is it bad form to joke in a job interview?

A reader writes:

I was wondering what your thoughts are on joking in an interview. I recently had a phone interview that I thought went very well. I was well prepared, am very qualified for the job and had competent answers to all questions. I even threw in a few well meaning jokes (none having to do with sensitive topics) that I thought showed my personality. 

It’s been a week and I have not heard back (they said they would contact in-person interviews by the end of last week). I am starting to think that my jokes may have put them off. One that stands out occurred when I was speaking and got cut off. They called me back and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you heard last.” The main interviewer seemed to have a hard time remembering and I joked that they must have been “listening with rapt interest.” I thought it was funny and well meaning, but perhaps it was not in good taste? Your thoughts are appreciated!

This is tricky. Senses of humor can be wildly different.

Now, I’m a big believer that you should be “real” in an interview, so that you find out right up front if you and the employer just don’t mesh very well. And a joking remark can establish rapport, if it’s the right joking remark, delivered at the right time. But you also need to remember that things can come across differently when said by a stranger than when the same thing is said by someone you know.

And you have to be careful about how someone else might take it. For instance, the “listening with rapt interest” joke might have come across as sarcastic, which is a type of humor that not everyone likes or gets. It could also have come across as a dig at the interviewer, rather than in the self-effacing way you probably meant it.

For what it’s worth, it’s taken me years to accept that not everyone finds my sense of humor as amusing as I do, particularly in situations where people barely know me. In some situations, it doesn’t really matter; if they’re not entertained, so be it. But there are certain situations where it’s worth turning it down.

All that said, it’s entirely possible that this has nothing whatsoever to do with why you haven’t heard back — that they have other candidates who are a better fit for unrelated reasons, that they’re just moving more slowly than planned, and so forth.

What do others think?

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    It didn't hurt me and I'd like to believe it helped. When my interviewer commented that she lived in my neighborhood I made a funny comment. That was five years ago and I'm still in the job. Although if I'm the one interviewing I find it off putting when there's too many jokes or they feel rehearsed.

  2. Lisa*

    Agree with everything AAM says about different senses of humour – although I think it's good to show that you have a sense of humour, if you can work it in there. The other thing about this question that strikes me is that it was a phone interview; I'd be far more cautious about making jokes in a phone interview because you don't have the body language to help show it's meant to be funny/friendly.

  3. Anonymous*

    My take on this is that the OP should not overthink it.

    In any case, if they don't like your humor, best to find out now. That being said, I recently interviewed a young woman who I suppose is best described as "hipster". She used a little snark in her interview. Turned me off, and I am arguing against hiring her. Not a fan of snark, even when leveled at oneself; it is negativity taken to the worst level. I don't want to work with negative people. I suppose in that respect and for me, Hippies >>> Hipsters !?!

    1. sonic*

      Would agree, I think it is ok to let one or two light jokes out, but everyone must appreciate it.

      Sarcasm is there for self-defence, for me it has no other uses and by no means when somebody is doing you a favour by interviewing you. There is not reason to encourage negativity, and I would have also kept that person away from your co.!

      At the end of the day your value is determined (roughly) 50% by skills and 50% how well you function with the colleagues.

  4. Anonymous*

    Anonymous, it sounds like you had a bias against the 'hipster' because she looked like one. Seems to me that you used the 'snark' as an excuse. That does not seem fair.

  5. Anonymous*

    I've been in a few interviews where I got the impression they were intentionally joking with me to get me to lower my guard and reveal flaws. I like to let my personality show but I am cautious for this reason. I take the same approach with interviewing that I do with my resume, cover letter, etc. I figure 99% of all candidates do the exact same things so I view it as an opportunity to stand out (hopefully in a good way).

  6. Anonymous*

    Anon2, Actually I thought she was looking like a pretty good candidate until she joked/snarked about the average Internet noob. That would be our clients. Play nice with the clients. You are right though — I used to work with a bunch of negative folks, couldn't stand it, and found a new job. If she had been an outstanding candidate I would have found a way to work with her. She was good but not outstanding.

    cheers, "no-snark" anon

  7. Anonymous*

    I generally agree with all the other posters. However, with my first professional position out of grad school I was told that one of the reasons I got the job was because I was the only candidate who joked in the interview and they thought it put me head and shoulders above the others in terms of the office culture. I think that appropriateness is a definite must though and that will vary from place to place.

  8. Talyssa*

    I think its a bad idea to joke on a phone interview – its a LOT harder to get nuances without body language and facial expressions. In an in-person interview, they can see you smiling, you can see them react badly or positively — i mean if you crack a joke in person and you see them make a face, then you know to stop. On the phone, you'll just keep going and that COULD really turn them off – just in the gut feeling way even if they recognize that you can't see them. I HATE the phone for this reason, hate talking on the phone, I think phone interviews should be quick screens and that's it. I mean not just becuase of jokes, but in general. You can't see if someone is getting your explanation, or if you're talking too much, or not enough, or whatever.

    By the way anon1 – I was totally on anon2's side until you explained more and now I'm siding with you BUT I think you might find your opinion of her goes farther if you really focus on the "her comments about 'internet noobs' made me uncomfortable, I feel we need someone who will be dedicated to helping our users feel good about our services, not someone who will get annoyed with the stupid user failures" – the way you talked about her in the first post REALLY made it sound like it was about her age, or about "negativity" or something, and that's just going to make you sound like that whole "damn these kids, in my days we respected our elders!" stereotype. If I were the other decisionmakers, that would make me want to blow off your concern, but you DO have a totally valid concern

  9. Shackleford Hurtmore*

    I think a few light hearted jollity and quips are okay for establishing rapport. As an interviewee, you also need to know that the people you are working with aren't so sober and serious that they will sap the life out of you for several years.

    However, the one time it didn't work was when I started with the "Your momma" jokes. They ended the interview there and then, but I learned from the experience. Now I stick to mother-in-law jokes and the one about the Scotsman that finishes "it'll gruesome more".

  10. Anonymous*

    One interview I was in the senior guy kept making jokes about what a torturous place it was, that the work was getting thrown in a dungeon, etc.

    I tried to joke along, but those were just awkward.

  11. Anonymous*

    When I interviewed for my current job, I laughed at something at one point, and the interviewer said, "man we need more people who laugh around here."

    My personality did cost me a good job, but it landed me a great one. "Fit" (or culture) is not a cliche. After the rejections I did get, I'm *so* happy I got them — they cleared the way for the job I have, which is pretty darn awesome. And in this economy (or two years ago anyway) I probably would have taken the first offer I got. I'm glad I didn't have to.

  12. fposte*

    I totally agree that the OP is overthinking this, and I think humor can be an asset in an interview.

    I think the more important question isn't humor or no humor, it's what kind of joke gets made. Jokes about the interviewer or company or a seemingly neutral "them" (who will, as the poster upthread demonstrates, undoubtedly end up including people valued by somebody in the room) are going to be riskier than jokes that revolve around you and your own life. Playful teasing of others is safest when people know you enough to have the context of your kind and generous nature.

  13. Dawn*

    I wouldn't mind humor in an interview; however, I agree that humor over the phone is tricky and probably should be avoided. I think the comment "listening with rapt attention" could be taken as sarcasm and should be avoided.

  14. GC {God's Child}*

    I'm inclined to say it's fine but as a person with a very specific sense of humor, I find I rarely appreciate other people's jokes and in my mind the jokes reflect badly on them.

    To me there's a time and a place for everything. Perhaps over a casual lunch. But not in an interview.

  15. Pierre Corneille*

    I generally agree that it's tricky to use my sense of humor, especially because you have to get to know me first to know that I'm trying to be "funny." But in one job interview, I think it helped. I clicked with the interviewer and it turned out that the people in the workplace had very similar senses of humor. I got laid off three months later, but it was fun while it lasted!

  16. Anonymous*

    Jokes are fine, but the example here–"rapt attention"–is a TERRIBLE choice. It definitely sounds like a dig at the interviewer. Or, if it comes off as self-deprecating, that's a real turn-off in this context; it puts an undue burden on the interviewer to make the interviewee feel better about him or herself. Total faux pas.

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