UK: BOOK REVIEW - FUNNY BUSINESS - REVIEW BY SUSAN POIZNER. - Susan Poizner is a freelance journalist.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Susan Poizner is a freelance journalist.

By Jean-Louis Barsoux. Cassell; 200pp; £25 (paperback £11.99).

A big company can be a pretty cheerless billet. Logic and efficiency rule - in theory anyway. Employees, great and small, are tucked into their corporate suits and expected to devote themselves to the omnipotent firm. But the spot-resistant grey carpeting and matching wall coverings can only go so far to curb human individuality. That, at least, seems clear from Jean-Louis Barsoux's study of waggery in the workplace.

Humour brings a bit of personality to the office. Some express it by means of silly signs tacked to the wall. An example appears on the otherwise sober cover of Funny Business. It shows a cartoon businessman wearing high heels, fishnet stockings and a preposterous hat. Beside him hangs a sampler carrying the well-known legend: 'You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps'. Humour is not only an acceptable way of humanising workplaces, but a way of communicating - of delivering a justifiable reprimand, or grievance - without showing anger or sullenness.

Barsoux quotes the secretary whose boss asks her to pour the tea she has just brought in. 'Would you like me to drink it for you as well?' she enquires. This can work both ways, the author points out: used by a higher ranking employee, humour can be an effective management aid. Witness the supervisor passing a group of workers who are taking an extended tea break. 'At this rate, they're going to have to start docking tea-breaks from holiday entitlement,' he quips. It's a joke, but the message is clear.

Some managers take things much further than that. IBM UK chief executive Nick Temple is reported to keep a variety of headgear, from Viking helmets to tricorns, which he hands out when meetings become dull and unproductive. Another manager that Barsoux met while working on this book was known to don Groucho glasses with a false nose and blow a whistle to bring rowdy exchanges to a halt.

In his Troubleshooter series, Sir John Harvey-Jones demonstrated how to put people at ease, as when he commented on the skill of a woman who was counting and stamping plates. 'Well, that's the first time I've ever felt sorry for a machine,' he said. 'There was immediate empathy,' writes Barsoux. 'Here was real-life proof that Victor Borge got it right when he defined humour as "the shortest distance between two people". Employees volunteered information to Harvey-Jones on camera which their own bosses could not have extracted from them with electrodes.' Humour can be a double-edged weapon, as Gerald Ratner discovered when a lighthearted apercu in the wrong place, and at the wrong time, made his company a laughing stock. A year later, when Ratner's shares had plunged to 15p, compared to 150p at the time of the incident, few of his shareholders could be found laughing.

Female employees often find themselves on the cutting edge of that sword. Seemingly harmless banter is often a way of putting a woman in her place. When one managing director called a colleague to enquire about the progress of a newly-appointed female executive, he was told, 'As it happens, she's sitting on my lap. Would you like to speak to her?' The woman was of course standing in his office. Barsoux comments that she 'immediately found herself cast in a subservient role, not really to be taken seriously except as an executive perk'.

The author's conversations with senior industrialists show that humour is sometimes an essential lubricant of the management process. Some, like Sir Allen Sheppard of Grand Metropolitan, go out of their way to work with people that they can laugh with. Sir Brian Wolfson, chairman of Wembley plc, says, 'If humour is important to you, you cannot work with humourless people around you.' Among American, German or French businessmen, to be humourless is not necessarily a shortcoming. Barsoux finds that, when it comes to humour, British managers are way ahead. But then the British need their humour, since life in Britain is itself a bit of a joke - especially if you are a commuter, say, or a customer awaiting an urgent delivery.

Barsoux quotes Miles Kington's observation that the British need a Comic Relief Day about as much as the Germans need a Special Efficiency Day, or the French an Intellectual Argument Day. As a Frenchman and an academic (he is a fellow at Templeton College, Oxford), Barsoux adopts an intellectual approach to his subject. The result is interesting but not always particularly funny.

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