my new office has a no-humor policy

A reader writes:

I’m an analyst at a small (25 employee) firm. I applied here mostly because of the great reputation this place has for putting out good work in my industry, and started this job about three weeks ago. It’s my second job after grad school, so I have a little experience under my belt but am still pretty junior.

When I got my onboarding materials, it was specified that the dress code was formal, which I chalked up to wanting the employees’ presentation to match the sleek and well-decorated office space I had seen in my walk-through. Not a big deal, and after so long working from home I couldn’t complain about getting to shop for some new business outfits and professional heels, honestly.

My first week, everyone was very polite but felt pretty reserved, which I assumed was due to them not knowing me yet. On Monday of my second week, I had a few documents in my hand and was heading to the copy room when one of my coworkers (a peer, not my boss) asked from his office if I could grab his print job from the printer tray while I was in there. I replied that I would, and said I’d be out once I figured out how to make double-sided bound copies on the (new to me) copier, so it might be a few years once I finally had it back to him. To clarify (because this apparently needs clarification?), this was a joke. I was actually going in there to make double-sided bound copies, but was joking about the trickiness of dealing with copiers. In reality, I figured it out in less than five minutes and brought the coworker’s document with me on my way back, not thinking anything about the interaction after that.

At the end of the day, my boss asked me if I could stop by his office before I headed out. I did, and when I got there our HR rep was in there with him(!). HR told me that it concerned him that I had made a joke about using the copier earlier, and that another coworker had come to him to raise this as well after overhearing me say it. I confirmed that it had been a joke, and a very lighthearted (and minor) attempt at establishing some rapport with my new coworkers. Then, my boss said that he didn’t think that kind of remark went over well. Not sure what he was getting at, I apologized for it and said that it was not my intention to reinforce any harmful stereotypes about women in the workplace being incompetent at basic tasks. HR said that that was not the issue, but that it was the fact that I had made a joke at all that he wanted to flag for me. He said that our office was not one where jokes will go over well, and while I wasn’t being reprimanded, he wanted to let me know that in the future I should not use humor or jokes or sarcasm because people could take it the wrong way.

Kind of dumbfounded and assuming that this was a pretty narrowly tailored comment, I agreed that I wouldn’t want external clients or office visitors to hear an innocent joke and get a bad idea of our office or how it’s run based on that. My boss jumped in to clarify that actually, they meant that we are not supposed to make jokes ever, whether or not we have external meetings that day. HR finished by saying that this was not a write-up or anything, and my boss said that my work quality so far has been great. I got my things and went home for the day. I’ve since realized that maybe my initial impression of everyone acting reserved when I started and the formal dress code might all be indicating a more serious workplace than I had expected.

Holy shit, Alison. What? To clarify, I am not interested in doing stand-up comedy at work, nor am I a gregarious person in my personal or professional life. But like — what? I don’t think my big takeaway from this is disappointment that I’m not supposed to make jokes at work (I am not especially funny) but I’m concerned that a throwaway comment I made has been policed to this level. All my friends/family balked when I told them this and told me it’s an insane policy, but the normalcy with which my boss/HR presented this to me is making me feel like I’m the crazy one for questioning it. Is this normal in an office environment? I interned in college and grad school and worked for a few years after graduating, but have never worked someplace where this is the norm.

This policy was not raised in my interviews or anything, and I was really excited about this job because of the professional growth it can afford me. What should I do here? It feels insane to job search after only a few weeks and this feels like a weak reason to leave a job, especially when the job responsibilities/pay/commute are all a step up for me. Do I just resort to being a stone-faced, Serious Business Lady while in the office and accept this insane quirk of the job while reaping the benefits of my position? I don’t think there’s anyone in the office I’d feel comfortable raising this with to get their temperature on it, as even if some of them don’t approve of it or think it’s crazy too, they’re all acting very much in line with the whole “never make a joke or any comment that may in any way be considered not straightforwardly work-related” thing so I can’t tell if there are any other dissenters. And for clarification, I do not work in law, banking, accounting, or any other industry where there is a stereotype of overly serious work environments. Any help would be VERY useful here.

A final note: I’m a regular AAM reader so my first thought was to think “Does this one weird quality actually indicate a much more flawed workplace?” and I genuinely think the answer is no. My boss and coworkers have provided great feedback on my work, I have opportunities to collaborate, there’s room for growth, and my experience has been varied. It’s just like … no one talks about anything but work, it’s a very quiet office, and I have quite literally never heard a laugh in here (all appropriate consequences of a no-humor office, I suppose). I just wanted to flag in case you were wondering if this office was a really dysfunctional place in other ways that I’m not taking into account.

Noooo, this is not normal!

It is very, very odd, and it’s a bizarre amount of control over people’s interactions with each other.

It’s true that are times when a manager might have good cause for talking to an employee about inappropriate use of humor — but those would be things like “Hey, the frequent sarcasm is coming across as pretty aggressive” or “rein in the dark humor, would you?” or “people don’t know you’re joking when you say things like X or Y” or “do not make jokes about race or gender here, ever.”

But “do not make a humorous remark ever, at any time”? Why?

Did they have a problem with some jokes landing wrong and this is a massive overcorrection? Does someone in upper management have no sense of humor and this is an order from them? Is it not really the policy and HR and your boss somehow really mangled whatever they intended to communicate to you?

If I had to put money on it, I’d guess that this is someone’s really strange idea of what “professionalism” looks like. But if so, how has no other senior person spoken up and said, “Um, this is a really weird edict and we shouldn’t do this”? I mean, in theory we could make people more professional by banning any non-work-related talk too, but we don’t do that because we work with humans and conversation is a normal part of human behavior, as is humor.

I’m glad you included your note at the end, because I’m definitely wondering what this culture is like! Do people seem happy? Is there a sense of warmth in their interactions with each other? It doesn’t sound like a particularly joyless place from what you wrote in your last paragraph but … at the same time, how can it not be?

I’m also wondering what it does to people to work in an office with this rule over a sustained period of time. I’d worry it would change your personality, making you less light-hearted outside of work too. (Or the reverse — sending you home every day bursting with pent-up silliness that must be unleashed. I might leave for lunch every day and rapid-fire an unseemly number of terrible jokes in quick succession at the person preparing my sandwich, just for the relief of it.)

As for what to do … I think it’s too soon to decide anything for sure yet. You’re only a few weeks in, you haven’t noticed anything troubling outside of this, and you’re otherwise happy with the job. For now, you might as well stay put and get a better sense of the culture. If it becomes clear that the culture is chilly and not one where you’re comfortable, then at that point you’d decide whether it’s uncomfortable to the point that you want to job-search immediately, or something you’ll live with for a while but probably not long-term (maybe staying a year or two but then parlaying the experience into something else), or something you’re willing to deal with in exchange for other benefits of the job. Or who knows, maybe it’ll become clear that despite the no-humor policy, people are still warm and reasonably human and the restrictions roll right off you when you leave the office every day.

You’ll also probably know some coworkers well enough at some point that you can ask what’s up with this, because even people who don’t have a major problem with it probably still recognize that it’s unusual. (But who knows, maybe they’re all refugees from companies where office humor meant sexualized or bigoted jokes and they’re delighted by this reprieve. I’m guessing, though, that you’re not the only one who finds it strange.)

But yes, your gut reaction is right. This is indeed Quite Odd.