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Using Humor in Employee Communications: Be Careful

Cartoon image of the devil

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. That may have crossed the minds of some partners at the Clifford Chance law firm after the blowback from a leaked internal document to the website Abovethelaw.com.

The website mocked a recently distributed five-page “Presentation Tips for Women” produced by the firm’s Women’s Committee.  The document, which certainly lacked a good editor, moves from helpful to patronizing fairly quickly. Among the more ridiculous tips are these:

  • Practice hard words
  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit
  • Don’t hide behind your hair
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe
  • Watch out for the urinal position
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage

Initial reaction: Is there any reason why presentation tips should be gender-specific? Next thought: It’s amazing that this was written by women for women. It made me wonder if the Women’s Committee drafted the document at a local Mexican restaurant with a flip chart, markers and several pitchers of margaritas. You can read the entire document here: Clifford Chance: Presentation Tips for Women

So what went wrong? Most of the information was basic Presentation 101 stuff, applicable to anyone prepping for a big presentation. It was accurate and helpful. There was probably a defined need to polish presentation skills.  However, it’s the snarky stuff that changed this from a dull internal email to a headline on Huffington Post.  The intention may have been good but the execution provides a case study on why it’s difficult to use humor in internal communications.

Here are four tips for ensuring your messaging doesn’t backfire with colleagues.

1)      Treat the audience with respect—Think professionals, not pals. Spend a little time providing context. It helps the reader understand what’s in it for them. In this case explaining how appearance, posture and composure influence the audience is better than saying “Don’t squirm. Don’t giggle. Don’t rock on your heels.”

2)      Use company values as guideposts. Reread the company values. They set the tone for your company culture. If the content doesn’t support your values, don’t use it.

3)      Use humor sparingly—There’s a thin line between hilarious and offensive. Humor is subjective. It can work in internal communications if it’s positive and relatable for your entire audience. When in doubt, have a colleague review it to get another perspective.  It may not be as funny as you think it is.

4)      Less is more—The only thing that kept me reading through the Clifford Chase memo was the hope of finding more offensive material. Five pages of presentation tips is four pages too many. People are busy, so keep it concise and on point.

What do you think? Share your story of using humor in employee communications with Maureen:  mclayton@insight-communication.com