A year or so ago, I wrote a blog about five things I look for when hiring salespeople, and the excerpt even made it into my book, Authentic Selling: How to Use the Principles of Sales in Everyday Life. To be sure, there are a lot of good attributes I look for in salespeople, and really anyone for that matter if I am going to associate myself with them.
But we might not spend enough time thinking about the proverbial warning signs as well, of which there are many. And fortunately, I believe they are mostly easy to spot. As a real believer in authenticity, I try to have few rules about what you should or should not say; ultimately, I believe in the importance of people presenting honest versions of themselves. Others can register when someone is presenting an honest version of themself and that helps to build trust, even if the person is authentically weird. In fact, I would argue that in such a scenario, it helps the candidate even more, because if someone is comfortable to present themselves honestly – especially when they are very strange – it means they are confident about who they are and feel no need to lie to you or paint some picture of normalcy. And this works both ways. I’ll give a couple of examples.
It recently came to light that Alec Baldwin’s wife – who goes by ‘Hilaria’ (neé Hillary) – has been pretending to be Spanish for much of her adult life. Though she has roots to Spain, she has allegedly exaggerated her ties and even her accent with the hopes of seeming more exotic. Now that she has been outed, she is embarrassed, and her and her husband have seemingly disappeared from public light. Alec, who is known for his temper tantrums, angrily left Twitter in a rage over the controversy with his wife. It turns out that people do not like when other people act inauthentically.
On the flipside, Bernie Sanders became a meme recently because he was crossing his arms in the cold at the inauguration. This seemed to fit the Bernie persona of a grumpy old man who is always yelling about our need to exact change in our country. Whether you like Bernie or not, chances are you found it kind of adorable and funny. That is because Bernie Sanders has been intellectually consistent throughout his entire career. Whether you like his ideas or not, they have not changed for decades. He has always presented himself with honesty, and that garners respect even from those who disagree with his ideas. Enough to turn him into a meme simply for…existing.
With all of this in mind, it is important for candidates to present themselves honestly. But of course, I would caution that – given the limited interaction a job interview provides – the importance of avoiding situations where something you might say could be inferred to mean something more overtly negative. Of course, if there was a way to magically let the interviewer know everything about you, that would be the best thing for all parties. But in the absence of that, you need to be careful that something you say could be misinterpreted or misconstrued to mean something else. So without further ado, I want to provide five things you do not want to hear as an interviewer.
5. “What Vacation, Holidays, or other free time do I get away from work?”
I realize this might be a little controversial, but please hear me out on this one.
A job interview is designed for a candidate and an employer to get acquainted with one another on a high level. It is a vetting process to understand whether or not there is a mutual fit. Therefore, minutiae of the role are best-served to be explored after an offer has been made. Once an employer makes you an offer, it is a great time to understand all sorts of things about their vacations, holidays, perks, benefits, and what have you. But if the top thing on your mind in the early stages – prior to an offer – is figuring out how much time you get to not actually do the job, that is a big turnoff for the employer. That time should be spent learning about the job itself and whether or not it is a suitable opportunity for both sides.
So, to be crystal clear, I do not intend to be Machiavellian or draconian. Of course it is important to understand the culture of your employer, and to understand the work/life balance opportunity. However, this can usually be gleaned by asking a different question, like, “Tell me about the lifestyle of your average employee.” If the employer says that such a lifestyle is one with late hours and lots of weekend work, you probably already know the answer to your question about free time. Regardless, if you are fortunate to advance through the process, you will earn the right to ask these more specific questions. In fact, you will be in the driver’s seat when you do so, and a question that otherwise seemed taboo will now feel completely acceptable.
4. “My biggest flaw? It’s this thing that actually makes me look good.”
A lot of people are coached in job interviews to spin negatives into positives. So if you are asked about your biggest Achilles heel, you are supposed to somehow spin a yarn so that you end up looking good regardless.
Here is an example. You might ask a candidate to tell you their biggest flaw or something they need to work on, and they might say something like, “I work too hard. Sometimes I need to take some time for myself so I do not burn out.”
To my earlier point about authenticity, most anyone can sniff out that responses like these are contrived. And while it might be impressive to some people that you seemingly have zero flaws, there are others who might interpret that situation as you just being a liar or someone who is unable to come to terms with their own shortcomings.
It can actually be a very good thing to explain what you are truly bad at. For one thing, it shows you are honest. For another thing, it shows you have enough self-awareness to know that you suffer in some areas in which you want to improve. It is only people who lack accountability who believe they are perfect, and those tend to be people who never really improve since they never take any accountability for their own shortcomings. Most importantly though, being honest in this way opens the door to understanding whether or not the employer can act as a serviceable coach to aid you where you are weak. If you value your own professional development, it may actually behoove you to get out in front of the areas where you struggle, and to ask the prospective employer if they can see themselves helping you.
3. “I don’t have any questions.”
If you went on a date with someone and they talked about themselves the whole time, you would probably be turned off. Even if you were inviting the questions because you were curious about them, their apparent lack of interest in you might feel a little bit deflating.
I know it is cliché to come to interviews prepared with questions, and I am not really advocating for that either. Coming with a canned list of questions is not really authentic. Be true to yourself and ask what you really need to know in order to qualify the opportunity for yourself. Even if you are late in the interview process and have already received lots of information about the employer, you might still be speaking to an entirely new person. So why not obtain their perspective on working for that company? That is a new data point that can inform your decision-making about whether you want to work there.
Obviously, asking questions signals to the employer your interest in working for them. But really you owe it to yourself, too. People look at interviews as a one-sided affair where the interviewee sells themselves to the employer. This is a terrible way to look at it. It is a two way street. The employer must sell themself to you, too. By acting passively, you are signaling to them that they are in the driver’s seat, and that perhaps you have some imposter’s syndrome by even being there. Stand up for yourself. Get the information you need to determine if it is even worth your time to continue the process.
2. “I’ve been the best everywhere I have been.”
When pitching yourself to a prospective employer, it is of course important to exude whatever confidence you feel about yourself. But do not do this at the expense of others and certainly do not suggest that you are infallible (and therefore uncoachable).
If you have been the top performer on teams in your past, you can certainly say that you have been the top performer, in a certain quintile, or even one of X% of people who get the opportunity to attend a specific school, if you so choose. But none of these things actually make you “better” than anyone else. And sometimes little mishaps in verbiage can make it appear you are saying one thing when you mean something else entirely.
Long story short, it is important to remain humble in the process no matter how much success you have had. No one likes working with someone who is arrogant and feels that they are “too cool for school.” Succinctly, a lot of companies have what I would call a “No Asshole Policy.” You might be really good at your job, but if you come with a lot of baggage and headaches, that will absolutely be used against you.
Be humble about your successes. “I have been very fortunate to have been given opportunities and coaches who helped me to be the top performing rep at my last company.” This is honest but also reflective on the people who are not you who helped you to get to where you are today. It signals an outward appreciation towards mentorship and coaching that a potential employer will likely acknowledge positively, while of course also remaining excited about past performance.
- “Trust me.”
As in all things, showing is better than telling. In Chapter 4 of my book, I discuss the idea of Inception, where you plant an idea in someone’s mind passively rather than forcing it upon them. At the end of the day, people like to come up with ideas on their own rather than being told to adopt the same ideas by other people. This is why most conversation on politics these days falls flat: oftentimes people are more invested in proving the other person wrong rather than listening and trying to guide them up the mountain like a Sherpa might do.
So when someone in a job interview tells you how great they are, it really should not mean anything to you. It is much better to be shown how great someone is. Oftentimes, this can be achieved through quantifiable metrics, such as consistently meeting a quota or being ranked in a certain percentile against other candidates. You might also show someone how impressive you are by explaining your own philosophies to them. In this way, you are not telling them that you are great – you are showing them that you are great.
When I tell people I am the hardest worker they will ever meet, I back that up with stories. For example, in my first sales job, whenever we had a competition, I would lock myself in a room for 8 hours without eating, drinking, or going to the bathroom. I would make 300 cold calls, set 20 appointments or so, and win the competition. That is evidence of my work ethic. It is actually much more powerful to just tell that story rather than to insist I am a hard worker. Anyone can say they are a hard worker. Show that it’s true and you will end up with much stronger results.