What Happens When Leaders Use Inappropriate Humor?

It’s nice to have a supervisor with a sense of humor, right? It makes work much more pleasant. However, have you ever witnessed a supervisor who thought he was being funny but he was just being mean? If so, that aggressive humor probably had pretty unpleasant consequences. Recent research (Huo, Lam, & Chen, 2012) examined how a supervisor’s aggressive humor can affect employees’ level of addictive behavior and strain at work.


If someone uses humor to criticize, belittle, denigrate, or embarrass another person, then that humor is considered aggressive. In this study, employees who were victims of a supervisor’s aggressive humor showed more strain at work. In addition, that strain often led to addictive behaviors like problematic alcohol, tobacco, or internet abuse. The researchers also found that this relationship was stronger for an employee when the supervisor used aggressive humor with that particular employee but not with others.


These results indicate that humor is not necessarily good; aggressive humor should be avoided. Aggressive humor has negative consequences on employees, and employee performance will likely be reduced due to strain and potentially negative coping mechanisms. If the employee ends up with an addiction as a result of that strain, then the supervisor has contributed to a potentially life-long problem for that employee. Managers should receive training to better understand what type of humor is acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace, as many people may use aggressive humor without even realizing the harm it causes others. Finally, because aggressive humor leads to addictive behavior indirectly through strain, company programs aimed to reduce employee strain could possibly prevent many of the negative consequences found in this study.


Huo, Y., Lam, W., & Chen, Z. (2012). Am I the only one this supervisor is laughing at? Effects of aggressive humor on employee strain and addictive behaviors. Personnel Psychology, 65, 859-885.