When a job description sounds more like a dating profile, what's the deal?
January 3, 2013 10:18 AM   Subscribe

When a job description says you "must have a sense of humor", what's really being asked for and how do you get the right message across in a cover letter?

This may seem obvious, but I have seen this crop up in a few job descriptions (in the graphic design field) lately for positions I believe I'd be a good fit for, and as a bonus I am indeed a funny person in real life. But mentioning the need for that in the job description gives me pause.

I'm concerned when a company says they need someone with a sense of humor that it will be a low performing company or that the work environment is more "funny uh-oh" [totally unorganized, horrible boss, etc.] than "funny ha ha". What quality is the company really looking for here?

Is it really going to ruin my chances of getting an interview/job if I don't address how funny I am in the cover letter? I feel like the cleverness and humor in some of the projects in my portfolio show that pretty well and my cover letters are generally conversational but professional. My plan at this point is to go for that, but I've been mulling it over and wondered what the more experienced folks here thought.
posted by thesocietyfor to Work & Money (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've always subscribed to the school of thought that says that if you have to tell someone you're funny, you're not.

My serious advice is to let your cover letter, resume, and portfolio speak to your professionalism, communication style, and excellent work. When you get called into an interview, be your normal best self. They'll be the ones to decide if you meet their funny criteria or not.
posted by juniperesque at 10:21 AM on January 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

Usually this means that for whatever reason things may not go according to plan, and you may be doing a lot of work outside of your job description. There will likely be tight deadlines that require overtime.

Essentially, in the best case, what they are looking for are team players who aren't as focused on what their job description is, and who aren't going to leave at 4:30 sharp.

That's the way I would read "must have a sense of humour."

It's important to note that people who run a business and have to make payroll and pay the rent and pay taxes and generate some sort of slim profit often have a different idea of what a "sense of humour is" than other folks.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:21 AM on January 3, 2013 [12 favorites]

In my (limited, admittedly) experience, this is code for "boss is racist."
posted by phunniemee at 10:24 AM on January 3, 2013 [53 favorites]

In essence, what it means is that they value how well you're going to fit in as much as what your qualifications and certifications might add up to. "Fit in" here can mean, as KokuRyu points out, that you adopt their corporate culture of working at all damn hours and having no life outside the city block the company is on, but it may also just mean that everyone there loves lolcats and if you don't, everyone else will feel weird around you because you're not laughing.

So: Don't do anything in your cover letter that you wouldn't normally do, but definitely arrange your portfolio to emphasize some of the playful things you've done.

(And yes, there's a distinct chance that it will be the "funny uh-oh" sort of place, or that it means the boss is a painfully unfunny person who nevertheless laughs at his own jokes and everyone else follows along because he'll fire you in a heartbeat if you don't. But that can happen anywhere.)
posted by Etrigan at 10:26 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do not talk about how funny you are in the cover letter (or really ever). They're just trying to tell you, as an applicant, some of the soft criteria that they're looking for in a prospective colleague. It differentiates the design firm from, say, IBM, which is not the kind of place that seeks applicants with a sense of humor.

Whether or not you meet their soft criteria will play out in the interviews, and you'll get a sense of "uh oh" vs. "ha ha."

But if you wanted me to bet, I'd say that these are a bunch of cool designer folks who love a larf and want a cool colleague with whom larfs may be shared, but has the skills to pay the bills, etc.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:29 AM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

As someone who reads the resumes of graphic designers and illustrators, I don't expect to see "funny" in a cover letter (although it is nice). I like to see it in the resume -- work related to books categorized as "humor" and an obvious understanding of what funny is, or having the resume packaged in a clever or funny way.

I like the comic book resumes, the ones folded into origami (I really hate unfolding those because they are so, so wonderful), hand-lettering and/or commentary on jobs or assignments, things like that.

It shows me the person likes graphic design and appreciates the experience of someone else viewing their work with a smile on their face.
posted by hmo at 10:30 AM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

In the past this has translated to:

A) work environment is casual and largely unprofessional/disorganized
B) senior staff members have a questionable sense of humor that they refuse to drop
C) office culture is friendly and fun and wouldn't be a good fit for someone doggedly following their work ethic to the grave

YMMV. Don't address that requirement directly until you get to talk to these people in person, and even then take care to gauge their definition of "sense of humor" to make sure it gels with yours.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:34 AM on January 3, 2013 [13 favorites]

Once "a sense of humor" was mentioned as a characteristic necessary for a job I was hired for.

Later it became apparent that the sense of humor was necessary to prevent sobbing in the bathroom on a regular basis as a result of boss tantrums and/or things going horribly wrong for totally preventable reasons and/or getting no support to do my job.

This job might be nothing like that, of course.
posted by bunderful at 10:34 AM on January 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Job applicant (about to be, actually) here - I've always interpreted the "sense of humor" mention in job interviews to mean "please be the kind of person who rolls your eyes and cracks a joke when things go crazy, rather than being the kind of person who panics or has a hissy fit". Not really something you can do in a cover letter, it's the kind of thing that comes through in an interview. I've always taken it as more of a temperment thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:35 AM on January 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

... Raises hand in shame.... Yes, I've written "Must have a sense of humor" in job descriptions.

I want to hire someone who, in times of difficulty, will not break down in tears and cry, but can bounce back and tackle the situation with a positive attitude. So no, it doesn't necessarily mean I want to hire the class clown for a position, but should things go wrong, I want you to be buckle up, face the situation, and move forward with a smile and a great attitude.
posted by HeyAllie at 10:36 AM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Or, yeah, what Empress said.
posted by bunderful at 10:36 AM on January 3, 2013

I would take it to mean : "this company has a loose, informal environment, where co-workers often go out for drinks together and maybe occasionally tell adult-oriented jokes". And perhaps a younger crowd works there?
posted by Afroblanco at 10:39 AM on January 3, 2013

this is code for "boss is racist."

Or sexist. Or homophobic. But I feel like you should hopefully be able to sense that from the cultural vibes you pick up during the interview.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:44 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think in most cases, the employer is looking for a) someone who can take a set back without having a conniption and/or b) someone who might be pleasurable to spend time with for 40 hours a week.

But one time I was looking for jobs to apply to and the company said they wanted someone with a good sense of humor and asked you to name your favorite Will Farrell movie in your cover letter. I do not think anything that man has ever done or said is funny, so I was glad those losers put that in their ad so I knew not to apply.

So my advice for applying for this type of job is the same as for all other jobs. Be yourself. They'll hire you if it's a good fit. I could have faked a Will Farrell answer, but to what end? Being around people who recite movie quotes at each other and consider it witty banter? We'd have all been miserable.
posted by oreofuchi at 10:46 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Sense of humor" doesn't mean that you have to be funny. It means that you have to be easygoing and open to humor, so I wouldn't be 'funny' in your resume, but rather be open, creative and relaxed. I think that would show your 'sense of humor' better than being funny.
posted by Vaike at 10:48 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Oh, you expected to get paid?"

Okay, probably not. Graphic Design covers a lot of ground. The face-to-face will probably tell you all you want to know about this outfit.

Submit a professional resume. At the bottom, reference the appropriate phrase, and ask if you should bring a straw hat and cane to the job interview.
posted by mule98J at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Whenever I see the phrase "must have a sense of humor" in job descriptions, I assume it was thrown in there just to make the company look more appealing and doesn't convey any actual information about the position or work environment.

I wouldn't recommend addressing it in the resume or cover letter. It might be a sign that the employer is especially concerned in finding the right fit personality-wise, in which case you'll do well if you click with your interviewer.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:03 AM on January 3, 2013

In my (limited, admittedly) experience, this is code for "boss is racist."

Hmm, not that your experience is incorrect, but in my experience I tend to see this phrase the most in job ads within social justice or advocacy organizations. To me, it means the organization is looking for someone who can handle pressure and the unexpected without flipping out, or someone who doesn't have major entitlement issues. (The flipside of this is that it also could mean "this job will burn you out...haha?")
posted by threeants at 11:13 AM on January 3, 2013

I usually throw a joke into the cover letter, or at least let it be a little less formal than usual. For example "I'm an Excel ninja" as opposed to "I have extensive experience with the Microsoft Office Suite."

That said, I work in the entertainment industry. The last job posting I responded to that included this was to be the assistant of a well-known comedian. Graphic design firms might not literally mean "you must make me laugh".

The nice thing about making the cover letter more casual and jokey is that, if they really did mean "must be cool with a racist boss", they probably won't follow up based on my snarky boast about how good I am at booking travel.
posted by Sara C. at 11:25 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Places that describe themselves as requiring a sense of humour are likely to be a lot more fun for straight white males than anyone who deviates from that description.
posted by Sternmeyer at 11:33 AM on January 3, 2013 [18 favorites]

I don't think you need to address humor in your cover letter. The phrase could be that it is fun like Google, or it could mean that is run shabbily and the people there don't know whether to laugh or cry. Whether or not you have a sense of humor is something you are going to show in your interview.

I am a boss, and you need a sense of humor to work with me. The reason is because I, like most people, spend most of my waking hours in the office with my coworkers rather than at home with my wife and kids. Therefore, I want it to be a friendly and fun environment. I don't want to work with someone who is going to look down on the Legos, Pez dispensers, and Mighty Beanz that decorate my office instead of law degrees. I like that my secretary and I get each others references. I don't like for my time away from my family to be in a dour salt mine.

So, it doesn't necessarily mean "you need to be ok with the racist, sexist oppressors in charge who perpetuate the patriarchy." (if that is your default interpretation, you may be a bit humorless yourself). It more likely than not means that it is a fun and friendly environment. (I happen to think every job requires a sense of humor)
posted by Tanizaki at 11:40 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think this is often code for "Work practices are insane here, so are some of the staff, and so will your workload be, and we'd prefer it if you laugh and laugh about this instead of pointing it out and complaining. Crap! Late for a meeting! Gotta dash!"
posted by Decani at 12:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh boy, people are being hella scary about this.
In my opinion, I don't think you should look at that as a red "I'm a slavedriving racist boss!" flag... to me it just says that the workplace is looking for a distinct cultural fit because you will likely spend a lot of facetime with people. In my "creative" office, a lot of the work depends on giving and receiving criticism, and I find that doing that with people who are humorless and who you don't like as a person is painful to say the least.

Just simply think of it as an x-factor thing they'll look for in a face-to-face interview, not something you should try and practice up on. (In fact at my company, this is something that is determined at a separate "cultural fit" interview if it gets to that decision point.)
posted by thirdletter at 12:11 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

You don't have to be crazy to work here -- but it helps.

Or, yeah, racist, sexist, homophobic, toxic atmosphere nobody's willing (or able) to clean up.
posted by Pudhoho at 12:19 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm not in a creative field, but if I saw that in a job description, I'd haul ass in the other direction. If they feel the need to put it in the posting, that suggests to me that there is something seriously screwed up about that atmosphere.

For example, sure, I expect that folks will roll with the punches. I myself had a small nervous breakdown on the 31st because I was still at the office at 8:00 PM. But trust me, if that was a regular deal, and not an occasional thing, I wouldn't be cracking jokes about it, I'd be finding another gig.

You'll have a good idea of the sort of place it is by your experience with them. Are they punctual to your interview? Are they good about getting back to you? Do the folks seem fairly happy to be there? Do things seem to be running smoothly and without drama and crisis? Then someone is just trying to lighten up the posting to attract a good creative person.

If you get a phone call about the position at an odd hour, or if the person talking to you about the job seems distracted or off in some way. If you're invited in for an interview and you notice that everyone is running around with their hair on fire. If the person you're interviewing with is late and/or taking calls, dealing with IM or emails during your interview, RUN! This will only get worse.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:35 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Huh, I work with mostly women and my job description asked for a "killer sense of humor." This meant that I got to describe myself as a "widget ninja" in the cover letter and to talk about myself in a slightly goofy way. Then again, I work in a creative field for what is essentially a startup, and our office is pretty informal.

My take on being asked to have a good sense of humor in a job description would be "We're looking for someone who isn't pompous or defensive about his/her talents and who can take a bit of criticism. Must also be willing to fetch the doughnuts at least once a week and not be too much of a grump on Monday mornings."
posted by vickyverky at 1:13 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

This could possibly mean that they aren't looking for dead-serious, live-and-breathe work people.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:27 PM on January 3, 2013

If I read that, I would immediately picture David Brent (no, not Michael Scott) as my new potential boss.

If that didn't come to pass in the interview, I'd go for the "not break down and cry at first sign of hardship" interpretation.
posted by supercres at 3:14 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Once "a sense of humor" was mentioned as a characteristic necessary for a job I was hired for.

Later it became apparent that the sense of humor was necessary to prevent sobbing in the bathroom on a regular basis as a result of boss tantrums and/or things going horribly wrong for totally preventable reasons and/or getting no support to do my job.

When I used "should have a sense of humor" to describe the ideal candidate for a job I was leaving, this is what I meant.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:00 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

This has nothing to do with being funny, so I'd leave that out of the cover letter/resume. In my experience* 'must have a sense of humor' is corporate-speak for the ability to cheerfully put up with shit you wouldn't tolerate in your personal life, in exchange for a paycheck.

NB: The paycheck is rarely enough for what they're asking you to put up with.

*My experience involves low to mid level wage slavery. Individuals with actual careers may have better experiences.
posted by Space Kitty at 6:27 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

It also probably means they've had team members who were not a good fit, and when they tried to articulate why, the best they could come up with was "man, that guy had no sense of humor". I would not respond to it specifically in any way.
posted by judith at 11:34 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

When you hear what the salary is, you will laugh or cry. We want to hire a person who will laugh.
posted by hworth at 9:49 AM on January 4, 2013

thirdletter: "Oh boy, people are being hella scary about this.

They probably don't have a good sense of humor.

Honestly, I think its presence in the job description is fluff and meaningless. Best to ignore it, honestly, because often they *don't* want a person with a sense of humor. They want what a lot of people want but won't admit to --- "I want you to take me seriously, but not take yourself seriously". If someone makes a mistake at work that affects you negatively, they want you to laugh it off and do the extra work or whatever. But if you make a mistake that work that affects the company negatively, they are not going to laugh it off.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:36 PM on January 5, 2013

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