Workplace Sarcasm: When Being Funny At Work Hurts Your Career
July 02, 2009
By J.T. O'Donnell Every office has one. The employee who is quick-witted and always seems to know when to throw in a snappy bit of sarcasm to make everyone chuckle about an obnoxious client or less-than-exciting new company policy. Their sharp sense of humor is often used in to lighten the mood and diffuse tense moments. And yet... When does the sarcastic employee cross the line? Do they realize the negative impact they can have while desperately trying to seek a laugh? More importantly, can their sarcasm eventually hurt their career? True story... Back in my early twenties, I worked for a start-up company that was full of fellow young professionals. We were all recent college grads looking to finally start to make some good money and had hitched our stars on the excitement of working for a cutting-edge company that gave us stock options and hopes of a big payout in the not-so-distant future. In the beginning, our team was on fire. The company expanded quickly and the energy was intensely fun. But then, some things happened to tarnish the rosy of glow of start-up life. A round of layoffs, followed by a change in our commission structure had us all working more and making less. We were frustrated and angry. And looking back, our lack of workplace experience showed in that we didn't know how to react to what was happening. Many of us started commiserating after work over drinks, eyeball rolling became the norm throughout the day, and a somber, secretive-type communication style replaced our light-hearted banter of earlier days. Times were tough. Then one day, a very sarcastic co-worker decided to take venting his frustrations to a whole new level. He started crafting top secret e-mail rants. He would wax on about various managers, poking fun at everything from their voice to their sense of fashion. Now that I think of it, his daily e-mails were almost like blog posts. Initially, people looked forward to getting them and you could hear a certain style of 'chuckle' that always told you who, across a sea of cubicles, was reading the latest one. His e-mails were like a guilty pleasure served up to ease the stress of working in a downtrodden corporate culture. But then, as things got progressively worse on-the-job, so did the intensity of the employee's sarcasm. And, somewhere along the line, the e-mails went from funny to uncomfortable. In an effort to retain the interest of his readership, the employee's sarcasm took an evil turn. He expanded upon who he wrote about, sometimes leaving people off the e-mail list just to make fun of them. No one was off limits to this employee. If someone looked at him the wrong way, the result could be a page-long demoralization. Furthermore, his obsession with producing these e-mails seemed to have a direct impact on his performance. Not only did he start failing at work, his work relationships started failing too. People became afraid of being associated with him, especially when they realized that getting caught reading one of these e-mails could get them in trouble. And then it happened, the ultimate betrayal... The sarcastic employee was turned in by another employee who had found out he was being 'ragged on' in these e-mails repeatedly. The company IT guy researched and found out just how much work time had been spent on writing/distributing the e-mails and the employee was let go. Talk about tough to explain on job interviews: Hiring Manager: "So, why did you leave your last job?" Sarcastic Employee: "Well, I was trash talking everyone in the company in e-mails during work hours and got caught." To make matters worse, it had been his first real job (i.e. professional setting), and now he had no reference. He couldn't get any of his former co-workers to agree to talk to potential employers for him either because we were all promptly instructed on the 'no reference giving' policy by the HR Manager right after his departure. So, here's my question: Was he the only one to blame? Yes, he wrote the e-mails, but it was the initial reaction he got from all of us that fueled him to write more, which lead him down a path to destruction. My takeaway from the experience was this: There's humor and there's sarcasm. We need the first in the workplace, but not necessarily the second. Being funny at work isn't a problem, as long as you're not sarcastic. What are your thoughts? Do the sarcastic people in your company cross boundries at times? How do you respond to them? Is there room for sarcasm in the workplace? Does using sarcasm put your career at risk?