What sort of humor is appropriate for employee benefits communications? What should be avoided? Does the context matter? Do the same rules apply across every kind of communication? Does Carrot Top do the benefits conference circuit, and, if so, what’s his hourly rate?

Since you, lovely HR person, will probably find yourself in the very near future sitting at a computer, creating all kinds of employee communications for open enrollment, we thought we’d pass on a few tips regarding the use of humor you might find handy.

1. Spend a minute putting yourself in the shoes of your intended audience — every single time you create something new. Sounds simple, but it takes real mental and emotional energy to do it. Ask yourself: What is most people’s default attitude about open/annual enrollment? What do they care about most? What probably annoys them the most? Thinking through your audience’s likely frame of mind — specific to the most important issues at hand — will help you better gauge what’s fair game to make a little light of (and what’s not).

2. Don’t get too silly in your attempts to get people’s attention. Sure, you could write an “enrollment has started” email with the subject line “Hey Everybodies! You Can Has Open Enrollment!” with a picture of the I Can Has Cheeseburger cat in the email. And people would open the email and snort. But keep in mind that if you go really off-the-wall/silly like this, you risk appearing tone deaf to the fact that choosing a benefits plan involves some serious decisions, which could make some people be less receptive when you might ask them to take other actions in the future.

3. Don’t get too cute when laying out the nuts-and-bolts information. The best place to throw in a little humor, say, in an email, is in the beginning, when you’re setting things up, or the ending, when you’re transitioning to a conclusion. The meaty, important stuff? The who, what, where, why? Better to just be straightforward. Would you want someone cracking jokes when you ask them for directions? I’m going to guess not.

4. Channel your inner Ellen Degeneres, not your inner Don Rickles. It’s fun to laugh together with other people about stuff you all think is dumb. But it’s probably not the best idea to get too snarky in your employee benefits messaging. Better to aim for a more inclusive sort of humor that acknowledges that everybody’s the same boat.

5. If something fairly serious goes wrong, err on the side of sincere and straightforward. Did you accidentally include last year’s enrollment period dates in this year’s emails? Were there some technical glitches with the benefits orientation webinar you invited people to? If so, resist the urge to jokingly say “I’m such an idiot!” or joke your way back into people’s good graces. Better to play it straight. Apologize, express concern about any inconvenience, and leave it at that.

Mark Rader writes for ALEX, Jellyvision’s virtual benefits counselor that helps employees better understand appreciate their benefits.

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