Humor in Case Interviews

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Question:

I am a new visitor at your blog and I find the feedback you provide in specific questions extremely helpful.

One issue that I would like your opinion on is to what extent humor can be a plus in an interview and where you would put the limit.

I read in various sources that a touch of humor could help you in building a link with the interviewer, but in my opinion, it carries a lot of risk too.

Let me give you a specific example.

In one site providing a list with questions actually asked in interviews, I came across the following question:

"What else would you like to be asked?"

The first answer that crossed my mind was, "Can you start on Monday?" although obviously, that's not what the interviewer was actually asking.

Although I would feel perfectly right in making this kind of "joke" with someone I know well, it would not be that easy for me when speaking with someone I barely know, and my career opportunities are for the moment in his/her hands.

Moreover I might feel strange if I was in his place and got the same answer.

So where would you draw the line? Would it be safer to act more "uptight" and limit any humor in a particular part of the meeting other than the interview itself?

 

My Reply:

I would take your cue from the interviewer. If the person is making little jokes, then I think you can make one or two as well -- and it would be considered favorable (much like banter amongst colleagues).

However, some people in consulting are very formal in their demeanor... they are in "client" mode where they do not know the person well enough to know what to do, so they play it formal.

If you get someone like this, then I would play it straight - no humor.

Some interviewers do this deliberately. With their colleagues, they are cracking jokes all day long. In an interview, they turn stone cold just to see how you handle it -- simulating how some clients do act.

Will you read the situation correctly?  Will you crack under the pressure and make nervous humor jokes (the uncomfortable, "I'm really nervous" laugh) or will you read that it's a formal conversation and act accordingly.

I had one interviewer at Bain who was like this -- ice, ice cold. No smile. No jokes. No nodding her head confirming anything.

I ended up acing the case, but I could get absolutely, positively no indication of this during the interview. Even after I aced the case, it was just ice cold... all on purpose, as I found out later.

So basically, copy what your interviewer does. The only exception is if they ever make a joke that is even remotely inappropriate, this never gives you permission to make a similar joke.  Don't get baited into such a trap.

I have not heard of any interviewer doing this deliberately, but regardless, always be professional.

Also, be careful with any jokes that are overly self-deprecating -- which can sometimes be construed as insecure or lacking confidence.

You want the interviewer to know that in front of a client, you wouldn't do anything to degrade the status or authority of the firm.

So in a client situation, never make any jokes about the firm's fees -- even if the client makes the comment first. Never joke about consultants just showing up, creating a big PowerPoint, and walking away -- even if a client makes the remark too.

In client situations, you'd always want to rephrase any kind of humor into client-"safe" words.

Always assume you are being watched (like on candid camera or some type of reality show), because you pretty much are being watched all the time by clients.

As a consultant, you are not always welcomed by every employee in the client company. There are often people who want you or your firm to fail... or to say or do something dumb.

This is also true in any situation with clients in less formal settings -- over lunch, dinner, drinks, etc...

Same is true with interviewers over less formal settings -- never assume it is casual.

It may appear casual. You may want to come across as casual. But keep in mind, you are always, always, always in a professional setting... always.

It is one reason why being with clients takes up so much energy.

You're always "on" and have to think about every word you want to say, evaluate whether you should say it "as is" or re-state it in a different way, and then say it.

I've always felt it was very similar to what I imagine it would be like to be a diplomat -- watch every word unless you offend and cause some kind of international incident or misunderstanding.  Same idea.

So long story short, feel free to use humor but be conservative in your determination of when and how much is appropriate.

Note this is different than not using humor at all. There is value in using it in an interview.  It shows you're a real person, it helps build rapport with certain people, it shows you can relate to clients on a more informal -- yet (very important) still professional -- level.

In short, it can help you pass the "airplane test."

But you need to be very conscious of when you are using it and how you are using it.

Personally, I did use some humor in my interviews.  I usually used it only with interviewers who were themselves making jokes, and I generally played right along and made a few humorous remarks.

But for the more formal interviewers, I avoided humor entirely because I could never be sure if they would find it funny or just unprofessional.

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