From the December 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

You Think That's Funny?

Richard Brenner is a cutup. The founder and CEO of 42-employee Cupertino, California, interim management firm The Brenner Group Inc. regularly uses humor to lighten up a room. But he recognizes there are times when it's not appropriate.

Once, Brenner watched in horror as a client used a joke while announcing a layoff. "Recession is when you're losing a job," said the client. "Depression is when I'm losing my job." No one laughed.

"Know your audience," says Brenner. That applies as much to the situation as to the individual. Some people are just too tightly wound.

Polite conversation doesn't include sex, religion or politics. Jokes on those subjects are dangerous. And when faced with a tragedy, take a cue from David Letterman in the wake of 9/11. Drop the comedy and acknowledge the event with the solemnity it deserves.

Humor can also become a distraction when you're trying to get an important message across. That said, don't get gun shy. Use your gut. Body language, attire and facial expression give you clues to people's receptivity to humor. Practice makes your timing better-but remember that a joke is not always appropriate.

Birth Rights

This past summer, three of Damon Gersh's 35 employees were about to become first-time fathers. Gersh, president of Maxons Restorations Inc., a New York City disaster recovery firm, knew what was in store for them.

"No matter what you expect, the demands on your time, focus and energy are much greater than you think they're going to be," he says.

Gersh, 32, has two kids of his own. From that experience, he discovered how necessary it is to plan around pregnancies-whether of employees or their partners. Here are some lessons to use the next time an employee announces the happy news:

  • Set expectations. "They're being optimistic that they'll be in full force soon after the baby is delivered," Gersh says. He knows better-and he's told his staff so. He expects no work during the child's first week and time off for doctor appointments or family crises (think colicky baby) during the first month. Prospective mothers can also underestimate their ability to come back. Establish as gentle a return as possible.
  • Know the law. The Family and Medical Leave Act (www.dol.gov/dol/topic/benefits-leave/fmla.htm) applies only to businesses with more than 50 employees. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (www.eeoc.gov/facts/fs-preg.html) applies only to those with more than 25. But it's wise to use the laws as guidelines even in a smaller firm. "The number-one thing is to treat pregnancy the same as any other temporary disability or medical condition," says Merle Ray, the director of HRPowerHouse.com for professional employer organization Administaff Inc.
  • Plan. Gersh made sure the rest of his staff understood they'd have to pick up some slack. Ray suggests lining up temps and training them in advance. "With a nine-month pregnancy, you have time to plan," she says.
  • Provide information. Get data about day-care options, and make some kind of counseling available-whether through a simple referral or through your health plan. Parents will be grateful-and return with renewed appreciation for your firm.

Business writer Chris Sandlund works out of Cold Spring, New York.

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