being funny in an interview: good or bad idea?

There’s a cartoon where a young man, recently hired, is called into the office of the human resources manager who demands an explanation. “When you applied for this job,” he says to the nervous employee, “you told us you had five years’ experience and all the skills necessary to perform your duties. Now we discover this is your first job and you have no idea how to do it.” “Well,” the young man replied, “in your job description you said you wanted someone with imagination.”

If that one didn’t make you smile even a little bit, you’re a liar.

is being funny in a job interview a good idea

so, is there a place for humour and jokes in an interview?

We think so, with some caveats. 

When psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe created the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale in the latter part of the 20th century, they ranked getting fired as #8 on the list of top 20 life stressors. Starting a new job was #14. While they didn’t specifically identify the job interview as a stressor, it’s safe to say job interviewing is right up there, when it comes to things that stress us out the most. Just ask anyone who’s been on a job interview lately.

A study reported by the Harvard Business Review found that outstanding executive performers were twice as likely to use humour as their less successful colleagues who didn’t. This suggests that a sense of humour in the workplace is identified with success. Further, the study gave weight to the use of humour in interviews for leadership positions; a sense of humour was second only to work ethic as the top two most important leadership traits and was identified as a marker for high emotional intelligence.

why is humour an important part of work culture?

Humour is a great stress buster and unifier. When deadlines loom and pressure mounts, it’s not the whiners and complainers we flock to but the people who dissipate our anxiety with a well-timed joke.

While you’re not looking to have people rolling in the aisles during an interview, humour used subtly and well at the right time goes a long way to lighten the mood, put everyone at ease, smooth over an awkward moment and show people your personality and what you’re like to work with.

You want to come across naturally as personable, engaged and potentially a good team member. The key to successful use of humour in a job interview is balance; a light moment or a joke framed by an accurate recounting of your qualities, skills and experience gives the hiring manager a much more well-rounded impression of you as a 3-D, total package.

like all good comedians, get your timing down

Successful delivery of a joke or self-deprecating humour depends on its sensitive and occasional use and how it’s used to frame important information like how appropriate you are for the role. For example, you can make a joke around your lack of particular experience as long as you follow with the experience you do have, how transferable your skills are, and how quick you are to adopt new technologies or skills. Otherwise, your stab at humour will drop like a stone and be met with the sound of crickets or worse, uncomfortable shifting in seats (theirs.)

The key to successful delivery is practice – yes, practice – in front of friends, family, anyone you can corral into listening to you. Practice helps you deliver a funny comment or self-deprecating humour confidently and naturally, without sounding awkward, defensive or offensive. Think of it as building muscle. You’ll be less likely to blurt out an off-handed remark because of nerves if you’ve prepared for the interview. You may not ever perform stand-up, but you can become more comfortable with humour so that it becomes more natural. If you’re at ease with it, others in the room will be too.

know your audience, and speak their language

Remember, not everyone appreciates humour at the same level. In fact, if a hiring manager finds using humour in an interview risky; things could backfire. There are interviewers who are all business and consider the use of humour in the interview as unprofessional. Luckily, these people are in the minority, but they do still exist. Gauge the waters and ensure your audience will appreciate the joke before you make it.

On the other hand, some hiring managers are using humour to differentiate candidates by inviting you to “Tell me a joke”. This is where preparation will serve you well. Take your time answering, even if you’re prepared. Your delivery shouldn’t feel forced or practiced (even if it is) but organic.

but how do you know who’ll appreciate a joke?

Be sensitive; listen and observe body language and conversation patterns. If the person you’re interviewing with is being conversational and not all about getting business done, it’s probably safe to say a sense of humour (as long as it remains appropriate) will be well received. If they’re not, test the waters by tossing out a light comment and seeing how it’s received; if there’s a distinct chill in the air, be prepared to reel it in and stick to a more professional approach.


Finally, be careful and considerate about the type, appropriateness and timing of humour you use. Racist, sexist, offensive, mean ‘jokes’ have no place in the world, let alone a job interview. At its most effective, humour in an interview puts people, including you, at ease. When well delivered, it makes you memorable so the offer, when it comes, is no joke.

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