Let’s face it. Interviews are awkward. Sometimes insultingly so. When an interviewer asks that old-chestnut question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” the temptation is to dispatch it with the standard: “I am an incurable workaholic…. And I am just not working to change it [haw haw]. ”
It may be natural to want to crack a joke. Unfortunately, the times you feel most stressed are probably the worst times to chance it. “The interview is a contrivance. It’s loaded with stress for everyone, says Sarah Woodruff, head of recruiting for executive search firm Affinity Resources. Do approach an interview with humor, but don’t make yourself into a joke, she says. Here are five ways to make humor work for you:
Lighten Up the Dreary Task Hiring Managers Face Think of the interviewer as someone facing an endless stream of candidates, all trying hard to impress. It’s drudgery. The manager will be probably be happy to spend time with someone who ratchets down the intensity of their job pitch and adds a dash of humor. One executive coach I know suggests putting yourself on the interview panel. Say to yourself, if I were in their spot what might I want to know? You might try just a touch of levity by saying, “Maybe you think my experience over-qualifies me for this job — but I have to say I’ve never been in a job where I wished I had fewer skills. Multi-tasking was invented for me.”
Don’t Use the Interview to Entertain Hiring Managers Resist the urge to go over the top with humor. Interviewers often say things to make you comfortable like “Just be yourself” or “There are no wrong answers.” Don’t take that as a warm-up for your laugh track. They have a job spec to fill. You don’t want to distract them with one-liners, even if your witticisms seem to be hitting the mark. It’s a time suck, or worse a red flag on your hire. It’s not likely that the job description includes “must be extremely funny” or “good with knock-knock jokes.”
“If you want the job laugh at their jokes, don’t try and make them laugh at yours,” said executive recruiter Woodruff.
Don’t Second Guess the Corporate Culture Ever hear this line from someone after that Big Interview? “They just didn’t get my sense of humor, so it would have been a bad fit.” In truth, that interview was probably a Big Flop. Remember, it’s not the interviewer’s job to embody the company culture, least of all its collective sense of humor. “People who work in emergency rooms definitely crack dark jokes to get through grim situations – but they really don’t want to show that to outsiders,” said Woodruff. Macabre humor with a hospital’s HR interviewer is not going land you a job in the ER.
Understand That Humor is Risky Business Ask any comedian. Stand-ups take months preparing their one-liners. They test them on people. They have to. Jokes are unpredictable. It’s nearly impossible to know what’s over-the-line inappropriate or just not funny. If you cross the line, you are a risk to the company. That’s a risk you don’t want to take. A recent CareerBuilder blog called humor “the most readily misunderstood form of communication.”
If You Must Be Funny, Think of Your Audience First “You might be able to get away with being self-deprecating,” Woodruff says. If you think of Presidential debates as a National Job Interview for Candidates, you can see how it works. Reagan brilliantly disarmed his own age issue by saying he would not exploit his opponent’s youth and inexperience as a campaign issue. Lincoln and Kennedy often used self-effacing barbs to disarm opponents. But it’s an art form, and Presidential debaters use writers, mock debates and focus groups. You probably don’t have the same level of staff support.
The Bottom Line: Be Genuine If you possess workplace-tested humor, and you know you deliver it with a soft touch, it can help you. “No one wants to hire someone without a pulse or personality,” Woodruff says. But if you can’t avoid snarky responses or sarcasm, you probably should leave your sense of humor at home. It’s not easy, of course, when interviewers use questions that sound like jokes. Like this twist on a classic: “What is your biggest weakness that’s really a weakness and not a secret strength?”
They want to know what task you really are bad at and why you keep lying about it? “It’s a stupid question and basically unethical,” said Professor Keith Murningham of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business in an interview with NPR. It puts the job applicant in the position of trashing themselves or making something up. Which is not funny at all. Like email monitoring, job appraisals and toxic bosses, it’s something you can’t change. You can joke about it, for sure. But wait till after the interview.
Need a laugh right about now? Check out this video of a caveman being interviewed.