Humour – Does It Have A Place In Job Applications?

When you have to write a lot of cover letters, you get bored of talking about that time you “showed great initiative.” You want something more creative to say; perhaps something humorous that will make prospective employers remember you.

Sometimes, the job description actively encourages it. “We have a beer keg in the office,” declares one organisation. So you send in your application saying that you really love beer – but the interview never comes. It turns out they wanted the best candidate for the job after all, not an inveterate boozer.

How can humour be a bad thing?

People giving advice on job applications often say that prospective employers don’t appreciate attempts to be humorous. Amanda Henry stated in the Telegraph: “Making jokes is high risk, low reward, even for the ones that land … I’m interviewing potential employees, not potential friends.”

This is at odds with advice from other sources which says that having a sense of humour works in your favour. It’s important to note that this is within an organisation, where your colleagues know you. Compare that to an interview, where a complete stranger has to ascertain if you’re right for the company.

In that situation, it would be a mistake to come off as anOverly Familiar Fred” who neglects professionalism in favour of charm. Advice pieces do recommend charm in job interviews, but they generally suggest conviction in your skills, not a wisecracking personality.

Humour can make you look cheeky and flippant. You’ve seen those classic bad answer lists where the applicant says that in five years, they want to have the interviewer’s job. That individual fused an answer with a joke, thinking they couldn’t lose; in reality, they missed an opportunity to show they have focus and confidence.

A transparent attempt to sidestep interview questions is a black mark against you. Good old Freud said that “humor can work as a deflection … deferring [emotional pains] … for a time when one is stronger”. In other words, deflection shows weakness – so cracking too many jokes shows weakness.

Using situational judgement

Employers might not be looking for friends, but they do want to see someone they will get on with in the workplace. In that case, light, polite, situational humour could work in your favour; the key is to look for positive body language feedback, and give up on humour if it isn’t working.

When we read about how to behave in an interview, we run the risk of focussing too much on our own actions and not enough on how they are received. We smile a lot, thinking that we must, in order to win over an interviewer. Unfortunately, research suggests that smiling too much at the wrong time reflects badly on you. For example, candidates shouldn’t smile when talking about serious issues. You also shouldn’t make a point of finding times to smile as this will look fake, or look more tense than your natural expression.

Joking opens up the same pitfalls. Making a point of joking looks insecure. Joking about the time you spilt coffee on some documents makes it look as though you don’t worry about mistakes. This suggests that you don’t learn from them.

We make jokes because we want people to like us, but likeability is an inexact concept. Since it’s impossible to please everyone, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Why do advice columns always tell you to be yourself? Because, trying to force likeability like an embarrassing rom-com hero works out badly for everyone.

Adrian Williams is a journalist, commentator and theorist. He runs blogs on social issues, media and technology under the handle Adrain on Society.

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