As a Boomer I shouldn’t admit this, but I like reading The Daily Muse and the Savvy Intern. While this admission is likely to cause of few of my more opinionated folks to publicly guffaw, no worries – I’m a recruiter and my skin is thick. 

But when I read The Muse’s post on 30 Things You Should Never Say in a Job Interview, the experienced recruiter in me cringed a thousand deaths at the apocryphal wisdom conveyed by the article. This isn’t to say there aren’t elements of truth in the points made by The Muse and the people they interviewed to glean the pearls of wisdom – it’s just that the underlying interviewing strategy employed by most recruiters and hiring managers is downright wrong. It’s the weakness of the strategy that has produced such bad job search advice.

Most recruiters and hiring managers interview to exclude rather than to include. Do they realize how much talent is not being brought to companies because of this flaw?

It takes extraordinary interviewing skill to be able to look for reasons to include someone in the next step; when the work load piles up, hiring managers start complaining about “no flow”; inexperienced or harried recruiters then begin to take shortcuts to cull the herd.

I can certainly understand – yet not agree with – this approach. It’s based on three flawed premises:

  1. The resume is an accurate depiction of the person;
  2. The candidate is an expert at interviewing;
  3. The recruiter and hiring manager are experts at interviewing (and of course, know little things like marketplace salaries and the quality of the company’s employment brand). 

Many of the very best people I’ve hired had résumés so bad that even the most junior career advising expert would have made the four-year-old-eating-broccoli-for-the-first-time sourpuss face when reading.

Ask any recruiter to honestly answer this question: In your entire recruiting life, how many of the people that you have interviewed would you truly consider to be experts at the craft? How many were average – or worse?

Then there are the hiring managers who take the “I’ll know it when I see it – so keep sending me more résumés” approach. My response to them has always been, “If you can’t describe it to me, how will you know it when you see it?”

Do you really believe that most involved in the talent acquisition assessment process know what they’re doing? I don’t – and I’m in the business! I’ll even bet that the ones reading this post are wondering if they’re an excluder or an includer. Good – introspection is good for their soul and their employer.

The crux of the The Muse article is that the result of the interview is all up to the jobseeker; this couldn’t be further from the truth. If I look at the core logic behind their 30 Things, I’m offering you this thought:

Most interviewers assess you on traits, characteristics, and quirks that play into well-developed biases and old wives (and husband) tales about work and performance, and far more often than they realize, mimic the traits, characteristics, and quirks of the people they work with – and actually get along with.

Things like school, gender, body type, job title, and current employer are all used to shade the person to the point where it’s “easier” to make a go/no go decision on everything except performance.

Why? Because true assessment of past performance and future performance potential is really hard and takes a great deal of time – something few actually have (or believe they have). There’s a tried-and-true recruiting metric called Time-to-Hire (AKA Time-to-Fill) and recruiter performance is partially assessed on this: Who has time to interview to include when their compensation is partially based on “time” metrics?

In other words, these talent acquisition “rockstars” are taking the easy way out and shoveling a big load of crap.

So while The Muse’s 30 Points of Fright do a fine job of highlighting to the jobseeker the fluffier elements that inexperienced recruiters and hiring manager can latch onto to make “excluding decisions”, frankly these pale in comparison to discerning about performance. While it’s human nature to focus on like/dislike when relationships didn’t work, deep analysis almost always reveals that one or both of the people didn’t perform. Snicker away.

Here it is straight from the an experienced recruiter who has learned that since talent rarely behaves the way you expect them to, you have to poke, prod, and pry if you want to make the very best hiring decisions: You have to actively search for reasons to include someone past the first step of the interview process, lest you passively exclude them for reasons other than performance.

Let’s have a look at The Muse’s 30 Things You Should Never Say In An Interview from my POV:

“So, tell me what you do around here.”

The job title of your interviewer tells you nothing about the specific problems they’re tasked with addressing. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. When I’m asked about this, I actually think it’s a good question, an opportunity to explain the complexity of my special recruiting environment. Research will only tell someone so much – but if you want to slant the question a wee bit, ask me, “So, tell me about a problem that keeps you awake at night.” It’s still the same question.

“Ugh, my last company…”

“…was such a mess that it caused everyone to look elsewhere. Would you mind if we chat about how similar – or dissimilar this company is to my soon-to-be former employer? 

I know when you’re perfuming a pig and I guarantee that I will get you to talk about the hostile work environment because I know from experience how these things can impact performance. Do you really think you’re the only person to ever work for a Neanderthal? Do you really think that a just reward for 80 to 90 hour weeks is a proposition and an attempted good night tonsillectomy? Neither do really good recruiters or hiring managers. I prefer honesty to perfumed ungulates. “Ugh” doesn’t bother me one bit.

“I didn’t get along with my boss.”

Look, I’m going to call your former boss one way or another (relax, it won’t be until you join me). Might as well be upfront so we can discuss why. Do you really think you’re the only one who didn’t get along with their boss 

“I’m really nervous.” 

If you only knew how many first time recruiters call me every week; in many cases I’ll let them prattle on for about one minute before interjecting with, “Can I ask you a personal question?” Their nervous reply, “Sure. Anything” (a typical response from inexperienced recruiters). My question: “What’s your name?”

Amy says “Fake it ’til you make it!” – I call this lying. If you tell an experienced interviewer that you’re nervous, they’ll calm you down so the interview can focus on the substantive content. The inexperienced recruiter and hiring manager will exclude you. They lose.

“I’ll do whatever.”

Frankly, if you’ve brought someone in for an interview and they say, “I’ll do whatever”, then it’s your ability to discern what that is. This happened to me a few days ago as I was writing this novella. Someone connected with me on LinkedIn and pretty much said, “I’ll do whatever.” Told her to check out Kaltura’s Career page and let me know which roles interested her – and why. I’m speaking with her in a few days. Your solution? Exclude. My solution? Mining a potential diamond-in-the-rough.

When an interviewer hears, “I don’t care what jobs you have available – I’ll do anything!” that’s a sign that another human being with some kind of talent is asking for help to focus. Interviewers might be quite surprised about the talent hiding behind “whatever.” But no – they have Time-to-Hire metrics chasing them around the office and it’s so much easier to shoo these people away.

“I know I don’t have much experience, but…”

Unless the recruiter or hiring manager is a psychic (not psychotic) and they fail to discuss problem-solving performance, hearing these words can only lead to the exclude conclusion if they’re interested in passing on potential talent.

Since you really don’t have much experience, I’m more interested in your words after the “but…” Telling me that you don’t have much experience is you being honest; the next step – the “but” is as much my responsibility as it is yours. I’ll help you while the inexperienced recruiter or hiring manager will exclude you.

“It’s on my resume.”

FYI inexperienced recruiters and hiring managers, “It’s on my résumé” is like saying something goofy on the first date. What do you do then? Do you say, “I’m sorry but I’ve allotted one goofy statement on every first date and you just made yours. Now take me home.”

Rather than getting a hair on their ass over nothing, the interviewer should smile and ask the person to explain. But exclude someone because of this? Fine. I’ll speak with them.

“Yes! I have a great answer for that!”

I enjoy candidates with enthusiasm and will go along with their energy – and then I’ll drill down. It’s the fault of job search experts for blurted out comments like this one by “prepping” them with answers to typical (read as pretty much useless) interview questions when their job should be to give jobseekers interview strategies (I almost guffawed as I wrote that); mine is extract the wheat from the chaff. Too many interviewers choose to exclude people with too much energy (some recruiters and hiring managers even believe that too much energy means the person has “emotional issues”) but I’ll keep the conversation moving. Bring on the energy – it’s better than another cup of coffee!

“Perfectionism is my greatest weakness.”

Me: “Then can you explain the algorithm you used to decide which accomplishments you ended with a period and which ones you didn’t?”

Candidate: [look of terror]

Me: “Think we can forget everything your career advisor, best friend or parents told you interviewing and start having a real conversation?”

Silly Interviewer: Exclude.

Me: Potentially hire.

“I’m the top salesperson at the company—and I have two semesters worth of Spanish.”

This is a combination of being nervous and receiving bad interviewing advice. I’d probably ask if they used their two semesters of Spanish in making a sale and watch them squirm a bit – then give them the chance to make again whatever statement they had in mind. Right now I’m thinking about how much I’d like to interview the experts quoted in this article to see how they’d do under pressure.

“I think outside the box.”

Do you know where people get these overused words and phrases from? Experts. 

I’ve heard this one before and once responded with, “But we work in boxes here.” 

Exclude? No. But instead of getting all eyerolly about it, the interviewer should ask what is meant by outside-the-box.”

“I, like, increased our social following, like, 25%…”

Fact: At some point during the interview, I will tell you how many times you’ve used “like”, “um” or “basically” – and simply suggest that it’s something you might want to work on decreasing. Not a big deal for the early careerist. Definitely not “exclude” worthy.

“On my third goose-hunting trip to Canada…”

Fine. If you ‘re interviewing at PETA, it might not make sense to talk about boar hunting. That faux pas is on the candidate.

I recently hired a sales executive who was especially chatty about his hunting. So we talked about it – and it led to a real substantive discussion about sales. Do you know why? Because he was comfortable with me because I didn’t go ballistic over things others might. 

Folks – people are diverse, their experiences are diverse. Funny thing is that we categorize sales people into Hunter and Gatherer categories yet cringe when some make hunting or gathering references. Give holier-than-thou a rest, okay?

“I built a synergistic network of strategic alliances…”

If this emanates from your mouth during an interview with me, I will tilt my head like a Golden Retriever and say, “Huh?” then stare at you.

Problem solved.

“I pulled together the STF reports.”

Oh, you like “Office Space” too…

I hope that I’m lucky enough to one day hear this during an interview. Instant hire.

“Um, I don’t know.”

When I hear this, it’s my time to facilitate. Sorry Brainiac Job Search Advisor, but I’m going to ask your prized pupil WTF questions (you do know what this acronym stands for, don’t you?). 

Instead of thinking, “Ah hah! Another one I can exclude!”, the interviewer should adopt the role of the creative talent scout they believe themselves to be and ask, “Okay, let’s work through this together” and jump start the conversation from “I don’t know” to “Okay, I really don’t have any experience in that area but here’s how I might solve that problem.” Hey – this might even lead to an include decision! 

“How much vacation time do I get?”

We all know there are some greedy folks out there. The role of the interviewer is to differentiate between those who are greedy and those who are simply nervous. My suggestion to the interviewer is defuse with laughter or humor and find out why vacation is so important.

I’ve asked them if vacation time is more important to them than the work they’ll be performing; can’t recall someone ever saying it was. At least if they say, “Yep” I’d know for sure they’re not the person to hire.

“How soon do you promote employees?”

While it might not be the best way to ask it, someone asking this question is actually getting at an important element of an organization – the reward and recognition philosophy and policies of the company. Tolan’s way of asking is just another way of perfuming a pig. I’ll take the honest approach and answer it honestly. Others can exclude. Fine with me – I’ll just chat with you about your definition of performance.

“Nope—no questions.”

Me: “None whatsoever? Like what I ate for breakfast?” 

You: “Really – no questions because this has been the most unique interview I ever had.”

Again, the recruiter has two choices: They can be snippy or they can ask the candidate once again if they have questions. I’ve found that the second time around dislodges the cobwebs of the interviewing and often leads to more talking.

Why so quick to kick someone out of the interview? Oh, it’s that Time-to-Hire thing again.

“Then, while I was at happy hour…”

Oh, I see the logic: It’s off-limits to discuss things like this during the interview but not once someone’s an employee and out with the gang after work for a night of festivities?

SMH. I think I’ll exclude the interviewer who gets upset over this.

“I’ll have the steak and a glass of Cabernet.”

It’s not the cost of the meal that concerns me but the complexity of it as it interferes with your ability to have a conversation.

Unfortunately, there are meal interviews where the interviewer will order something expensive just to see if you’ll order the same thing – then exclude you because you didn’t order on the cheap. These folks have rused you into exclusion.

My advice for candidates: Meal interviews are not for eating; order something small and easy.

“I’d like to start my own business as soon as possible.”

Since, most employers know that long term tenure means nothing but a pipe dream anymore, if you say this you’re giving me so much interviewing material to ask. Business plan, competitive landscape, strategies – all areas I can use to really get to know you.

I thank you for being entrepreneurial while my competitors exclude you for being ambitious.

“What the hell!” 

I’ve said far worse. Even during my interviews. Sorry. Want to exclude me?

“So, yeah…”

So, yeah, we just had an incredible 30-minute back and forth about content marketing in the OVP space when you gave me an awkward pause .

OMG, should I exclude you because of this?


“Do you know when we’ll be finished here?”

Funny how many candidates believe that the length of the interview is proportional to likeability and hireability. Know the phrase, “If you gotta go, you gotta go”? There’s nothing wrong with telling me that time is tight because I can always schedule more time with you later – whereas others have already written you off. Fools.

“I’m going through a tough time right now.”

Not discussing important life events during the interview – or worse, being advised by experts that it’s a bad thing to do – is not giving me the parts of you that are likely impacting your interview performance. Interviews are pressure vessels in their own right; adding things like death or divorce (I know) can take an otherwise great person to places they’d rather not go.

At least with knowing I can discuss these things and ask you how much they’d be a distraction. I’ll look at your performances and your abilities to solve my problems. Then I’ll make my decision. Take a person who’s thinking “despair” and raise them up with some confidence and see how hard they’ll work. Be kind. Be human.

“Sorry I’m so late.”

Anyone ever get stuck for hours in the car or mass transit? Just call and let me know. Because you know, I’ve never been late for anything because I am an expert… 

“Sorry I’m so early.”

I actually think early is good idea – to view the place as it happens. Many years ago I interviewed at a well-known company to possibly run their technical recruiting. Arrived early and noticed how the Receptionist would answer calls that were clearly from folks interested in working there. With her friends gabbing with her, this went on for 25 minutes, with each time the Receptionist making a disparaging comment about the person who called.

Leaders don’t have to be arrogant; I didn’t want to work there. 

“Would you like to see my references?”

Me: “Yes I do.”

Gee that wasn’t too complicated, was it?

“I just wanted to follow up—again.”

“I know it looks like cyberstalking but in the recruiting world it’s called research” ~Me @SourceCon 2014

On some levels, pushy candidates are a bit like four-year olds:

“Why? Why? Why? Why?”

Yet we manage to get these lil’ tykes through to their next stage in life.

Geez, you’re interested. If the company isn’t, tell them – that’s the job of the recruiter or hiring manager. In many cases your’re pushy because the recruiter or hiring manager said they’d have an answer for them in two days – and it just hit the four-week mark. Once again, there’s that word for that. 

It just boils my blood to read what passes as expert advice…

Views: 576

Comment by Steve Levy on December 2, 2014 at 6:45am

If you're thinking I have no idea what I'm talking about because you receive hundreds of resumes each day and/or you're just doing what the client wants, then also know that I've probably been recruiting longer than you.

I have no sympathy for your workload - mine is hellacious and not all my hiring managers care about my workload.

Recruiters SHOULD be looking for reasons to include people - that is the core of the role.

Don't like it? Quit.


Comment by Kelly Blokdijk on December 2, 2014 at 9:20pm

Wait a minute. Let me see if I understand this... you seem to be telling us you'd be willing to consider and potentially hire an imperfect human being who happens to show a bit of interviewing awkwardness during the awkwardness of an interview? You'll never make it in this industry! 


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