Published: 25 May 2017

It's No Joke! The Role of Humour in Recovery from Organisational Injustice

Conference paper presented by Dr Rashpal Dhensa-Kahlon at the Organisational Justice and Behavioural Ethics Research Group 


There are many ways of managing the ubiquity of unfairness at work, from ‘getting even’ with one’s perpetrator, performing a job less well, to lowering one’s citizenship behaviours or exiting the organization altogether (Konovsky & Cropanzano, 1991; Skarlicki & Folger, 1997; Bies, Tripp & Kramer, 1997; Aquino, Tripp & Bies, 2006; Ambrose & Schminke, 2009; Choi, 2008; Kim & Leung, 2007).  In such overwhelmingly emotional and stressful situations (Bies & Tripp, 2002), one such response that might emerge is an individual’s use of humor.  Though this juxtaposition of states - a stressful unfairness episode and comedy – appear seemingly incongruous, a plethora of studies not only confirm the pervasive phenomenon of humor in the workplace (Cooper, 2008) but point to the merits of humor as a way of managing adversity (i.e., Martin & Lefcourt, 1983; Herth, 1990; Samson & Gross, 2014). 

Taking an emotion regulation perspective by drawing on Fredrickson’s ‘undoing hypothesis’ and broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Fredrickson, 2013), our paper explores the utility of humor as a recovery mechanism from the adverse effects of workplace unfairness.  Our underlying theoretical predictions rest on the notion that humor and humorous stimuli evoke positive emotions which in turn counteract the ‘hot and burning’ negative emotions that arise from an injustice episode (Bies & Tripp, 2002).  We specifically construe recovery as changes in emotional well-being. 

In two cross-sectional online surveys, we demonstrate respectively that: i) the use of humor as a coping mechanism (intra-regulation/reactive humor) has the effect of ‘up-regulating’ positive emotions; and, ii) creating humor (inter-regulation/active humor) with others has the effect of ‘down-regulating’ negative emotions.  We are amidst a final lab study that subjects these findings to causal tests.  We are using a justice/injustice vignette study, with humor being manipulated in the form of humorous/non humourous videos.

In line with extant research, our early findings demonstrate that the phenomenon of humor has implications for negative emotion regulation in the context of workplace injustice.  Overall, we argue that humor functions as an antidote to the negative emotions arising from episodes of unfairness.  However, there is an asymmetry effect: a humorous coping disposition can increase positive emotions, but only when individuals place a value on using humor, to the extent that they produce jokes and stories about their injustice, can it function to serve to ‘undo’ the lingering effects of negative emotions.

Our work seeks to contribute to recent calls in the organizational justice literature for enquiry into how, if at all, individuals can recover from their experiences of workplace injustice (Shapiro, 2001; Barclay, Skarlicki & Latham, 2009; Barclay & Saldhana, 2013).  

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