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Source: University of Auckland

The relationship between humour and bullying is explored in a recently published paper in the European Journal of Humour Research.

Humour in the workplace, although typically linked to well-being and happiness, can also have a dark side, says University of Auckland researcher Dr Barbara Plester.
Dr Plester didn’t set out to study bullying when she and her co-authors, Business School doctoral candidate Emily Brewer and Professor Tim Bentley of Edith Cowan University, embarked on a multi-year study of humour and organisational culture.
However, the academics’ research within four New Zealand-based organisations, which involved worker observation, in-depth interviews, document collection, and ad hoc discussions with participants, uncovered a culture around humour within one business that wasn’t entirely funny.
“I didn’t want to get into what I call the dark side of humour, but I found it, and our paper investigates the relationship between humour and bullying and suggests that this type of bullying can be even more insidious and difficult to address because the use of humour creates a smokescreen, which to some extent protects the perpetrator,” says Dr Plester.
In the (now defunct) business, which had less than 30 employees, the researchers observed sexualised, dominating, and hierarchical humour. However, all of the employees said they didn’t consider it to be bullying.
It’s difficult, says Plester, for employees to call out bullying when it’s packaged like a joke, as this immediately distances them from those involved in the humour and defines them as ‘other’ within their organisational culture.
“Although the interactions we looked at were unanimously identified as humour by all staff members, our interpretation and construction suggest that these joking social behaviours can be perceived as bullying.”
Using the widely accepted criteria for bullying as repeated, dominating, negative behaviour, the researchers argue that bullying in the organisation was perpetrated and disguised as rebellious humour.
When left unchallenged, and in the hands of those skilled in performance and delivery, and without the option for the support of a human resources team, such humorous bullying can have devastating consequences and may cause substantial embarrassment, confusion, and harm, says Plester.
“In addressing this emerging insight into a form of bullying, we invite further explorations into the relationship between humour and bullying and reassert that sometimes ‘just joking’ may not be funny at all.”