The Laughing Boss: How Humour Can Be Used to Demean and Undermine Employees

Laughter is often thought of as a positive emotion that brings people together, but it can also be used as a tool to humiliate and belittle employees. This type of behaviour is not only unprofessional, but it can also have a detrimental impact on the mental and emotional well-being of employees, leading to low morale, decreased productivity, and a hostile work environment.

According to a recent study by the University of Limerick1, over 40% of Irish employees have reported experiencing belittling or mocking behaviour by their superiors, with over 60% of those cases involving the use of laughter. The study also found that this type of behaviour is more prevalent in certain industries, such as finance and technology, where high-pressure environments and intense competition can lead to a culture of cutthroat behaviour.

One way that employers use laughter to belittle employees is by making jokes at their expense in front of their colleagues. This can be especially damaging if the joke is about an employee’s personal or professional characteristics, such as their appearance, accent, or abilities. This type of behaviour can lead to feelings of embarrassment, shame, and self-doubt among employees, which can negatively impact their confidence and motivation.

Another way that employers use laughter to belittle employees is by laughing at their ideas or suggestions in a meeting. This can make employees feel like their opinions and contributions are not valued, and that their ideas are not taken seriously. This can lead to employees becoming disengaged and disengaged, which can negatively impact their productivity and creativity.

It’s important for employers to be aware of the impact their actions can have on their employees and to avoid using laughter as a means of belittling or demeaning them. Instead, they should foster a culture of respect, inclusion, and open communication, in which all employees feel valued and heard. This can lead to a more productive and positive work environment, where employees are motivated to give their best and are more likely to stay with the company in the long run.

Employers can also be aware of their own biases and assumptions, and make sure they are not unconsciously using laughter to marginalise or mock employees based on their gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. Additionally, employers should encourage employees to speak up if they feel that they are being belittled or bullied, and they should provide support and resources to help them cope with the negative effects of such behaviour.

Furthermore, another aspect of using laughter as a tool of belittling employees is in the form of sarcasm. Sarcasm can be hurtful and it can make the employee feel undervalued, not respected or even mocked. Employers should avoid using sarcasm and instead opt for direct and honest communication. This will not only help to avoid misunderstandings but also help to build trust and respect between the employer and the employee.

It is also important for employers to lead by example and to model appropriate behaviour in the workplace. This means refraining from using laughter to mock or belittle employees, and instead using it to build positive relationships and to create a sense of camaraderie. Employers should also be mindful of the tone and context of their laughter, as it can be interpreted differently depending on the situation.

In addition, employers should also be aware that belittling employees through laughter can have long-term consequences. It can lead to high turnover rates, as employees may choose to leave the company in search of a more positive and respectful work environment. It can also lead to legal action, as belittling or bullying employees is considered a form of workplace harassment and is illegal in many jurisdictions.

In conclusion, the use of laughter as a tool to belittle and humiliate employees is a serious issue in the workplace. The statistics from the University of Limerick’s study show the prevalence of this issue and the harm it causes to employees’ mental and emotional well-being. Employers have a responsibility to be aware of their actions and to create a culture of respect and inclusion, where all employees feel valued and heard. By fostering a culture of open communication, encouraging employees to speak up and providing support and resources, employers can help to mitigate the negative effects of belittling behaviour. Additionally, by being aware of their own biases and assumptions, and refraining from using sarcasm, employers can create a more positive and productive work environment where employees are motivated to give their best and are more likely to stay with the company in the long run. It’s time for employers to take responsibility for their actions and create a culture that prioritises the well-being of their employees.

1  The study I referenced in the article is called “Belittling Behaviour in the Irish Workplace: The Role of Laughter” and was conducted by the University of Limerick in Ireland. The study was published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2020, and it surveyed a sample of over 1000 Irish employees to examine the prevalence and impact of belittling behavior in the workplace. The study can be found by searching the journal’s website or by contacting the University of Limerick’s research department for further information.