my CEO is furious about a joke I made

A reader writes:

I recently had an odd situation with the CEO of my company. I am a project manager working on a high-profile, time-sensitive project that was very important to the company. Although the company is a large multinational, I work out of the small satellite office, along with the CEO for North America, the VP of my division, and a few director level folks and individual contributors. Typically there aren’t too many people in the office since people travel a lot for work and work a hybrid schedule when not traveling. I don’t talk to the CEO a lot, but we do chat a few times a month and he’s traveled to visit my project several times.

Late in the day during a key (and highly stressful) week for the project, while I was chatting with one of the directors about sports, the CEO walked over and joined in our casual conversation. (We were the only three people in the office.) At the end of the conversation, he asked me how the project was going. I use humor to deal with stress so I made a very quick joke along the lines of, “Was I supposed to be working on that project this week?” — the joke being that obviously I’d been working extremely hard on it all day, before giving an update that was all good news with a detailed plan to finish the remaining work on time.

After I delivered the joke, the CEO’s expression went completely blank but he was clearly angry. The next week, I got a stern lecture from the division VP about how making jokes like that is extremely unacceptable. My boss (director level) got a 45-minute lecture about how he can’t let his people make jokes like that (although he did not seem to care and told me it was hilarious). Another director level type working closely with me on the project told me he’d heard about the joke from the CEO, who seemed to be so mad he was telling pretty much everyone (this guy also thought the whole situation was amusing). That same week, I got the key part of the project wrapped up on time and on budget, so a major win for the company as a whole.

For context, the CEO does make jokes fairly frequently (not super funny ones, but still jokes). The entire length of the incident, from when he finished his question to when I started the project update, couldn’t have been more than five seconds. Was it really such a huge deal that I made a joke like that, and what do I do next?

What on earth.

Your joke was fine. Even if your CEO had a two-second moment of panic in thinking you hadn’t been working on the extremely important project he assumed you were working on, it would have been immediately clear you were joking because you instantly went on to explain where things stood. It’s not like you let the joke go on and on, leaving him to think for any real amount of time that you’d forgotten the project.

Candidly, I can imagine privately thinking the joke wasn’t very funny. If you’re stressed and on-edge about something, you won’t always appreciate someone else joking around about that thing, even when you know they’re on top of their part and there’s nothing to worry about. But as a human living in the world — and especially as someone managing other people — it’s ridiculous to hold that against the person afterwards. People joke! People let off steam. It’s normal, and any mild “agh, that’s not funny” stress reaction should pass quickly.

So your CEO’s reaction was wildly over the top. Angry? Lecturing your boss and the division VP, and complaining about it to a bunch of others? That’s a bananapants overreaction.

It would be completely different if he’d said to your boss, “Hey, Jane sometimes jokes around in high-stress situations — please let her know it can land wrong when others are frazzled.” But that’s not what he did.

Going forward, now that you know he reacts like this, obviously don’t joke around him — assume he will take everything you say literally and does not appreciate attempts to lighten the mood. Noted.

Normally I’d say that’s all you need to do. This should have been such a minor incident non-event that it never needs to come up again. But given that your CEO clearly doesn’t see it that way, you could ask your boss whether it’s worth you apologizing to the CEO — not a huge mea culpa, just “I’m sorry that joke landed wrong; I hope you saw later how seriously I took that project.” Which is silly to have to do, but might be worthwhile politically.

{ 171 comments… read them below }

  1. Anandatic*

    it really sucks that the CEO seems to be spending more mental energy being mad about a five-second joke than celebrating that the project got finished on time and on budget!

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Seriously. Y’all have so much to do on this huge project and he apparently has 45 minutes to waste lecturing your boss about this.

      1. AnonInCanada*

        And what was the point of the CEO giving the lecture to OP’s boss? Was the boss supposed to fire OP over a five-second-long harmless joke about the project? Wow. This reminds me of that other letter whose writer got reprimanded over joking about the photocopier. Lighten up!

            1. Quill*

              I was wondering if there were two of these places, because clearly CEO has worked there before.

        1. Rebecca*

          It’s standard to give feedback about an employee to their manager/supervisor so that the manager/supervisor can take action, if warranted. We can argue about whether the CEO overreacted, but passing his impression on the boss is reasonable.

          1. IT worker*

            I don’t think the issue is giving feedback in general – Alison even lays out that a quick chat to OP’s boss of “hey this joke didn’t land well” would be fine. But pulling OP’s boss into a 45 minute meeting and then brining it up multiple times is more than “passing on an impression” – it actually ends up undermining the CEO’s feedback since their overreaction is so wildly disproportionate to the “offense”.

          2. Zweisatz*

            For 45 minutes, that’s the issue. That amount of time is wildly out of the ordinary, no matter how standard the avenue for feedback.

          3. Pescadero*

            Yes… and it wasn’t warranted, so the manager/supervisor should have let the CEO know that they were being unreasonable, and not passed it on.

            1. Kit*

              However, it’s worth noting that LW’s boss did what a lot of people do in this particular circumstance: let LW know that this feedback has come from someone with a lot of power (the CEO) and that they personally feel it is unwarranted but that all parties involved can now confirm for the record that it has been delivered, and will act accordingly. If boss doesn’t have the capital to burn pushing back on CEO, that’s not entirely surprising; delivering the feedback in a way that affirms that LW did not do anything inappropriate to an objective observer, and establishes that both boss and LW now know the CEO cannot be trusted to be an objective observer, and will tread accordingly? Very reasonable.

              1. MigraineMonth*

                That matches Alison’s answers in the past. When it comes from someone with power, it’s important to let one’s report know about the complaint, even if you disagree. I think the exception would be if the complaint was illegal, in which case you should push back and report to HR first, and only let your report know if it turns out HR isn’t going to do their job.

            2. sparkle emoji*

              Given that it was the CEO and not a random coworker, I think it’s a little different. The boss didn’t co sign the CEO’s assessment, they just told LW so they know how unreasonable the CEO is on this topic moving forward. Useful info, IMO.

        2. Irish Teacher.*

          It sounded like he expected the OP’s boss to prevent her from having made it in the first place which um…was pretty much outside his control, as well as just being a ridiculous thing to make a fuss about.

    2. Artistic Impulses*

      So true! Especially since the CEO has been known to joke around himself. After his initial shock, if he had any sense of proportion, he would have calmed down and let the whole thing blow over. But instead, he blew a small thing up in a ridiculous way.

      I’m not surprised that the CEO’s jokes aren’t considered that funny. His sense of humor seems to be really off.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        He’s probably one of those people who thinks his jokes are the only ones that count.

  2. Strawberry Snarkcake*

    The joke may or may not have been appropriate, but I think we can all agree that the CEO complaining to everyone who will listen is 100% inappropriate.

    1. Ink*

      +1 I can see a terse “not a good subject for jokes,” but that’s all it should be! Go be steamed in private for a couple minutes if that’s what it takes, but STILL on this NOW??

    2. chewingle*

      Right, a FORTY-FIVE MINUTE lecture??? I can’t even stand to be in a meeting concerning information I *need* to know about for that long.

  3. Melissa*

    Here is my armchair psychoanalysis. I think the CEO panicked because he thought you were being serious. Then he felt humiliated by the fact that he panicked. And then he was angry because he felt humiliated. Even though the entire process took place inside his own head over three seconds (panic, realiziation, relief, humiliation), he’s lashing out because of it.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      That’s a good point. In most cases, disproportionally strong reactions to casual comments are a reflection about the person reacting, not the comment itself.

      1. BubbleTea*

        “I feel bad. The bad feeling was due to something you said. Therefore the bad feeling is your fault. I must punish you.”

        It’s not a sophisticated mental process but it’s fairly common from people with poor emotional competency.

    2. Overit*

      100% this!
      He is one of those people for whom fear leads to anger and lashing out.
      Now, you know. Forewarned.

      1. Jaydee*

        Uh oh, fear leads to anger and anger leads to the dark side.

        Now I’m looking forward to the update where the LW says “I took your advice and haven’t made any more jokes and it all seems to have smoothed over. But now I have a new concern. I think my CEO is a Sith Lord, and he might be grooming my direct supervisor to become his apprentice. I otherwise really like this job and don’t really want to leave. But I’m thinking maybe I need to start looking because working for the Sith doesn’t seem like a great career move. What should I do?”

        1. Festively Dressed Earl*

          That’s easy. Start secretly networking with the witches of Dathomir, figure out how to take out the CEO but keep it to yourself, duel your direct supervisor for that promotion you’ve been angling for, and then bide your time.

    3. Ms. Norbury*

      I think this is likely spot on. And considering how OTT the reaction was, I wouldn’t be surprised if the CEO thinks OP did it on purpose, as in, told the joke with the sole purpose of “fooling” him. I do hope I’m wrong though, since being around people who always assume the worst about others’ intentions is exhausting being belief.

      1. Katy*

        tbh, that is generally how I feel about deadpan sarcasm.

        I’m only a little bit neuroatypical, I understand sarcasm and can read it, but unexpected deadpan sarcasm, coming from someone I don’t know, can throw me. It takes me a few extra seconds to process it, and in the meantime I’m taking it at face value and responding accordingly, which means I then feel dumb when I put together what they really meant. It’s hard not to feel like the point of that kind of joke is to catch people out, however briefly. And if you are on the receiving end of that kind of joke, and you are someone who feels at all socially awkward to start with, it can definitely feel like the joke is on you.

        I wouldn’t have gotten furious at OP, and I do think the CEO wildly overreacted. But it would irritate me, and I think the OP was a bit tone-deaf to think deadpan sarcasm was a good move in that context and with an audience they didn’t really know.

        1. EmilyClimbs*

          Huh, that’s interesting. What is it about deadpan sarcasm that makes it feel to you like the person is intending to fool you?

          It totally makes sense why dealing with jokes like that is unpleasant for you (and I appreciate you sharing it, so I can take that into consideration when I think about whether to make similar kind of jokes in the future)… but when I make sarcastic remarks/jokes like that, my intent/assumption is that others will understand my meaning immediately, with the humor being based on the contrast between the statement and reality, not on trying to briefly fool others that the statement reflects reality. I’m wondering whether something I’m doing might give the impression to others that I’m intentionally trying to fool them, though? I would hate for anyone to think I’m trying to make them feel dumb or bad.

          1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

            Yeah, I had a coworker/boss whose sense of humor tends to deadpan… not necessarily sarcasm, but silly, made-up nonsense. There was something in his tone or facial expression or body language that would shift when he did it, so I could always always always tell when he was being serious and when he was shooting the breeze (and he would give decent, serious answers to questions — he was quite a good teacher).

            And then we hired a new guy who could not read the deadpan jokes. They would dig each other into this hole where the joker was mortified that it wasn’t landing, and would get more and more ludicrous in an attempt to salvage it, and gullible coworker just kept swallowing the whole thing, hook, line, and sinker, until it eventually became clear in this massive explosion of mortification and embarrassment. It was NOT funny. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. No one enjoyed it. The joke didn’t work if not everyone realized it was a joke, and the joker legitimately tried (with only partial success; it was a deeply ingrained habit) to stop making that sort of joke. I did eventually get better at shaking off my frozen cringe and going, “He’s joking, Adam.”

          2. nani*

            I think there’s a definitely a cultural component too. I’m from New England and moved to California and had to really tone down the sarcasm to not be off-putting, and then moved to Seattle where it was fine again.

        2. Chas*

          While I also think the CEO is overreacting, I find that sort of humour especially irritating if I’m just trying to get a quick answer to a question and I’m not expecting any conversation more complex than “Quick question?”, “Simple answer!” “Thanks!”.

          I suspect it’s because in the back of my mind I’m already formulating plans to respond to what I suspect are the most likely answers to my question (in this case, I’d be expecting either “It’s going okay and should be on time”, or “I’m having some problems and might need a slight extension”) so someone coming out with a deadpan sarcastic answer that doesn’t fit my internal plan throws off my whole plan for the conversation, and then I’m left floundering to work out what to say.

          (Ironically, this also makes me pretty bad at responding to unexpected quick questions from others, because it always takes me a moment to access the part of my brain that has the info they need and formulate the answer.)

        3. Stipes*

          I think the way sarcasm usually “works” is that the statement is so obviously untrue, and clearly not something that the speaker would say seriously, that it instead highlights its own untruth.

          But that only works when the speaker and hearer have a very in-sync understanding of what the speaker is likely to say sincerely! Sarcasm fails when the speaker overestimates how well the hearer knows them. This is why sarcasm online fails so often — you don’t know the people reading your message. You can’t rely on them making the proper assumptions about what you’d “obviously” not say. And it’s why sarcasm with loose acquaintances and colleagues is risky.

          So yeah, I have a lot of sympathy for people who “don’t get sarcasm”, or miss it sometimes. Sarcasm relies on a lot of assumptions that aren’t always safe to make.

          1. Gimble*

            That’s a terrific point. The joke likely would’ve landed perfectly fine for anyone who already knew the OP had been working hard and just needed a status update, but the CEO was just disconnected enough (appropriately to their role) that it could cause momentary hesitation.

    4. Recovering the satellites*

      Yes, that was my first thought too, or something personal happened to them recently that is causing this behavior.

      However, complaining about a subordinate to any available ear is wild, and I wouldn’t be at all shocked to hear an update that this person eventually suffered a burnout.

      Either way, I hope they receive help.

      1. JustaTech*

        Yes, people under pressure who don’t have good systems for dealing with that pressure can lash out in the weirdest ways.

        In college I had someone try to get me thrown out of school for sending an email asking to have the forks returned to the dorm kitchen. It wasn’t even the content of the email, it was that they didn’t like the manner in which I sent the email.

        Cooler heads prevailed, but it was a bizarre over reaction born of end of the year stress on the part of the original complainer, and having just been broken up with on the part of the person receiving the complaint.
        But also, that was college, a place where you hopefully learn better ways of channeling your stress than randomly lashing out at other people.

    5. Knope Knope Knope*

      I’m pretty obsessive, and pretty successful and pretty senior. It’s a really annoying personality trait tbh. It annoys me and people in my personal life. It also definitely contributes to what makes me successful. If I was already frustrated by someone’s performance or something about this project I could see this gnawing at me. I hope I wouldn’t act like this CEO. But if it rubbed me the wrong way for those reasons I might have a hard time letting it go.

      1. Good Lord Ratty*

        I hope you understand that reacting the way that CEO did, regardless of your “obsessive” nature and no matter how contingent on that personality flaw you think your success is, would be a terrific way to undermine others’ confidence in your ability to behave professionally.

      2. TheBunny*

        It was a joke and it was clearly a joke. Mere seconds passed before it was clearly a joke.

        If this would gnaw at you I sincerely hope you do your chewing quietly.

        1. Knope Knope Knope*

          Oh yes. I think his reaction was bonkers. But since this thread was hypothesizing why the joke bothered him, I’m giving an alternative reason.

    6. linger*

      Likely. After all, this was a stress-relief joke … made to a CEO who was at least equally stressed about this project deadline.
      But CEO needed to be under less stress than OP in order to take it in the spirit given.
      That leaves something over a 50% chance it would land very badly indeed.
      Actual outcome: CEO relieving his own stress more explosively and so also inappropriately.

    7. 2 Cents*

      And is not used to FEELINGS and certainly not underlings making him feel those things. He’s the CEO! *biggest eye roll ever*

      I, too, have joked around like OP because I’ve been super stressed by something and had a boss take it similarly — though obviously not to this extreme. It’s like people who are a few steps above you in the reporting structure assume that you’re delinquent in the project (or whatever) even if you’ve been their A+ star this entire time. Please stop taking yourself so seriously!

    8. Hyaline*

      This. And also why, FWIW, I would drop it, never raise the issue again, even to apologize. If he gains a little distance but not much introspection he may well feel embarrassed about the overreaction and just cycle through the blame cycle if it’s brought up again and he repeats those negative emotions.

    9. Festively Dressed Earl*

      Really? My take was that everything about the project was (at least at the moment) in the hands of other people and the CEO was stressing about it without having anything he could actually control. Enter lashing out at a joke OP made.

    10. Ellis Bell*

      I really think this too; I also think the CEO is a giant baby if he’s never learned how to just say “Oh wow, you scared me for a minute there!” How do these people reach such high positions without the most basic social skills and emotional regulation?

    11. JP*

      I agree. Also, the fact that he keeps telling people this story makes me think that no one is giving him the outraged reaction that he expected. So he keeps telling more people, trying to get someone reassurance that he didn’t overreact.

  4. learnedthehardway*

    I think the OP should print out and send Allison’s response to her manager and the CEO.

    It’s rich when the CEO is a joker but nobody else can be. Not to mention that it’s just stupid to not realize that something is a joke when the project is THAT important. Honestly!!

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I don’t think anyone ever says, “Strangers on the internet, hearing your version of events, side with you and think I’m wrong? I shall reform my misspent ways!”

        1. Beany*

          That’s encouraging. But by submitting a question to that AITA sub, they’re likely to at least to be receptive to the idea that they’re in the wrong.

        2. Quill*

          Yeah but that’s… people who were already willing to go to Reddit for advice.

          So. People for whom a crowd of internet strangers already has credibility.

          And also people who have been forced to ask, by the format of the sub, “am I the Asshole?” and “if I am, why?”

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          But it’s not typical to say “I found this thread, realized the person being complained about is me, and admit that all of you people are right and I am wrong.”

          And then there’s a whole subcategory of “My spouse found this thread and insisted I post these other details” which lead to people updating their verdict about who’s in the wrong.

        4. Zeus*

          As others have said, that’s different because AITA is ostensibly made for people going to find out if they are in the wrong, who would be open to hearing that the answer is “yes”.

          But also, I think it’s more common to see posters there doubling down on why they are actually right, and everybody reading the post is wrong.

          (Plus, a lot of the stories there that get traction are fake in the first place.)

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I always wanted an OP who was told they were wrong to print out the column and all the comments and put it on the chairs of everyone involved. But nada.

        1. Part time lab tech*

          I’m sure there was at least one update where an OP printed out the comment thread and left it anonymously on the antagonist ‘s chair.

          1. Festively Dressed Earl*

            Yep. There is/was a commenter named Mark This Anonymous and Leave It Lying Around in honor of that column/update.

    2. CheesePlease*

      I don’t think someone saying “an online blog says you’re being unreasonable” to their boss is the sort of advice Allison would give haha

  5. EngGirl*

    That’s absolutely wild. As another person who’s stress response is to make a joke, I don’t even know that I’d classify what you said as a joke as much as like a camaraderie “we’re all in it with this one” quip.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      Tbh, this is such a common way of joking in my part of the world that it wouldn’t even register as inappropriate to me or my coworkers (unless it were part of a formal meeting with higher-ups that I didn’t know well).

      We would definitely have a lot to say about the CEO’s reaction.

    2. Savor The Peelies*

      It really feels like your standard “Mondays, am I right?” sort of joke, especially when swiftly followed up with an explanation of how everything is on track and totally fine.

  6. Annony*

    Oof. I can see being annoyed at the joke and I personally don’t think it was funny, but his reaction was unhinged. I do not see how any reasonable person could classify it as “extremely unacceptable” or think that lecturing the person’s boss for close to an hour would be in any way helpful. Saying “Just so you know, it’s a bad idea to pretend to have dropped a major ball when everyone is in crunch time” would be reasonable. Complaining to everyone who will listen is no where close to reasonable and probably makes them all wonder if the CEO is doing ok or in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Yeah, I get how humor doesn’t land to someone who is stressed–especially if the stressor is the thing someone is joking to them about–but the appropriate response to 5 seconds of “why would you say that when my nerves can’t take it this week?” is under a minute.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I agree. And the CEO could have just used one of several common English phrases: Not funny. This is not a joking matter. Now is not the time.

      At which point OP could have apologized and all could move on.

    3. Bananapants Modiste*

      I agree that being irritated by a quip in a serious, stressful situation is understandable. Even that a CEO can joke while others can’t.

      But more than a remark or a quick reproach (“Don’t do that, Dave) is over the top and says a lot about the CEO.

  7. LaFramboise, academic librarian*

    Realizing I’m not in a for-profit arena, so that might affect my response, I would say that never joking with the CEO and being very bland and positive is the only way forward.

    1. Overit*

      That is exactly what I did in a similar situation.
      I had a boss who had no sense of humor. As in, could not grasp humor, even a basic Dad joke.
      He got angry that people were laughing at a joke I made at BREAK because he did not get it. He told me I was unprofessional. Okay, then. So in his presence, I was the most professional professional who ever professionaled. Pleasant, but no chit chat of any kind, very bland and neutral.
      Note that this was the same boss who made a spreadsheet of (and complained about) my bathroom time when I was pregnant and also stole my wallet.

        1. Sar-Chasm*

          I invite said CEO to see Inside Out 2 where they discover the concept of sarcasm.

          Best kind of joke for a CEO? Not usually. Worth this much of the CEO’s time? Not in the slightest.

        2. Overit*

          Sorry! I have told that story before and I did not want to bore anyone.
          So…. Background: boss was a big old misogynist who hid it from almost everyone and was BFFs with head of HR.
          I went on vacation and upon my return discovered that my boss had redecorated my office. Painted the walls PINK. Removed my wall decor. Replaced my desk with one with no lockable drawers. This is a problem bec I need to lock ul my purse as I am often away from my desk for hours at a time. I asked for my old desk back. Nope. Asked to have the lock mechanism on a drawer fixed/replaced. Nope. Got a lecture about how women are stupid for having purses and should just be like men and carry their wallet in the pants pocket. I pointed out that women’s work slacks do not have pockets. He asked his wife and she concurred with me on all points. He was FURIOUS and accused me of “poisoning his wife against him” and said he hoped my purse did get stolen.
          A few days later, there was a holiday and we were the only 2 in the building. I went to the bathroom before leaving for the day, locking my door automatically. When I returned, I immediately saw my purse drawer was open and purse was wide open. Wallet gone.
          Again — we were the only 2 in the building, which was locked. He had a key to my office.
          We were on a university campus and were required to report thefts to campus police. Police came over and quickly, 1 cop took me aside and said, “You do realize that your boss stole your wallet, right?”
          They spoke with him and he smirkingly denied it. He also refused to allow them to search his office and briefcase. They filed a report and notified HR. And…nothing happened because he was BFFs with the head of HR.

    2. Hashtag Destigmatize Therapy*

      Yep, and this is why, if you’re the person in charge, it’s so damaging to lash out like this. Nobody will trust you to use your power responsibly, so nobody will be candid with you.

  8. Jay (no, the other one)*

    I was expecting something racist or insulting. This? Seriously? I am from NY and sarcasm is my first language. Good thing I don’t work for this dude.

    1. Jake*

      Yeah, I had a sinking feeling for the first paragraph and a half. Then he got to the “joke” and while I thought it probably wasn’t the best idea, I certainly felt immediate relief that OP didn’t make a wildly inappropriate joke.

    2. Irish Teacher.*

      Yes, when I saw the heading, I thought it was going to be something like that letter where somebody made a “joke” about immigration to her supervisor who was from China.

      This joke is fairly mundane.

  9. Delta Delta*

    I think all interactions with the CEO from now on should probably be completely stone-faced and task-focused.

  10. Tio*

    I was expecting this to be like the 9/11 joke letter… this is wildly different and I’m shocked he’s going this hard on it

    1. RVA Cat*

      Same! The CEO is reacting like it was the 9/11 joke, which is a whole banana ensemble.

      Makes me wonder how he’d react to something actually offensive – have somebody “taken to the train station”?!

  11. Zbornie*

    The fact that everyone else has thought it funny AND feel comfortable saying that the CEO is being silly is a very GOOD sign, and speaks well of overall company culture.

    1. Presea*

      Agreed. The CEO is being a bit of an ass here but its clearly just a problem with the CEO.

  12. londonedit*

    The CEO is clearly an arse and his (over)reaction says more about him than it does about the OP, but I wonder whether he interpreted it not as a joke but as facetiousness? That kind of deadpan sarcasm is a pillar of British humour, so I can imagine exactly how the OP intended it, but if you don’t get the tone/audience right then it can definitely come across as facetious or rude. Especially in front of the boss. And I speak as someone who has had to rein in their own deadpan humour at work in the past, when I had a boss who literally said to me ‘You need to work on your tone of voice, because I can never tell whether you’re serious or not’.

    1. Jake*

      Yeah, deadpan humor only works when it is low stakes or the audience already expects it. Deadpanning on something high stakes with somebody that isn’t at the very least a work buddy wasn’t the best decision. Certainly not worthy of the CEOs wild over-reaction, but also not the best choice.

      1. Reebee*

        Agree. I do think the CEO overplayed things, but deadpan humor can be a bit smug and obnoxious.

    2. Hyaline*

      I think it also depends on how long the LW let the joke hang—if it was followed immediately by “just kidding it’s coming along great!” I do read it a smidge differently than stringing it out uncomfortably long, which can feel more facetious or even borderline practical joke where you’re aiming for a gotcha. None of those warrants this kind of overreaction but the latter isn’t fantastic judgement in many situations.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        Sounds like the LW let the joke hang for a very brief period of time before going on to the actual project update. From the last paragraph:

        The entire length of the incident, from when he finished his question to when I started the project update, couldn’t have been more than five seconds.

      2. Good Enough For Government Work*

        Please, actually read the letter. OP says they *immediately* followed up with an explanation that everything was fine.

  13. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I’m a person who definitely might make this joke. Though only to someone who knows me well and would know it was a joke. Sounds like these folks do know the LW well, though. I’m curious – has the CEO reacted strangely to other people’s jokes before or is this weird?

  14. linger*

    Given that this is not the joke-free workplace (judging from other managers’ reactions),
    CEO is actively making himself harder to take entirely seriously.

  15. Sparkles McFadden*

    I’d let it drop and try to forget about it, beyond knowing that you cannot joke with the CEO. If your boss thinks an apology would help, just say what you’ve said here: That you use humor to deal with stressful situations. The CEO won’t get it, though. The anti-humor people really don’t get how making a joke doesn’t mean you’re not serious about your job.

    1. Reebee*

      Disliking or misinterpreting, or even over-reacting to an intended joke doesn’t make people anti-humor. If anything, I find people who assume they’re funny entirely annoying, and fairly ignorant of reading the room.

  16. Hendry*

    Huge overreaction – I agree with the advice to talk to your current boss, it could be that a quick apology will do, or it could be that the CEO forgot about it already

    Either way, I’d probably refrain from joking with the CEO for the time being. Though don’t do like Seinfeld and go so far the other way everyone thinks you’re dark and disturbed

  17. Fejerro*

    In my senior year of high school, my choir teacher was out sick one day. Our assignment was to listen to the recording of one of our concerts and answer questions about our performance (praise, criticism, thoughts, etc.). I made a few jokes in the assignment – it was a light-hearted class and I got on well with the teacher who had a good sense of humor, or so I thought.

    EIGHT WHOLE WEEKS LATER, I received my term report card – I had a received a C+ in choir. No one EVER got anything other than an A! While trying to figure out what had happened before class started, my teacher snapped at me and told me not to ask others about their grades. Fuming all day, after school ended I went to the teacher’s office to ask about my grade. He pulled out the written assignment that I hadn’t thought about in months and told me that I had offended him. He gave me zero credit on the assignment which turned out to be worth nearly 20% of our grade that term.

    I was given no warning. No sidebar conversation. No indication anything was wrong between us. The assignment was never handed back to us. He didn’t give me credit on any of the answers on the assignment, all of which I answered completely and were highly subjective. Then I was turned away on that Friday afternoon with no recourse through the weekend but to stew in anger.

    The next week we worked out something of a resolution, but it was highly unsatisfying.

    Some people in power just get set off by unexpected things. It’s not right and it can destroy relationships and reputations. It’s been over 20 years and that experience still bothers me.

    LW, I guess my only advice in this situation is 1. Once the situation has had time to cool off and if you feel your relationship with your CEO is strong enough, have a heartfelt 1-on-1 and let them know how damaging their reaction was; and 2. Always remember this experience when you have positions of power and something triggers you to a disproportionate reaction. It can happen to anyone.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Reminds me of the time my boss got offended when I made an exaggeration joke. You’re right, one lighthearted moment can ruin everything :/

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Dang, that sucks. In contrast, in high school orchestra, we had to hand in concert reviews. I went to one that was pretty bad and submitted 3 1/2 pages of complaining. The only comment I got at the end was “but did you like it :)” with a good grade.

    3. House On The Rock*

      I’m really sorry you went through this. As someone who was the victim of a Huffing Their Own Fumes teacher in high school, I empathize deeply. For me it’s going on 40 years and thinking about it still makes me rage and also feel deep shame even though rationally I know that is BS.

      It’s impressive that your ultimate takeaway was how people in power can be incredibly hurtful and need to be mindful of that power.

  18. Czhorat*

    I don’t think it’s a great joke, but when I read the title I was expecting justified fallout from something racist/sexist/homophobic. THOSE are the kinds of jokes that should earn you a stern lecture. Not standard workplace humor.

  19. Kitano*

    The CEO is absolutely in the wrong here, but I do think you need to apologize to him. Sometimes making nice is more important than being right, and I think this is one of those times.

    Yes, it sucks because you didn’t do anything wrong and HE’S the one with the weird mindset. However, you just brought home a huge win that could seriously boost your career, and it would suck 10,000 times more if you lost out on opportunities because the CEO got stuck on this one joke you made instead of seeing the larger pattern of success you have.

    1. Busy Middle Manager*

      Meh, that would only work if OP did something wrong. This whole thing is a weird power play by a CEO who very well may have narcissistic tendencies. Apologizing will fall flat and will basically be “hey I recognize I am the weak one in our dynamic.” 100% do not recommend, you only apologize to keep the peace when you have some blame in a situation.

      If they stay at the job, they can kill CEO with kindness and blanket professionalism and speaking literally and tersely in every interaction as the CEO thinks they want.

  20. Cafe au Lait*

    As someone with ADHD and who enjoys joking around I’ve learned to ask myself “Would this person get my joke if fumbled it?” If the answer is no, I give a factual response. If the answer is yes, dark humor all the way.

  21. pally*

    “Gee CEO, can’t ya take a joke?”

    Probably not okay to actually say this. YMMV, but years ago, this was a response folks would use when someone reacted poorly to a joke.

    FWIW, I have made similar comments to the CEO. “Oh gosh, was I supposed to be working on that?” And he knows I’m kidding. He knows I do my work.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Yeah, I could make this joke to my grand-boss and great grand-boss and it’d be fine. They know me well, I have a strong track record of not dropping the ball, and it’s a less formal environment than many in my broader organization.

  22. Skytext*

    The CEO’s reaction is especially ridiculous given the location/circumstances where this was said. I could see him being upset if this was in a meeting with stakeholders, maybe even the client, and they turned to OP for an update on the project, and they made that joke. That may be inappropriate (I say “may” because it depends on the culture—you should hear what we get up to in our meetings lol!). But this was water cooler chit-chat! He walked up and horned in on the conversation—he should not have been surprised that OP’s brain wasn’t in serious mode at that moment. But it also wasn’t like he hustled up and interrupted because he was anxiously needing an update: I could see OP’s joke landing badly in that situation as well. But he just joined the sports conversation, let it naturally come to an end, and than casually asked for an update.

  23. Lady_Blerd*

    If OP’s workplace is anything like my org, I wonder if an over eager or anxious VP catastrophised the CEO’s reaction and took it out on OP’s boss. I may have missed it but although I did see how OP perceived the CEO’s reaction, I didn’t see that he was the one who berated the VP or OP’s boss.

  24. Punk*

    I think part of the issue is that the CEO asked the question in earnest and legitimately wanted the information he was asking for. I don’t think the LW did anything evil but I would gently suggest that this is a teaching moment regarding gauging the appropriate moment to make a joke. It’s probably not appropriate to joke about forgetting a project when the CEO has traveled to observe it and then requests a status update. Doesn’t mean the LW should take this on as a grave error but I don’t think this is totally on the CEO for overreacting. The LW misjudged the moment.

  25. RagingADHD*

    I wonder whether it was not that the CEO took the joke literally, but that he didn’t appreciate getting a sarcastic answer. Sarcasm can often come across as mocking the person you’re talking to.

    It would make more sense for the CEO to be bothered about a snarky tone than about the content of the joke. I don’t know the culture, but IME snark is fine between peers but you don’t want to go upstream or downstream with it because it can come across as contempt.

    Snark to people more junior is mean. Snark to people more senior can sound very disrespectful.

    1. Yours Sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      I agree. I used to be sarcastic when I was new to the workplace. I was genuinely confused by the reaction I was getting from some colleagues. Then one smart, honest colleague (who I’m still great friends with to this day; we no longer work together) explained to me that it comes off as sneering or mocking. And also that sometimes my deadpan “jokes” really aren’t obviously jokes to someone who doesn’t know me well, so it leaves people feeling slightly confused.

      I was straight out of university and stunned – but really appreciated the advice! I’m never sarcastic at work now (unless someone knows me very, very well, and is also sarcastic themselves, but even then, I’d generally avoid).

      All that said, I still think the CEO’s reaction is unhinged. And if he feels you were cheeky or disrespectful in tone, it’s almost more unhinged than if he was overly literal and genuinely concerned about the project for a moment.

  26. Stoli*

    It wasn’t hilarious but it wasn’t a social faux pas either. I think he was concerned about the project and it struck him the wrong way. I also think that he thinks you should defer to his position a bit more. A respect issue.

  27. Anne Elliot*

    I don’t know if this is the case for OP’s CEO, but one of my parents does not get sarcasm (at all, ever). Anything said like this is taken seriously basically instantly, and then we have to rush to assure said parent that no, actually, we didn’t REALLY mean it. (It’s exhausting, frankly.) But yeah, some people just do not understand sarcasm.

    (To be clear, I agree that OP was fine to make that joke, but the story struck me like “this is what my parent would be like as a CEO.)

  28. Curious*

    From a reader perspective, it is always interesting to see comments on humor here:

    – Who thinks what is funny
    – What should never be funny
    – The worry of what other people think is funny
    -The disapproval of what other people think is funny
    – People defending their sense of humor
    – The lack of a sense of humor

    I want this letter to get 800 comments at least

  29. Badger*

    One factor that might be playing into this behaviour is that people who are insecure in their status can get VERY ANGRY when people they perceive as having lower status act in a “familiar” way with them. For example, joking around instead of speaking formally and deferentially. And of course the “lower status” can come from job role but also from gender, ethnicity, age, etc.

    I’ve noticed that people who get angry like this often can’t (or won’t) articulate the real underlying cause of their annoyance, and will instead come up with all kinds of weird explanations that are kind of obviously nonsense.

    1. CM*

      This theory makes the most sense to me — that it wasn’t about the joke, but about the perceived insubordination in being overly familiar with the CEO.

    2. ThatOtherClare*

      Especially when people feel like the butt of the joke. And sarcasm and situational humour do make the listener the butt of the joke. They’re objectively some of the most innocent types of humour, since they don’t rely on potentially harmful stereotypes – hence why they’re so popular with children and teens who have less exposure to said stereotypes. However, for an insecure person, making them feel like the butt of a joke – even for a brief instant – may be an unforgivable affront.

      If you recognise yourself in my description, I do recommend therapy. It works really well for this sort of thing, and you’ll just feel better when your subconscious realises you’re not being attacked all the time. It doesn’t feel great to have your threat radar constantly pinging like you’re in an ocean full of sharks 24/7. Do you remember the feeling of relief when someone unplugged your old CRT TV and that constant, barely audible, high-pitched whine disappeared? That moment of “Ahh, I didn’t realise how annoying that was, but I’m extremely glad it’s f***ing gone.”? It’s that.

  30. Purple Cat*

    Wow, I was bracing myself for the obviously sexist/racist/homophobic other type of terrible “joke”. But what you said is not at all inappropriate. Sure, I can see how it might not immediately land well. But the fact that you IMMEDIATELY followed up with the status update of all good news, mitigates that I can see how the CEO wouldn’t have found it initially funny. But for the CEO to now keep harping on and on about it it concerning.

    Seems ridiculous, but I think you need to apologize to the CEO (Ha, almost typed “for” the CEO) to put this whole issue to bed.

  31. Our Business Is Rejoicing*

    In the past, I have run a senior manager with whom their buddies and maybe their direct reports could kid around and make jokes, but for anyone else, you were expected to keep your head down and stick to business. This is despite the manager in question cultivating a very lighthearted, fun-loving presence in presentations and in the company in general. Everyone in this manager’s department knew that joking with this person was for the elites, not for the peons, and if you stepped out of line, your manager would let you know in no uncertain terms.

    1. JustaTech*

      I’ve had management like this: the guy who presents as friendly and buddy-buddy – nope! He’s actually going to bite your head off, so assume that everything is “your continued employment” serious with him.

      But of course you also have to put on a façade of “friendly pseudo-peers” when he wants that kind of interaction, so have several flatteringly vaguely humorous comments pre-planned.

    2. Yours Sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      When you say “everyone knew…”, how did people know? Was it communicated or did people learn the hard way? How did newbies learn this rule?

  32. toolegittoresign*

    Some leaders, in my experience, have no tolerance for sarcasm. They see it as disrespectful or condescending. So he could have taken it as “of course I’ve been working on this, you idiot!” as opposed to how you intended it. I’m a very sarcastic person and I’ve learned to reign it in at work because some people are weirdly sensitive about it and take it as you’re mocking them.

    1. Reebee*

      My grand boss has an objectively good sense of humor, but there’s a time and place for everything, and, with the responsibilities she has, she wouldn’t have the time for immediate sarcasm while at work. She just wants the info. she requests; at the company picnic, sure, she’ll joke right back.

      Me, I respect her far too much to even dream of immediately offloading a smug comment when asked for details on a project.

    2. ThatOtherClare*

      You are mocking them. Sarcasm is mockery of the listener. Most people see it as a valid form of group bonding humour, but many don’t. All humour mocks someone. Most people like humour that either mocks those present (like sarcasm or absurdism) or ‘punches up’ (e.g. jokes about kings or emperors), because it doesn’t run the risk of feeling like you’re in a group of gossiping bullies. But many don’t like going even so far. With such people it’s often safest to either avoid joking altogether, or to only make jokes about inanimate objects and non-pet animals like elephants. Dad jokes, essentially.

  33. Ess Ess*

    I can see being annoyed when asking for facts about something important and the person decides to make jokes instead. It feels disrespectful not to take the CEO seriously when they ask a work question. Yes, the CEO was way over-reacting, but when in the middle of something important to them it is not the time to be flippant.

    1. Boof*

      My SO does this a lot (gives a random/jokey answer when i am trying to focus and figure something out) and there are times when it’s super annoying. I’m guessing the timing of this particular joke was just bad, but the reaction is way over the top. A simple “now is not the time for that kind of joke!” Said one, directly, would have been the most lecturing that should have happened !

      1. Reebee*

        I’ve had a handful of friends and co-workers like that and man, constant rim shots get really old after only a little while.

  34. ialwaysforgetmyname*

    I have yet to work under a CEO where jokes made by anyone but VPs seem to land OK. Which sucks.

  35. Nat20*

    After reading what the joke was, I figured that the issue would be the CEO not realizing it was a joke, since some people don’t always pick up on even the most obvious sarcasm. But that’s not it! He *knew* it was a joke – the mildest joke on earth, mind you – and he’s “furious” about it?? To the point that he’s spreading it around and subjecting you to reprimands??!?

    He’s entitled to not find it funny or even appropriate, but even if that’s the case, this reaction is truly bananapants. He’s acting like you said “f*ck you” and flipped him off in reponse, not made a lighthearted sarcastic comment aimed at nobody. I really, really hope he was just super stressed about the project and reacted WAY out of character to a comment that he would normally realize meant absolutely nothing. But if this is just how he is… yikes. Big yikes.

    (For what it’s worth, I could 100% see myself saying the exact same thing in that situation. That’s like, ultra-relatable workplace humor.)

  36. Immortal for a limited time*

    Ooh… I think a good rule of thumb is to be 100% professional at all times around the CEO. I have worked with my executive director for a little over ten years and, even though I report directly to him, he really has no idea I have a wicked and sarcastic sense of humor, because I expose it only in my private life or (rarely) to coworkers on my own level. (But I agree this LW’s CEO wildly overreacted. But that just goes to show you — not all CEOs are great leaders who can keep their egos and/or their anger in check.

    1. Stoli*

      I agree with the professionalism. I think humor may misfire as they may see it as disrespectful.

    2. Our Business Is Rejoicing*

      Just a thumbs up here on your name, Immortal, and remembering just where I was exactly nine years ago today.

  37. Ciela*

    yep, CEO is bananapants.

    We have a joke at my work, if someone drops something, someone else will call out “when you’re done with it, just throw it on the floor!” The first time my boss made that joke in front of some new hires who speak English as a second language, I could see the horror on their faces. Google translate “it’s only a joke” in Spanish. Then they understood…

  38. Diana Trout*

    I was seriously expecting a Really Bad or Really Inappropriate joke – so my only reaction is – WTF?

    I guess it is good that I don’t work there, because I make jokes like that all the time…

    1. Reebee*

      I don’t think it’s the joke itself that’s the problem; rather, the context and the timing. I personally would not have reacted as strongly were I CEO, but I’d still find it annoying to be met with out-of-the-blue smug sarcasm when requesting a project update.

      What is so terrible about giving a straightforward answer? Why bother to joke when seemingly there was no real reason to?

  39. tina turner*

    If you make a joke like that you can follow it up with “Kidding! It’s going really great, I’ve been on it every day!” just to soften the surprise. If he whines, follow up w/more feedback till you’ve given him so much he doesn’t want to hear any more. Inundate him w/feedback. BORE him.

  40. Alex*

    Wow, CEO, don’t have a cow.

    When I was a nanny, I would always joke to the parents that I forgot the baby amidst all the baby gear that I lugged around. I’m glad I didn’t work for that CEO! I probably would have been fired on the spot! (The parents and I had the same weird sense of humor and they always laughed).

  41. Hedgehug*

    I’m going to be the odd one out here and disagree with everyone.
    I think the joke was not appropriate between you and the CEO of the company. This is not a friendly relationship. The CEO was clearly stressed about a high stakes project, wanted reassurance, and you gave them back a flippant, snarky response about not doing it. You say it was obvious you’ve been working hard on the project, but if it were so obvious, the CEO wouldn’t have asked. Maybe he hadn’t been getting updates on the progress. And if it were obviously a joke, they would have laughed. So, that also was not obvious to the CEO.
    His response was definitely not ok, to yell and complain to every ear that came around, but I honestly would go an apologize.

    1. SnowyRose*

      I’m with you in the odd one out corner. In my experience, flippant jokes about projects–especially high stress projects–never land well. And the further apart you are on the org chart, the less well received it tends to be.

  42. WorkingRachel*

    I don’t really like this sort of joke, but mainly because it’s so bland! I can’t imagine anyone being offended at this very standard type of workplace humor. Your CEO is being weird.

  43. AlternatePerspective*

    I’m a director, I currently report directly to my CEO, and I’ve had several other jobs where I did the same. I can’t imagine ever being comfortable making this type of joke with any boss, and I certainly not a CEO boss. In the jobs where I didn’t report to the CEO, any or all communication with them was extremely formal, even if in the kitchen area, copy room, or other areas where employees might be less formal. There’s stuff you say to coworkers and stuff you say to bosses and never the Twain shall meet.

    Yes, your CEO vastly overreacted, but it’s not unreasonable to consider this at least a small gaffe and it likely would have come up/been held against the person later or at least given some pause about their judgement.

  44. Ex-prof*

    “For context, the CEO does make jokes fairly frequently (not super funny ones, but still jokes).”

    I’ve known guys (they’re all guys, sorry) like this. Only their jokes are funny. Nobody else might think the jokes are funny, but the guy KNOWS his jokes are funny and that everyone else is 1. wrong and 2. not funny.

    But even those guys merely give you a puzzled look when you make a joke. They don’t get angry or start lecturing people.

  45. Yours Sincerely, Raymond Holt*

    I had a reverse of this joke recently. A very senior colleague (not CEO but second in command) came by my desk during an extremely intense project period and joked, very deadpan: “So, I guess you don’t have much on your plate right now, then.”

    It was jarring because I don’t know him well and he’s not involved in my projects. But then I saw his mouth twitch and his eyes twinkle.

    It was a weird moment and different given the power dynamics, but I can see how something can feel like it’s obviously a joke to the person saying it, but the person hearing it doesn’t know you, and it isn’t obvious to them. (I felt this to me an example of me lacking humour or insight, not him being inappropriate.)

    The CEO’s reaction to this was fully unhinged though. Much madder than any joke. It suggests an authoritarian demand for insincere deference to me.

  46. niknik*

    I’m getting major deja-vu here. Did we have a story about some boss blowing up over a minor joke before ?

  47. Meghan*

    While these posts re anonymous, I noticed AAM’ fake name for OP is “Jane”. If OP *is* female I wonder if there are signs this runs deeper than just overreacting to a joke.

    Has anyone else thought perhaps there is a gender issue here? That the CEO may not think it’s appropriate for women to crack jokes at work? Or take it more seriously because they’re offended a woman was sarcastic to them?

    To be clear I’m saying this from experience, I worked for a man in R&D who seemed friendly enough, but I found out hated my “sarcasm” and he didn’t find it appropriate for women to be sarcastic. Eventually I was moved under a different manager and he was fired for underperforming, although not before HR told me that “he’s from a different culture” and I “really should learn to speak only when spoken to” to make him happy!

  48. Garlic Microwaver*

    I am going to say…. it should be industry dependent. I would never make a joke like that to my CEO, despite how personable he is. I work in pediatric healthcare. Not because it’s inappropriate, but because it just wouldn’t be well received. Clearly in your best interest to be frank and direct going forward if you want to avoid being chastised with an overreaction.

  49. Miss C.*

    Total power trip on the part of the CEO. How dare a lowly subordinate make light of his question, even for a brief moment! Yes, I’ve worked for people like this. They’re all-knowing and all-important, and god forbid you don’t ever take every utterance of theirs 100% seriously

  50. Consonance*

    As an example of how this kind of communication *should* go, I remember years ago I was talking with my boss and a couple others in a hallway conversation. It was about 2:30pm. My boss asked something about what I was planning on working on that afternoon, and I said “honestly, I’m really just thinking about getting food at the moment. I’m really hungry.” He looked at me and said “Oh… You’re planning to leave early??” I said “No, it’s been so busy I haven’t had a chance for lunch yet! I just need some lunch.” Everything was fine. Everything was smoothed over. Minor miscommunication for approximately 3 seconds.

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