Humor can be a sure-fire way to get remembered on the job hunt. A well-chosen joke might get you on the right side of your recruiter, for instance. "Sifting through a pile of resumes can be tedious work," wrote career coach Martin Darke in his book "30-Second Impact Resume." He explained, "a few words of fun could make all the difference to your chances of securing that interview."
Still, humor is a risk. Even if you feel a specific hiring manager will appreciate your wit, that person probably isn't sorting through the resumes. Whoever sees your joke may or may not understand it, getting your application blocked from advancing further through the hiring process. As Darke tells CNBC Make It, "You can never be sure how your witty comment will be taken."
Before you add one-liners to your cover letter or resume, ask yourself these six questions to ensure you'll be remembered in the right way.
Be certain that it is. Humor is difficult to pull off in any situation, but harder still when your first audience (overworked recruiters) is scanning through hundreds of applications. In fact, one report found that some recruiters might only spend six seconds looking at any given resume. Your one-liner, read quickly, could confuse or alienate the very people you need to support your application.
Put your resume in front of a range of friends and family and watch for their reactions. If the best response you get is a polite smile, it's time to hit the delete button.
Your comment might be hilarious. That's still no reason to include it on your resume or cover letter. Job hunting is serious business. Even if you get a laugh, ask yourself: Is it worth being perceived as someone who lacks seriousness?
It's possible that humor could show you're a fit for a casual and fun workplace. But take note: A humorous resume may not be effective for certain job positions. You must critically consider the job role and the company itself to determine whether humor will give you an advantage.
Even harmless remarks can be interpreted the wrong way, Darke tells Make It. If you feel that you must use humor, err on the side of caution. Shy away from humor that is demeaning, targets certain groups or crosses workplace boundaries. Don't assume that everyone has your sense of humor.
Your cover letter's opening line could be a chance to set a humorous tone, says Darke, and offer a brief window into your personality. For example, if you were recently part of a big company's layoff, Darke says that you could make light of it with these potential lines: "You probably read about my redundancy (along with 600 others) in the newspaper. It was nice to be famous briefly."
If you do take this tack, however, don't lose focus. Use the rest of your cover letter to stress your skills and experience.
Research the company to determine if it's a quirky, fun environment that might appreciate whimsical job titles such as "Professional cat wrangler" or other attempts at humor. The right joke can make you seem more likeable in an employer's eyes and showcase your one-of-a-kind personality.
"It helps if a recruitment advertisement is written in a humorous way, as this gives you an insight into the organization," Darke tells Make It. An amusing job listing could suggest that the company has a "sense of humor and that it might be a fun place to work," he continues.
But remember: In these scenarios, you're not weaving in jokes to show how funny you are. You're really demonstrating why you're a fit for that company's culture and using humor to stand out from fellow applicants.
Top candidates are generally in the best position to use humor on a resume. It goes without saying that your resume must have the basics covered. The document should be free of typos and grammatical errors. It should also be concise, clear and limited to one page. More crucially, your resume should tell the story of an impressive candidate who can drive results.
That said, if you're a really strong candidate, you'll likely get noticed without any humor at all. After all, employers are evaluating you for your skill set, not your punchlines.
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