IT Employment

Is there a place for humor in the job interview?

Does using humor when you're interviewing for a job make you memorable? If so, is it for the right reason?

Does using humor when you're interviewing for a job make you memorable? If so, is it for the right reason?

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A TechRepublic member wrote me with an interview question. He wants to know if humor in the interview situation is helpful in getting the job or if it creates a bad impression.

Making jokes during job interviews would be a great idea if:

  • Everyone in the world had the same sense of humor.
  • Everyone in the world had a sense of humor.
  • Everyone in the world knew when you were trying to be funny.

In other words, there are too many if's involved. There's such a large margin for misinterpretation of humor, that you would run a pretty big risk using it in a job interview.

You can never be positive that the other person will find humor in what you're saying.

When I was a teenager, I wrote an article for our town newspaper in which I lampooned family reunions. I thought it was a pretty obvious satire -- I spoke of great-aunts you've never seen pinching your cheeks until you have their fingerprints embedded in your skin -- but I was wrong. The paper got a letter from a reader who was highly offended that I would insult a wonderful tradition like the family reunion. That was my first wake-up call that you can never make assumptions about people who are reading something you've written or hearing something you're saying.

I don't know from your e-mail how far you go in your humor. Are you telling knock-knock jokes? When the people you've encountered laugh, is it a genuine laugh or a polite laugh? As you can see, there are a lot of variables.

Now, I'm not recommending that you enter into these situations with a dour all-business demeanor. If someone thinks something you've said is funny, then they are apt to remember you after the interview process is over. But be sure they laugh for the right reason.

Another way to look at things is that if humor is just part of the way you communicate, then you should feel free to do it. If you don't get the job because of that, then you really wouldn't want to work in that kind of environment anyway, would you?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

105 comments
d.thiedeke
d.thiedeke

I am humorous by nature and that is how i acted in the interview. They were meant to take a week to decides and they rang me two hours later saying it was mine. I think you can tell if the people interviewing you are able to joke around or not.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

Don't give up your day job, stick to the purpose and avoid shooting yourself in the foot in the interview. Unless of course they are interviewing for a comedian, and then give go for the audition.

art
art

... I usually respond "bullets". "Kryptonite" works as well, maybe better. I hate the stupid interview questions, and I find this is the best way to change the subject. Of course, I smile after I've done it so as to communicate that I am not serious.

Amanda Dewey
Amanda Dewey

After graduating I went on the usual round of grad placement interviews. When asked for what felt like the millionth time to use 5 words to describe myself I treated the interviewer to a rendition of Ottowa's D.I.S.C.O. I was quite surprised to be called back for the workshop stage!

dirtylaundry
dirtylaundry

It was no secret that my immediate boss did not like me so I felt it didn't matter what I said, I wasn't going to get the full-time position I was vying for anyway. Records showed that although I had a tardiness issue several times a week (of usually no more than 10 minutes per day but it added up), my production and work were twice that of their most valued full-time employee. In my defense I quipped with a smile that the position should definitely go to me since I was technically working less hours and still surpassed their best worker. She wasn't a bit amused and predictably, I was passed over. I left shortly thereafter, but with a bit of satisfaction for pointing out the obvious. Treat the job review as you would an interview since you are constantly being considered (or not as the case may be) for other positions within the company. Even if you feel you have a rapport with the reviewer, keep it reserved and put your best foot forward.

stevebtec
stevebtec

Yes, but know your audience. If you have a sense of humor and get hired, it will come out. The problem with corporate America, or any business is their ties and briefs are too tight, loosen up and laugh!

mozero.reg
mozero.reg

Well, I guess, that there is a plenty of space for humour during the interview, but what is most important to remember is that IT HAS TO BE AN ADAPTIVE SCAN. It's good to show good attitude towards somebody else, but you have to merely fit in. You have to hold your horses a little bit, and beware that you can insult sb else by a simple misunderstanding. On the other hand when your interviewed by group of IT specialists that well you can rest assured that during their carriers they encountered much more IT jokes than you can probably imagine, hence good IT wit is sometimes good, of course directed at right person!

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

Yes, I believe there is a place for humor during a job interview. A little humor CAN lighten up the atmosphere and tension, and make one seem a little more human to the other person. That said, one has to be cautious about how one interjects a little humor. Don't force it. Unless you're interviewing for Comedy Central. Don't pre-plan some great humorous quip. It almost always comes off as fake. Or, if you are a great comedian (according to your family and friends), if pushed to far it may make it seem as if you're not all that serious about the interview. Be yourself. Don't try to be someone else or something you are not. Be cautious of your humor. What is funny and acceptable to one person, may not be to another. Stay away from jokes about politics, religion, sex, race, etc. Keep in mind that while you may be a Monty Python fan (and Brit humor in general), the person you're interviewing with may not have a clue as regards that sort of humor. Try to stick with some generic humor, that fits the situation, time, and place. A little quip that makes fun of yourself, is usually safe. "Geez, I haven't been this nervous since my wedding night." Or something like that. NEVER make fun of or put down, another person, or your previous place of employment while attempting to be humorous during an interview. It just makes yah look petty and silly. I know that when I've been the interviewer it has never impressed me that the applicant is trying to look better in my eyes by putting down someone else. Want to impress me? Stand on your own merits and accomplishments. Chuckle, I remember one interview where I was the applicant, where I was confused by some things the interviewer said. So I sat back, looked thoughtful (because I truly was at that moment) and then told the interviewer ... "I'm sorry. I'm not very clear about what you just said. Could yah give me a break? I'm an old, long in the tooth, knuckle dragger. Not too smart or quick mentally." Tapped my skull and went on, "Mostly thick bone, covering a small brain that's weak and slow. Could yah repeat what yah just said in plain, simple English that an old neanderthal type fella might understand?" My purpose was two-fold. The interviewer had just used language and phraseology specialized to an HR/Upper Management point of view for THAT company, insider language, which I didn't really understand in the context it was being used. I could interpret it in any of a dozen different ways. And wasn't about to answer until I knew exactly what was meant. AND, I was making fun of myself. Both the interviewer and I knew that I was more knowledgeable in matters relevant to the job I was interviewing for than the interviewer did. And that I could not possibly be what one could call stupid or mentally slow. So I was showing that I did NOT consider self superior to the interviewer. A little humility never hurts. And was making the point that the guy was speaking over my head with the insider language. "Please say that again in language I understand. I know what you said, I'm just not sure what you meant.", was what I was trying to imply. And he understood. And smiled at the idea that I considered myself to be a bit mentally slow. Even tho the job he was currently considering me for; and for which my previously proven quals, experiences, and successes plainly said otherwise. He laughed. Apologized and restated in plain language what he'd said before. And he relaxed. Since now he understood that I was trying for open, honest communication. So we could reach a common understanding. As versus a "It's me against him, lets see who wins this BS contest." Sort of situation. In short, we started to COMMUNICATE, as versus just talking AT each other. And playing games of one upmanship. If humor is used, it needs to communicate something useful to the interview. A connection between you and the other person. Not your comedic or acting skills. Fake is fake. Easily detected by most average people. Being viewed as fake, or deliberately trying to be a comedian, isn't likely to get you hired. As I said, be yourself. Only use the humor that naturally occurs to you at the moment, which fits the situation. Stay away from politics, religion, and so on. That's like trying to walk through a minefield with blindfolds covering your eyes. I've seen too many who've decided by virtue of the fact that all THEIR own friends think something is funny, or by virtue of just a few comments made by the other person they're interviewing with ... that the other person is left wing, right wing, very pro-religion or very anti-religion, and so forth ... just to find out what most of us know. That is that MOST people ... are of a more moderate point of view about a lot of things. Neither far left nor far right as concerns politics; and neither fanatical Bible thumpers nor lunatic atheists; etc. If you're gonna use humor, make fun of yourself, the weather, or something neutral. And use the sort of humor that MOST people are likely to understand. Even if they don't watch Monty Python, MTV, and so forth. Yah, ALL your friends might understand your humor. But its a BIG world, LOTS of people. And your group of friends is NOT the "everyone" who supposedly knows or enjoys this or that. It's a little bitty, teeny-tiny, microcosm of folks. Who are most likely representative of such a small number of people as to be ignorable and unknown to the majority of folks in the real world.

sandra.w4
sandra.w4

My last interview was my first in about 10 years. In front of a panel, in a different industry. We went through the motions, asking all these questions, having responses written down, and the last question they asked me was 'Is there anything else you would say to us now that would make us give you the job over everyone else?' before I thought it out, I said, 'Please?' I got a couple of laughs, and went back to my car so angry with myself for being such an idiot. I got that job, still there 6 years later, and one of the panelists told me a couple of years later that they while they were leaning my way, the 'please' capped it. She said, ' we all remembered the one who said 'please'. As others have said, be yourself, but keep it gentle.

kytaylor
kytaylor

I used humor in one interview that went over horribly. I offended at least 2 of the people on my interview panel. I quickly said "That was a joke, you know...." I came out of the interview knowing that my joke caused me to miss out - but they hired me anyway, and it was one of the best jobs I've ever had. They already had a taste of my sense of humor, and they could not only live with it, I never had to bother about offending them again :)

mmccole
mmccole

It was the 80's and a minicomputer mfg. was looking for a worldwide Tech Support person. I'd had a phone interview with them. After that, they flew me down to Ft. Lauderdale HQ for a second interview. During the all day session they explained that they were moving from a proprietary operating system to Unix. In the middle of the obligatory factory tour someone asked me: "What do you know about Unix?" Well, I knew that Unix was an operating system written in C and came out of AT&T labs, but I had never logged in to, or even seen, a computer running Unix. I said: "They used to guard harems and they don't have any balls." After a stunned two second silence, the interview entourage laughed uncontrollably for a couple of minutes. I got the job and stayed for 12 years.

Number 6
Number 6

After a few years' passive exposure to my obsession with "Dilbert's Desktop Games" (the old 9x version); the wife picked up on a couple of the funnier tracts. One came out spontaneously. In an interview, she was asked what her thoughts were on teamwork. She literally couldn't resist -- "Teamwork is when other people do the work FOR you..." was reflexively spoken from her smiling mouth. The interviewer looked vacant. She didn't get the job ;o)

JimInPA
JimInPA

I usually let the interviewer set the tone of the interview. I think it becomes apparent pretty quickly whether or not s/h/it has a sense of humor.

ajn25
ajn25

Be yourself, if they can't take a joke then **** 'em.

thisisfutile
thisisfutile

While qualifications always play a role, a little chemistry between the interviewer and interviewee can seal the deal. I think that same chemistry got me my job. The boss was showing me what they were looking for in a new database guy and while loading something on his PC, he made a reference to Monty Pythons and the Holy Grail (I can't remember what), and when I followed up with another line from the movie, there was a "spark" if you will. I didn't force the joke, nor did he set it up...it just happened and a connection was made.

michealrand
michealrand

There is little worse than working with people who do not share a sense of humour or even find the same things enjoyable. No loud laughs, just say something that the other person should smile at. Empathy at work is important, you spend at least 8 hours a day looking at each other. NEVER write on a job description 'must have sense of humour' - the phrase is meaningless.

ronm
ronm

PS... Does anyone know what the George Carlin interviewing tips are?

ronm
ronm

There is definitely a place for humor in an interview. I heard once (but can't find source info.) that 75% of all people (in the same ball park) are hired because of chemistry. This said, I am sure I have come across like an idiot on many occasions with my humor and especially with people who are not from my home town or country for that matter. AND with age (I mean experience) I have learned to scale this back a bit. A GOOD SENSE OF HUMOR DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD BE THE CLASS CLOWN - in an interview:)

david.shane
david.shane

Most of my bosses have been afraid to let me interview because I can do what I do, and manage. But when I'm interviewing for a job I always make light of the difficulty of dealing with the pressures of working in large organizations. I figure that if they can't laugh, I don't want to work with them.

steven
steven

It's the wrong question. People hire from two perspectives, "can you do the job and do you fit the organization?". The humor question falls into the latter category. The question shouldn't be whether you should use humor, as if the interview is all one sided. The interviewer is looking to notice if you fit in the organization. So what is the humor quotient of the interviewer? Does he or she come off serious or with a sense of humor? Take your cue not from your own innate sense of humor but from the interviewer and the interview process. If the interviewer is serious be serious. If the interviewer wants to be funny, match their sense of humor. He or she is checking to see if you fit. A sense of humor or not is just one more aspect of evaluation.

rstepanek
rstepanek

When I interview candidates, their attitude (including sense of humor) and ability to deal with stress, is as important as thier technical expertise. If the workplace doesn't tolerate humor, then it has no place in the interview. Frankly, if the workplace can't tolerate humor, then I am not interested in being part of it. Humor needs to be appropriate, but there is already enough stress in the world, no reason to remove humor from it too.

dbecker
dbecker

If there is ample humor in a job interview and they actually go to offer you a job, consider carefully if the brand of humor the interviewers held as really funny turned out to be ironic and sarcastic, it may well be that the work environment is not really for you. At least think hard about it. What were you actually hearing?

crayzeeboy78
crayzeeboy78

...That was my reply to the question, "so, what are some of your weaknesses?" Granted, I was feeling very comfortable with everyone in the room and I could tell that the interview was going really well. I felt that I could make the joke and it went over very well as the two interviewers, one of whom turned out to be my boss, had a chuckle. I, of course, followed up with the real answer. Humour can be great, but it's gotta be right for the situation and for the people in the room.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

1. It should be spontaneous. 2. It requires detailed research and observation of the company, it's managers, and the interviewer. While those two requirements sound contradictory, they are not. The more you know about the environment and the people who work there, the more appropriate your communication can be. Point to remember is that while humor will make you stand out and be remembered, it can go either way. You may connect and be guarranteed the job, or you may be dumped automatically in the shred pile. If you are desperate for the job, I would suggest refraining from any humor. If you're not desperate, but getting mixed vibes about it, open up a little and see what strikes the lure.

Barry 441
Barry 441

Ask any comedian, the hardest part of comedy is timing. It's something you learn the hard way beacause of the variables mentioned in this article. I've been successfull and I have bombed in interviews but. Trying to teach my son (15) who sometimes acts the part of the class clown this lesson but I guess, like everyone else, he will have to learn the hard way.

fdjean
fdjean

In an interview I had, the interviewer was complaining about dwindling profit margins. I responded with what I thought was the well-known quote from the "I Love Lucy" show when Lucy was marketing her mayo or something in a jar for a dollar a piece. Someone pointed out that it cost $1.25 each to make the stuff, so how could she make in money? Lucy said, and I quoted, "We'll make it up in volume..." This interviewer must not have seen that episode, and he really went off on me. Nope, didn't get the job!

talentonloan
talentonloan

When I interview I use a golden rule approach and try to do things that I would like others do to/for me. That includes low key humor. So I usually try to find a way to connect to the person humanly at the outset. If I am in their office and see a picture of kids on the desk I'll ask a question. The lighter the better - i.e. if its kids playing in the snow I'll comment something like - "it looks like these kids are having a ball" or something. This opens the door of the interviewer to a human exchange - possibly about something important to them like their family. If a response is appropriate to their comment I would make it, then immediately be focused on the task at hand. Humor can set a tone that conveys humanity and tells a little about the person. If the interviewer yacks on for half an hour about their kids that says something. If they are uncomfortable bringing anything like that into the workplace that says something else. No need to be Jay Leno, just a human exchange is helpful. Sometimes this has opened a whole way of relating to the interviewers that has allowed the whole interview to be upbeat, positive and still job focused. It also provides a bigger background to the human dynamics under which one might find oneself living jobwise. rh

chaz15
chaz15

I once went for an interview and the person interviewing seemed a thoroughly decent person. He turned out to be the world's worse boss!

alex.kashko
alex.kashko

I think excessive seriousness is not a good sign. If you build a rapport with the interviewer you are likely to be making them chuckle in the right way. Normally I take a lack of lightness in the interview as a bad sign.

cynic 53
cynic 53

An Interview is like a game of Poker to some extent. The Applicant, unless unemployed or desperate to leave their current job, is trying to sell themselves for as good a deal as they can get in wages, conditions, perks, prospects, etc whereas the Interviewer, usually mindful of their wages budget, is trying to obtain as good a worker as they can for as low an expenditure . Some Interviewers will crack a joke to throw the Candidate, perhaps to see how they can handle such as situation from a customer or client either on the phone or face to face. In these days of Political Correctness some may even try to trap the Candidate by making a joke about some ethnic or gender group etc to see how they react. I do not personally feel that humour has any place in a Job Interview either from the Interviewer or the Applicant, keep the funnies for the bar after work.

david_heath
david_heath

Toni, I've never seen such an equivocal piece. Do you actually have an opinion on the topic?

calominojp
calominojp

Well, I had an interview like a year ago. There were five guys asking me questions, and then one asked THAT 5 YEARS STUPID QUESTION EVERY INTERVIEWER ASKS: (my english may be bad) "How do you see yourself in five years?" I find that question so useless because in Argentina you can't be sure if you'll keep your job the next day. Well, I responded: "I see myself bald" No one laugh, so I quickly responded that questions like I should had. I forgot that one of my interviewers was bald. HAHA!

gary.everett
gary.everett

You've missed the point big time. If my Interviewer, or my interviewee don't get my humour I neither want to work for them, or them for me. Humour is the very essence of being, if it don't fit, you won't fit. Find somewhere you fit, you'll do so much better. But if you're desperat.............

AgeTheGod
AgeTheGod

I once opened an interview with a major global company with the line "Technically I'm a genius but have f*ck-all in the way of people skills" (those exact words) which caused a sharp intake of breathe all around. It was a long interview but I got the job! When I started on site 3 weeks later and doing the rounds of being introduced to people it seemed every single person in the building had heard about this interview and were gob-smacked that I got away with it. I was at the company for 5 years and even now, 3 years later, when I meet ex-colleagues for a beer it still gets mentioned. In another interview when asked what my motivations were, I answered "Solving problems and insulting idiots that ask me stupid questions". Again I got the job. So personally, I'd say that living dangerously doesn't necessarily hurt providing you're aware of what you're doing.

fanboi
fanboi

I've been in several interviews, one last week in fact, where there was a certain amount of humour during the interview. However, this is I believe largely due to that fact that the interview process in Sweden (at least from my personal experience) is quite relaxed. I doubt very much that humour would ever be considered appropriate in Japan for example. In my opinion humour can be important for several reasons - * it relaxes both parties * it creates a connection * it shows you're human and you have a personality - all of which can lead to a positive impression. The key point though is to be able to gauge the style of the interview to decide whether it's appropriate or not to share humour and if so how far to go. Witty annecdotes or a recap of past events with a wry smile are probably about as far as you want to go (unless you're applying for a job as a stand up comic ;) ) A golden rule might be the old 'if in Rome, do as the Romans'. If you feel that the interviewer is trying to lighten the mood, if they make some kind of attempt at humour then it's a sure sign that you can be a little more relaxed and follow suit. Just don't get carried away. I'd also suggest that it depends on who you're being interviewed by. If it's the person who will end up being your direct boss it's definately good to be able to build some kind of connection at the interview stage. If the interviewer is your prospective bosses boss then it might be better to reserve some caution in defference to seniority. If it's with HR then it may well be fine to be a little more relaxed. Lastly, it may depend on the industry sector you're aiming to work in. Naturally here we're talking IT, which is often seen with some humour. But in other branches, such as banking or medicine, it may not be approriate...are there any Dilberts of the banking world?? probably not.

timothy.retford
timothy.retford

Whether humor is appropriate in an interview--or any other situation--can quickly be discerned by who you're sitting across from. If you're talking to someone with chili peppers and tabasco bottles on his tie and he opens up with an anecdote, you'll probably relate better to him if you respond in like. But if the interviewer is the stiff type in a blue tie on a grey shirt, probably it's best to stay serious. But in all cases, keep the humor clean, even if the interviewer cracks a colorful joke: after all, he might be testing to see how you react.

klykens
klykens

At least there ought to be,.... Could't disagree more: If you go for a jobinterview, you want a match, and open-minded view the chances of success are big. So if you like humor, stick to it (also in job interviews). And if you have difficulties with it, listen to Monty Python and work on it.

Snak
Snak

Definitely. There is a place for humour anywhere and everywhere. It is universally recognised as a stress reliever - and both interviewer and interviewee can be stressed during an interview. I work in a medical environment although without medical duties. At my interview I was asked if I had any medical background at all. I joked that I had watched 'Casualty', one of those hospital-based TV shows that starts off as a drama but sinks to Soap Opera status by series 3. One of the panel laughed and said 'I'm not sure that that is a recommendation'. I immediately replied "Oh well in that case I take it back. I DON'T watch 'Casualty'". They all laughed or smiled at that. I got the job - and was later told that I was the only candidate relaxed enough to include humour in my interview - but by then they'd come to realise that I'm like that. I can see the funny side of most things - and that's kept me in good stead ever since. This was 13 years ago - and I'm still here.

cjknight
cjknight

If your interviewer is such a miserable humourless (expletive deleted) you don't want to work there!

art
art

How much would they have to pay you to work in a humorless place? I say that with full understanding that you may never interact with the initial interviewer again. I am with you on reading your interviewer.

cynic 53
cynic 53

I often feel that many people have a different personality out of the workplace that they have when at work. I certainly have. People with whom I work and who meet me accidentally in a restaurant or bar at a weekend ( I never go to work social events such as BBQs etc) have remarked that I am far more relaxed and easy going in that environment than when in the workplace. Therefore an Interviewer would have to be clever to see the real me and not the one that is hired to work for them.

dirtylaundry
dirtylaundry

So glad you got someone with a sense of humor and intelligence to boot ;) - that was incredibly risky, since it was of a sexual nature - it definitely depends on the interviewer. You were probably going to get the job anyway, and the joke might have ruined your chances - you got extremely lucky. For the most part, keeping professional and reserved is your best bet.

charlie
charlie

Just as well - who would want to at such a stuffy place that can't laugh at a good joke? I heard that a little differently... Teamwork: A bunch of people running around doing what I say.

Ohsolost
Ohsolost

We look for a sense of humor when interviewing job candidates; it is required since most of us are not politcally correct. :) We will often ask job candidates to finish the sentence, "And this one time..." A response of "...at band camp" guarantees a second interview!

MrRich
MrRich

Anyone out there interviewing? Seems like a lot of tech people out of work again...

hubbadubba
hubbadubba

I too was sucked in by a good headline to an article that is a complete waste of time ;)

Toni Bowers
Toni Bowers

Each and every situation is different. I tend to be able to sense whether humor would be appropriate but not everyone can. There is simply is no clear-cut right or wrong answer when there are so many variables involved. It's not about my opinion. It's about pointing out the variables so people can be careful.

mmccole
mmccole

SEL was Gould at the time, I went to work for Harris (Datacraft). Real fast caught up with real time in the mid 90's and that whole market segment imploded. Great fun while it lasted.

khenson
khenson

Every time I read a Powers article, I regret it. They don't offer much.

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