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Nancy Berk, Ph.D. Headshot

Humor in the Job Interview Is No Laughing Matter

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As a psychologist and comic, I was intrigued by The Today Show's recent report on a Career Builder survey of employers. The results found that a good sense of humor was the top influencing characteristic in the potential employee comparison and selection process. That sounds nice, but without knowing the sampling and statistics, it's unclear how valid these findings may be. And what is a "good sense of humor" anyway? Certainly people love to laugh and clever repartee can make the office a little more fun, but humor in the workplace is no laughing matter. In fact, if every job applicant took the Career Builder finding to heart and decided to bump up the joke factor, the results could be a mix of hilarious and disastrous. Here's why....

You can teach humor, but not everyone can learn to be funny.
My data comes only from observation, conversation and teaching comedy and humor writing. Perhaps a scientific study would prove otherwise, but some people "don't do funny well". Don't get me wrong, they're perfectly lovely and fun people. Their strengths just landed in other places. We all have our weak points. I can't draw or build bridges (and okay, sometimes my jokes tank). Of course some people are hysterically funny or mildly humorous with great comedy potential. But a bad stab at humor can be worse than no humor at all. So, is it worth the risk to throw out a shaky one-liner on the job interview? The process can be stressful enough without adding an additional awkward moment when the interviewer has to pretend to laugh. Or not.

Good humor requires the ability to read your audience.
If you decide to add a little levity to your pre-employment interrogation process, you'd best be good at reading the interviewer. Even great jokes offered by famous comics can fall flat in the wrong demographic. Jokes aren't funny if they hit a nerve, and the last thing you want to do is offend the person who is instrumental in the job selection process. And if you happen to be interviewing for a hugely serious position -- think nuclear power plant security -- I just don't think I'd play the humor card there.

A good sense of humor doesn't require you to be funny.
Understanding and appropriately responding to the positive humor of others, just might land you in the "good sense of humor" category without having to perform. In fact, maybe the survey respondents were more likely to hire someone who laughed at their jokes (and subsequently labeled them as having a "good sense of humor"). Either way, having a good sense of humor probably is an important piece of employment and life success, but joking on a job interview requires a little forethought. Otherwise it could be your last laugh on company time.