A recruiter asks a job applicant, “How long were you in your last position?” The applicant replies, “I’d say my biggest weakness is my listening skills.”
Did that make you laugh? Maybe so—but if you’re in the position of the recruiter, cracking a smile would probably be the last thing on your mind.
Today we’re talking about all things humor: telling a joke in a job interview, whether showing a sense of humor is important and how to do it right if so.
Short answer: It depends.
We know, that’s not very helpful. But with a few key tips, you can learn how to let your personality shine through without putting your foot in your mouth or giving the hiring team the wrong impression.
The first thing we recommend is familiarizing yourself with different types of humor. While you may want to dazzle HR with your favorite bad pun, humor is a little more nuanced than just traditional “jokes.” The Academy of Management lists four main types of humor in the workplace:
Affiliative humor is probably your best bet for a job interview. Self-enhancing humor (such as a personal story that’s mildly embarrassing, but not in a consequential way) could work, too.
There are pros and cons to joking during a job interview. If you get it right, using humor in an interview could foster connection, helping you come across as likable and memorable. The Harvard Business Review conducted a study that discovered outstanding executive performers were twice as likely to use humor. This indicates that we associate humor in the workplace with success and high emotional intelligence.
Many companies value a sense of humor in their employees because it creates a feeling of belonging, reduces stress, and improves the overall atmosphere—leading to work being completed quickly and more efficiently.
But joking in an interview comes with potential pitfalls, too. At best, you might seem unprofessional or immature. At worst, you could offend someone and not get the job. There is such a thing as too much humor—and there’s definitely such a thing as the wrong type of humor.
How do you know what’s what? It can be a tricky line to toe. Follow these do’s and don’ts to help determine whether humor is appropriate in your next job interview.
Tell memorized jokes
You might have a winning arsenal of knock-knock jokes ready to go. But your job interview probably isn’t the time or place. Don’t tell a joke that you’ve memorized or rehearsed; most likely, this will be glaringly obvious. And don’t tell a joke just for the sake of telling a joke. In fact, jokes might not be the best form of humor at all.
Instead, let the conversation flow naturally until you find a place for a relevant witty remark. Telling a real-life funny story can also help you sound genuine and authentic—more on that in a minute.
Be crass or crude
It should go without saying that a job interview is not the place to tell a racy or dirty joke or story. Even bathroom humor is a no-no. Remember, you’re trying to prove that you’re a professional, so filthy jokes are not the vibe you want to send. They’re called NSFW for a reason.
Make a joke at the company’s expense
Don’t make a joke at the expense of the company you’re interviewing with. There’s too much of a risk for it to land wrong and ruin your first impression. To keep everything professional, it’s probably best to not joke about past employers, either.
If you can’t joke about your current, former, or (hopefully) future employer, who can you joke about? A light self-deprecating comment is okay—for instance, “I was interested in this job because I’m a complete nerd about programming software. I know, it’s weird how much I love Python.” You are trying to sell yourself, so don’t lay it on too thick. But a simple humorous comment can help show that you don’t take yourself too seriously.
Get into politics or religion
When you’re trying to be funny, avoid any subjects that could potentially be touchy. It’s all too easy to offend someone when talking about topics such as politics, religion, gender, race, disability, or sexual orientation. Your best bet is to avoid them completely in favor of safer subjects like your favorite food or that funny thing your pet did this morning.
Consider your industry
Some industries naturally lend themselves to humor. Others don’t. If you’re interviewing for a job as a TV reporter or an elementary school teacher, humor might be a valuable tool that you’ll use in your job. But if you’re planning to work in a hospital or with a life insurance company—industries that deal with more serious situations—humor may not be appropriate.
Research each specific company and their brand values before going in for your interview. This can help you decide whether cracking a joke is worth the gamble.
Read the room
Is your interviewer smiling and using a lighthearted tone? If so, they’ll probably appreciate it when you do the same. Or is the atmosphere in the room more serious and businesslike? In that case, you should match what you’re getting.
Use humor to support the other main takeaways you want the hiring team to remember. This might look like sharing how you use humor in your job to defuse situations and motivate team members. For example: “In my previous role, multiple coworkers mentioned how much they loved the ‘memes’ Slack channel I created. It helped boost morale and strengthen team bonds.” This is a great route to take, especially if you feel as if you don’t have a naturally funny personality.
A friend or family member—preferably one who’s familiar with the company where you’ll be interviewing—can help you learn to think on your feet in a mock interview. They can help you gauge what kind of humor is appropriate and how much is too much. When in doubt, a lighter touch is key.
Remember, there’s more to you than your sense of humor. Unless you’re a stand-up comedian looking for a talent agency, your ability to tell a joke isn’t the reason why you’re being hired—it’s just an extra added bonus. So any humor you incorporate into the interview should reflect and support the other skills, knowledge, and attributes you’ll bring to the workplace. If you keep your end goal in mind, you’ll be able to effectively use humor during a job interview.