Interview Icebreaker Jokes – The Damage They Cause Isn’t Funny (This dinosaur practice should become extinct)

One joke can quietly hurt diversity, raise anxiety, and make interviewees feel like they won’t fit. 

In addition, most of these icebreaker jokes don’t even meet the practice’s primary goals of relaxing the candidate, reducing anxiety, and making the candidate more open to talking. 

So why do so many interviewers rely on this “Stone Age” interview practice? Well, the reason is that most in recruiting rely heavily on tradition. This overreliance on past practices is often allowed, because recruiting leaders have not taken the time to demonstrate to interviewers how damaging this seemingly harmless practice can be to your hiring results. Before you spew out another icebreaker joke, I urge you to understand better the many ways in which these jokes can inadvertently damage your recruiting results.

Top 8 Ways These Jokes Can Damage Your Hiring Results 

The following section lists the top potential damages resulting from a single “icebreaker joke.” Understanding these damages is important. Because I have found that once you understand how these jokes can damage your interview results, most lead interviewers will instantly reconsider using them. The most impactful damages from this practice appear first in the list below.

  • These jokes don’t actually produce the expected result (relaxing and opening up the candidate) – search as you may, but you won’t find any corporate data showing that these jokes have any positive impact on a candidate’s job interview performance. And even though champions of this practice assert that they can open up the candidate, reduce anxiety and create a relaxed atmosphere. Unfortunately, you won’t find any data supporting a single one of these contentions during a job interview. Unfortunately, you will, however, find that there are many cases where “inappropriate” icebreaker jokes have been shown to be offensive to women and LGBT candidates. And they can also confuse those with English as a second language, as well as diverse, less educated, and global candidates. So in a modern data-driven TA function, without data to prove the effectiveness of this historical practice. They (like all other practices without supporting data) shouldn’t be allowed.
  • Using them prevents starting off with a much more effective alternative – obviously, you can only begin each interview once. So it makes sense to skip the time-wasting icebreaker joke. Instead, begin with an interview opening practice that has been proven to be much more effective. Two of these “start-off practices” to consider include “a feedback minute.” Excite the candidate by highlighting and praising what impressed you about them. A second start-off alternative to consider is an “interview preview,” where you take a minute to reduce their anxiety about what is to come. Highlight what will happen during and after this interview.
  • These jokes may cause a candidate to drop out because they don’t fit the organization – almost all candidates begin the interview process wondering whether they will fit in this team and organization. Unfortunately, the fact that they “won’t fit” may be strongly reinforced when they don’t understand the icebreaker joke and why it’s funny. This feeling of not belonging may be further reinforced when they don’t understand why a serious business conversation should begin with a trivial joke. And if the candidate’s level of uncomfortableness is high enough. Within the first five minutes, you may have inadvertently caused the candidate to self-determine that they are not a fit for this manager or organization. And if that feeling is strong enough, they may literally tune out during the rest of this interview. And if your confused candidates post about their negative interview experiences on sites like Glassdoor.com. This questionable practice may unintentionally hurt your future recruiting.
  • Anxiety caused by these jokes will hurt interview performance – research has shown that candidate anxiety lowers interview performance. And although many interviewers expect their jokes to lower a candidate’s anxiety. These jokes may actually increase candidate anxiety. First, realize that almost all surprises increase anxiety, and starting off with a joke will be a surprise to many. Next, anxiety levels will increase if the candidate doesn’t fully understand the joke or why it occurs during a business conversation. Either of those will likely cause them to fear something is wrong with them. Their anxiety will also be raised if they fear their response to the joke didn’t fully meet the interviewer’s expectations (i.e., did they laugh loud and quickly enough?). Finally, their anxiety level will increase even further if they continue to wonder throughout the interview if they will encounter any additional disruptive “surprises.”
  • Interview results will also suffer if candidates become distracted – in addition to raising anxiety, these jokes can also cause a candidate to become distracted and confused. This distraction is most likely to occur among candidates who have not been interviewed in a while or among those raised in a different culture. This “surprise joke” may cause the candidate to become confused (what does this mean? Should I have prepared for this?). Overall, it may distract them to the point where they abandon or veer off their interview plan. All of which will likely negatively impact their interview performance.
  • Diversity hiring may be hurt by the icebreaker jokes – as noted earlier, all distractions and anxiety-raising factors directly impact interview results. However, when it comes to diverse candidates, my own research and advising experience has shown that these jokes are one of the top factors that damage diversity recruiting results. This damage occurs because those from a diverse or disadvantaged background aren’t likely to respond correctly to jokes that a non-diverse hiring manager selected. And, of course, failing to laugh or respond incorrectly will also hurt a diverse candidate’s interview score. And if the diverse global candidate is completely surprised or even offended by the joke’s content. They may drop out of your hiring process after they self-determine that they aren’t a fit for this organization.
  • An incorrect reaction to a joke may be an instant knockout factor, causing you to lose that candidate – although many simply see this joke as an innocent way to begin an interview. I have found that some interviewers treat these jokes much more seriously to the point where they consider them an instant knockout factor. This means that if the candidate’s response is judged inappropriate (i.e., no laugh). Or even worse, not laughing quickly enough (because a slow response could cause the interviewee to be judged as not very smart). Some hiring managers, especially those looking for an excuse to eliminate most candidates, may weigh an inappropriate reaction heavily as a knockout factor, and an inappropriate response will actually mean instant rejection. It’s also important to note that even if the joke itself is okay. If the interviewer poorly delivers it, there may be little chance that it will elicit the desired response from the candidate.
  • An inappropriate icebreaker joke can offend and discriminate – of course, there is no standard list of proven icebreaker jokes. And without the use of accurate selection criteria. If you use one of many lists available on the Internet. You may, unfortunately, select a joke that could be judged as embarrassing, offensive, or even discriminatory. For example, here is a sample icebreaker joke from the Internet with a male bias that could offend women. “There were three tomatoes, a mom, a dad, and a son. The son lagged behind and fell splat on the floor. His dad yelled to him, “Ketchup, son.” While other jokes may be extremely difficult to understand by the economically disadvantaged, those from different cultures, those with fewer life experiences, and less education. For example, a disadvantaged person from Alabama might have a zero chance of understanding this type of global joke. “What do you get if you cross an elephant and a kangaroo? Big holes all over Australia!” So, it makes sense to pretest any icebreaker joke you might consider using to ensure that it is effective while not offensive to anyone. 
If you only do one thing – after the hiring for a job has been completed. Proactively survey a sample of your interviewed candidates to capture both their positive and negative reactions to your use of an icebreaker joke. In that survey, you should also ask specifically if it helped to reduce their anxiety and if it made them more willing to talk openly. 

Final Thoughts

Because of the numerous rules, lawsuits, and regulations, we all now work under. I have found that most of the large errors in our recruiting processes have now already been fixed. So in my view, that means that we must all now shift our focus toward fixing or improving each of the remaining minor flaws in our hiring process. And a good place to begin that healthy cynicism is in the use of icebreaker jokes. Because on close examination using data and metrics, they almost always seem to cause more problems than any positive benefit they may provide.

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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