They Who Laugh, Last!
September, 1999
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Changing Corporate Perceptions of the Value of Humor

"What we are looking for, first and foremost, is a sense of humor . . . We hire attitudes." Herb Kelleher (CEO, Southwest Airlines)

It wasn’t very long ago that virtually every company in the country drew a sharp distinction between the notion of work and play. If you had fun, or were found joking, laughing, or showing a "playful attitude" on the job, it was assumed that you were goofing off, not taking your work seriously, immature, unprofessional, etc. Over the past two decades, however, as the pace of change in the way business is done has escalated, companies have thrown many of their old assumptions about how businesses should be run out the window. There is a new openness to any management strategy that works; i.e., that supports the bottom line. It is precisely this openness that has led many CEOs to consider the idea of putting humor and fun to work. "Increasingly, smart companies and executives are recognizing that humor is one of the most effective ways to deal with workplace challenges and thes tress they cause."

As early as the mid-1980s, a survey found that 84% of Vice Presidents and personnel directors in 100 of the largest corporations in the country felt that employees with a sense of humor are more effective on the job than people with little or no sense of humor. The organization conducting the survey concluded that "People with a sense of humor tend to be more creative, less rigid and more willing to consider and embrace new ideas and methods." Another mid-1980s survey of 737 chief executives of major corporations showed that an amazing 98% of those completing the survey said they would hire a person with a good sense of humor over one who seemed to lack a sense of humor.

I have had many companies tell me following a program for their staff that they specifically look for evidence of a good sense of humor in employees they hire (especially for management positions), because they are convinced that this helps them continue to do their jobs effectively without getting "bent out of shape" or overwhelmed on the tough days.

In one recent survey of business executives and Deans of Business Schools, 62% of the Deans responding to the survey said they felt that humor contributed to executive success; and nearly all the CEOs who responded felt that humor has an important role to play in the conduct of business, and that humor helps keep business healthy. The individual conducting the survey noted that nearly all the responding CEOs said that ". . . all other things being equal, they would hire the job applicant with a better sense of humor." Consistent with this trend, an article in Human Resources Magazine in 1994 specifically called for Human Resources managers to begin instituting programs that help employees learn to lighten up. My book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, provides managers the tool they need to begin instituting such a program.

Tom Peters has long had his finger on the pulse of American business. He is now convinced that every company can boost its creativity, team spirit and productivity by building more humor and a lighter style of collegial interaction into the workplace.

Herb Kelleher is probably the best known example of a CEO (Southwest Airlines) who insists on hiring employees with a good sense of humor. In filling any position, says Kelleher, "what we are looking for, first and foremost, is a sense of humor . . . We don’t care much about education and expertise, because we can train people . . . We hire attitudes." In fact, during job interviews, job candidates are specifically asked to give an example of how they’re recently used their sense of humor on the job, and how they’ve "used humor to defuse a difficult situation." This approach has helped make Southwest Airlines the most successful airline in the country. Employees love working for Southwest, and do whatever it takes to sustain high levels of performance and quality service. And they have fun in he process! If it works for Southwest, it can also work for you.


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