say, the first thirty years of my life. I—like most of my close friends—developed keen skills in the use of sarcasm and irony. It was a huge part of my identity. Then, one day, after my wife stumbled awkwardly and I retorted, “Smooth move, did you enjoy the trip?” she responded: “You know what? If you never again use sarcasm—until the day I die—that would be just fine with me. I don’t like it, the kids don’t like it, and there’s no place for it in our home.”

“Hey! Who died and left you in charge?” I shouted boldly and firmly within the confines of my mind as a way of testing out my response before actually putting my foot in my mouth. Then I thought better and whined: “But I really like being sarcastic.”

As the conversation unfolded, I learned that it’s actually quite difficult to defend your right to take cheap shots, dole out insults, and cut people down—all in the name of humor. Trust me. You never want to be the defense attorney when sarcasm goes to court. So, maybe I needed to reconsider my stance. Perhaps, getting a laugh at the expense of a coworker, colleague, friend, or loved one isn’t nearly as endearing as I had once thought it was. And so, I said goodbye to that part of me and my wife has been ever grateful.

Now, to your question as to whether you should bring up the problem individually or in a group. It’s tempting to say something to the entire team. That way you don’t have to accuse anyone directly, plus it’s efficient. One conversation replaces five or six. But then again, you take several risks when you hold a team problem-solving discussion.

First, as you talk with a group, one or more of the people who abuse humor might conclude that you aren’t talking to them. They, after all, are actually quite funny and their cute remarks are loved and appreciated by all. Or so they think.

Second, those who don’t fall into the trap of abusing humor won’t like being thrown into the pot with the actual offenders. Nobody likes being accused of a crime they haven’t committed.

Third, it’s hard to anchor your discussion in facts by pointing to the last instance of abusive humor when you’re talking in general terms. When it comes to discussing problems in an effective way, you need to point to actual instances, preferably on the heels of the occurrence, so the person understands the exact nature of the offense.

It will take longer, but you need to talk to the offenders one-on-one. And as the conversation unfolds, follow the steps we outline in Crucial Confrontations.

Assume the best of others. Perhaps others do think they’re only having fun and they’re unaware that their use of humor can be hurtful. Respectfully and unemotionally describe the last instance, focusing on specific behaviors.

Ask if others see the problem differently. If others seem unmoved to drop their use of sarcasm and irony, explain the consequences of their actions in detail. Talk about how it has affected you. Suggest an alternative means of dealing with the issues.

Discuss the pros and cons. Jointly discuss the benefits of honestly and openly addressing problems rather than approaching them obliquely and possibly at the expense of others.

Thank others for their efforts. End by thanking them for the frank conversation and express your appreciation for their willingness to drop harsh humor from their repertoire.

You are right to confront this damaging behavior immediately, especially because a few managers are creating a bad atmosphere for the rest of your team. As you talk to each employee individually, don’t let him or her use the excuse I mentioned above—”Hey, I was just kidding, can’t you take a joke?” Make sure each employee is aware of the damage he or she is doing to morale, productivity, and results. Establish a zero tolerance policy and encourage employees to hold others accountable when they violate that policy.


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9 thoughts on “Confronting Workplace Sarcasm”

  1. Teresa

    Thank you for today’s post. One additional comment. If that is modeled to your children, they feel it is appropriate as well. I am seeing that play back in the life of my teenage daughter in very inappropriate ways. You reap what you sow.

  2. bean sagof

    zero tolerance for harsh humor is just as harsh as tolerance for harsh humor. it’s hard to draw the line between what’s damaging or not when only considering one person’s behaviors because of the many interpretations possible. depending on the perspective of the listener humor may or may not be considered harsh.
    when considering the listener it becomes much more complex AND that complexity allows for potentially much more intimacy if both can be trusted not to abuse humor as a substitute for crucial skills. humor has its place in creating an intimate environment (which is good for morale, i’d say) as does taking a responsibility approach to one’s perspective.

  3. Malcom

    Sarcasm is a useful tool for weeding out the bland boring over sensitive jobsworths in corporate America. Taking sarcasm personally informs the other person that you have no self confidence and no ability to take criticism without calling your shrink. Grow a backbone!!!

  4. Nolcha Fox

    I used humor, sarcasm, and irony for a good portion of my life as a shield against people getting too close. I didn’t realize how ingrained humor was in my personality and in family interactions until my baby brother killed himself.

    If people use humor as a shield instead of thinking they are cute and endearing, would the suggestions you offered still work?

  5. Peter Alfvin

    In a previous blog by Jim Grenny concerning dealing with an overbearing father in law, he suggested not holding a crucial conversation immediately after a specific incident, but instead holding off until a “comfortable time” and then focusing on the pattern rather than the most recent incident. That seems like good advice, but it seems at odds with what you’re recommending here. Any comment on that?

  6. Mark

    I hope the new book “Change Anything” addresses this. I, unfortunately, use sarcasm and would like some help changing. All books I’ve found are geared toward helping the victim and not the aggressor.

  7. Sarcasm’s day in court « It Takes a Team to Tango

    […] last week I read a great column in the Vital Smarts newsletter by Kerry Patterson, called “Confronting Workplace Sarcasm.” I wish I’d seen this before my team building session because Patterson captures the […]

  8. 14 Roundup – 24th July 2011 | 14principles

    […] Interesting take on workplace sarcasm. […]

  9. Anrie

    Have you ever considered what the Bible says about sarcastic people? Who do we think is the best one to say something on the matter of sarcasm? Is it not the one who created us?

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