Why We Laugh When a Joke's Not Funny, and Other New Job Lessons

Many companies do things that make absolutely no sense to anyone who is currently doing them.

Suzanne Lucas

Two lemons were in the shower. The first one said, “Pass me the soap.” The second one said, “What do you think I am? A typewriter?”

Ha! Ha! Ha! Excuse me while I wipe the tears of mirth from my eyes. Isn’t that the funniest joke you’ve ever heard in your life? No? (Note to my younger readers: A typewriter is a keyboard where you type directly onto paper. Isn’t that the strangest thing you’ve ever heard of in your life?)

Well, back in the dark ages when I was in high school, this was a favorite joke of mine and my friends. We found it hilarious. Not the joke itself, mind you, but watching how people would try diligently to figure out what was so funny about it. If you told it in a group where most everyone was in on it, you could almost guarantee that the new “victims” would laugh at it.

It’s human nature. Everyone else is laughing, so it must be funny. If I don’t think it’s funny, it must be because I’m missing something, so I better laugh now and then figure it out later, or ask my closest friend privately to explain.

When you’re new to a company, however, and some process is presented as “this is how we do things,” your instinct to go along with the crowd should be suppressed. Yes, you take a risk when you ask the question, “Can you explain that to me? I’m not quite sure I understand.” But, theoretically, they hired you because of what you could add to the company.

Many, many companies do things that make absolutely no sense to anyone who is currently carrying it out. It could have made sense when some long-gone director implemented the policy, but it may not make sense now. People are hesitant to question it because this is how they’ve always done it, so there must be a good reason. But, that good reason could have gone away a long time ago.

Not every policy or practice that doesn’t make sense on the surface really is insensible. But, when you are the new person, you have the luxury of asking without looking stupid, and perhaps making some changes that will be better for everyone.

Now, of course, if your VP is still stuck in high school mode, he’ll insist that the lemon joke really is funny. Then you’re stuck, but at least you tried. But, frequently, when people start to explain, they’ll realize that they don’t know the reason behind the practice any more than you did. You can, altogether, start to figure out if it truly is necessary. And the end result can be some actual value added to your company.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human r esources experience, most of which has been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.


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