What You Shouldn’t Say in a Job Interview

Wall Street Journal - Interviewing

What you should not say when interviewing

By:  Arlene Hirsch

Candidates can disqualify themselves by revealing too much

Interviewers can be their own worst enemies.

They disqualify themselves by revealing information that’s better left unsaid in interviews because they feel defensive or insecure. Consider this interview blooper, supplied by an embarrassed colleague. “When an interviewer asked me if I had any career regrets – things that I wished I’d done differently – much to my chagrin, I blurted out. ‘I should have gone to Vassar!’ ” she says. This opened up a whole discussion about the quality of my education which could otherwise have easily been avoided.”

Knowing what not to say in interviews can be almost as difficult as learning what you should say. Even the answers to seemingly innocuous questions, such as your opinion on the Gulf War, can be a set up for discovering whether you’re tolerant of other’s viewpoints, says career guidance author Marin John Yate. In general, however, candidates have more trouble fielding common questions about weaknesses, their backgrounds or their personal lives. The best strategy is to turn weaknesses into strengths and avoid revealing unnecessary information or discussing your personal life.

What Are Your Weaknesses?

Not surprisingly, interviewers have learned that they frequently need only to ask a candidate. “What are your weaknesses?” to uncover potentially damaging skeletons in the closet. Brevity and humor are often the best approaches to this potential landmine. Jean Williamson, a career counselor with Citibank’s career services unit in New York, advises candidates to minimize their faults and never disclose anything that might disqualify them. “Don’t eliminate yourself as a contender by giving three or four weakness when only one is required.” she says. “If you choose to be honest, it’s best to give a fault which has been fixed in order to show development. Don’t use anything that will blow you out of the water.”

If you choose to answer humorously, such as saving your weakness is “Chocolate Haagen-Dazs,” or “my second serve,” you risk appearing flippant. “If you’re going to use humor, you’d better be good at reading people,” says Ms. Williamson. “Some interviewers may think you’re being to frivolous.”

“It takes a strong person to use humor effectively,” agrees Patricia Haskell, owner of Career counseling Services in Rockville, MD. Ms. Haskill suggests that interviewees mention a weakness that’s unrelated to job performance, such as, “I’m not bilingual” (assuming the job doesn’t require second language skills).

Interviewees often run into problems because they feel defensive about their past. Another strategy is to reframe strength so it sounds like a weakness, such as “I’m a workaholic, ” or “I tend to be a perfectionist.” But be careful not to sound “canned” when answering or interviewers will see through the ruse, Ms. Williamson says.

Tell me About Yourself

Open-ended statements such as this can be lethal to unsuspecting interviewers who can’t resist the temptation to talk too much. Preparation is often the best antidote. Ms. Haskill recommends what she calls a two-minute drill. “Spend 30 seconds on auto biographical information, 30 seconds on education. 30 seconds on work history and 30 seconds on personal characteristics and qualifications.” she says. “Don’t grind out what you did in your first job if you’ve been in the workforce for 15 years.”

Ms. Williamson suggests reframing the questions into. “Why are you qualified to do this job?” which is really what the interviewer wants to know. She suggests a “pistol approach” to answering. “Load your pistol (answer) with specific accomplishments, experiences and results that will hit the target, instead of barraging them with everything.” she says.
Interviewees often run into problems because they feel defensive about their past. One job hunter who was unemployed for two years was so defensive about the gap in his work history that he would mention it unasked. Ms Haskell says. “Then, he spent the rest of the (interview) defending what had happened.” she says.

Ms. Haskell advised the candidate to list on his resume temporary positions he had held during the two years and prepare a response that framed the experiences positively. “The key is knowing how you’re going to answer the hard questions.” Ms. Haskell says. “But don’t over focus on them so much that you can’t listen to what the interviewer is saying.”

Be Objective About Yourself

Job seekers sometimes can’t see the reality of their circumstances. Hence, they adopt defensive postures that aren’t necessary. One communications director worked for 12 years for a major corporation before being laid off in a reorganization. Feeling panicky, he quickly accepted a low-level job. After four months, he was so frustrated that he quit without having another position.

This forced him into a new dilemma: whether to tell interviewers he’d been unemployed during the four months or what actually happened. Since he had a stable work history and the reasons he left the low-level job reflected positively on his abilities, he decided to be honest. At first, though, he was so defensive that it was impossible for him to discuss the experience positively. After counseling, he realized that he had nothing to hide or be ashamed of.

Fredi Balzano, a consultant in Roseland, NJ., with King, Chapman, Broussard & Gallagher Inc., an outplacement firm, offers this rule of thumb. “Tell the truth, but make it sound less horrible.” One candidate who changed jobs four times in four years used this approach. Ms. Balzano says. When asked about her track record, the job seeker replied honestly. “It wasn’t always my choice. There’s a lot of reorganization going on that’s beyond my control.” Ms. Balzano suggests that interviewers with troubled chronologies address the problem head on. “Emphasize what you learned from the experience. ” she says. “You can’t change what happened, but you can try to present it positively.”

Ms. Haskell concurs. “Don’t say anything negative about past bosses or colleagues,” she says. “This will raise red flags that there were problems. Don’t be the first one to open the door to a discussion of the negative.” Remember that how you respond is as important as what you say. Clearly, there has to be rapport and communication, a feeling of openness and honesty. But that, too, can be seductive. “Don’t get too cozy,” Ms. Haskell warns, “or you may reveal something too personal. Stay focused on a discussion of your talents and abilities. The interviewer isn’t your friend.”

Don’t Lose Control

Disclosing personal information is always risky and can cause you to lose control of the interview process. In general, it’s best not to initiate personal discussions. Ms. Haskell says. “Never assume that the interviewer feels the same way you do,” she says. Although you may be thrilled to be a brand new parent, for example, an employer may start worrying that you’ll be fatigued, preoccupied or unreliable.

Ms. Balzano disagrees. Sharing personal information is appropriate at times, but exercise good judgment when doing so, she says. One investment banker who was recovering from a drug problem felt his situation had been so visible on Wall Street that he needed to address it to overcome employers’ resistance to hiring him. Ms. Balzano says. “By presenting it as a problem he had conquered, he demonstrated personal strength and alleviated employers’ concerns simultaneously,” says Ms. Balzano.

In the case, employing a high-risk interview strategy paid off. For other, revealing sensitive and highly charged personal information isn’t necessary. Sometimes we’re so acutely aware of our own vulnerabilities that we assume others perceive us similarly. This usually isn’t true.

Jane Reynolds had filed a lawsuit against her former employer for sexual harassment. Although the outcome of the litigation was still pending, Ms. Reynolds (not her real name) elected to look for another position. However, she was so paranoid that other employers knew about her situation that she became defensive and unable to present herself appropriately when interviewing. Although Jane believed she’d been blackballed from future employment in her industry, others could see that she wasn’t presenting her qualifications effectively.

Fielding Personal Questions

If you have a troubled professional or personal history, you need to be comfortable with how you’ll discuss it in interviews. Decide if you’ll initiate the conversation and what you’re going to say. Even if you don’t bring it up, some interviewers won’t hesitate to ask blatantly illegal questions about personal matters that will be used to evaluate your employability. What should you say?

If you want the job, answer the question,” says ms. Haskell, “but do it as neutrally as possible.” Obviously, you’re not required to answer illegal questions, yet refusing to may alienate the interviewer, in which case you won’t get the job, anyway. Present the information, then ask the interviewer what he or she has concluded about what you’ve said.
For example, if you’re a patent and an available position requires extensive travel, an interviewer may assume that the two are mutually exclusive. You, however, feel differently. To avoid being unfairly judged, ask the interviewer about his or her conclusions and clarify any misconceptions. Remember, you aren’t a passive victim. “Why do you want to know?” or “Do you have some concern about how this will affect my performance?” are thoughtful questions that can help the interviewer-overcome prejudices or insecurities that interfere with objectivity.

One final caveat: Never lie about your background or inflate your credentials during interviews, no matter how much you want the job. Most employers check references carefully and any untruths will result in immediate disqualification. It’s far better to state that you don’t have a needed skill or degree, but are planning to obtain it. This shows your initiative and sincere interest in the available position.

Article courtesy of: National Employment Weekly
Ms. Hirsch is a Chicago based career counselor, psychotherapist and author.