Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Be Careful What You Say

Over time, I have had many candidates say things on interviews that were misinterpreted.  When they give me full and  honest feedback immediately after interviewing, sometimes I can correct the client's impression before it becomes an issue.  But it often doesn't happen because candidates don't want me to think badly about their interviewing skills, so they neglect to tell me when there is an issue.


People tend to be literal and hear what they want to hear.  I once had a candidate tell an interviewer that she liked to get home to put her eight year old to bed.  The client interpreted this as that she wouldn’t work late.  Nothing could dissuade my client from dismissing the candidate because he was convinced that she would leave at 5pm. Truth is, she shouldn't have even mentioned this need until the job was offered..

I had another candidate, a human resources person who was interviewing at an agency.  She told the COO that she liked doing paperwork at home.  This was interpreted to be that the candidate wanted to work from home part time. It was not what the candidate intended.  Consequently, despite being liked very much, she did not get the job. Again, it probably should not have been mentioned - unless the interviewer asked about her specific work style.  And even then, the answer should have been positioned carefully, "after dinner, I like to extend my work day by doing paperwork".  But in this case it was merely mentioned and not in the  context of the conversation.

Recently, I had the reverse happen.  A client was misinterpreted by a candidate.  The candidate was offered a job.  The client made a generous offer that had been discussed in advance with me and I had prepared my candidate to accept.  There were no surprises, except one.  My client is a very nice guy and in making the offer, he told the candidate he was open to “slight” negotiation.

When my candidate told me this, I was somewhat taken aback.  Naturally, the candidate came back and asked for a higher base salary.  When I questioned the client, he confessed that he was talking about title and responsibilities, not money.  In this case there was nothing insurmountable. I was able to handle it so that both the candidate and the client were happy.  But it could easily have gone the other way if the candidate dug in his heals or had gone back an told his family that he could get more.  Again, the lesson: be careful what you say; people hear what they want to hear.

I have been managing negotiations for a long time and previously wrote about the concept of a candidate having to give himself or herself “permission” to take a job.   Knowing that things can get interpreted and reinterpreted differently than intended is something everyone should keep in mind both while interviewing and negotiating.  I assume that in the case of putting her eight year old to bed, the candidate was laying out her needs and doing some pre-negotiation, but she did it out of context.  The only time to negotiate is once an offer is in hand.

Language is very much open to interpretation.  English is very nuanced.  The point is that we all have to be very careful that what we say is what we mean and that things are fully explained at the time they are said so that they are not open to misinterpretation.  Context is very important.  And you must listen (with both ears and eyes) to the reaction of the person you are talking to so that you can respond before things become an issue.
Remember, that if things need clarification, perhaps they are best unsaid.


  1. Excellent Post.
    Of course, interviews are stressful situations for all parties concerned but there does seem to be a "culture" of looking to disqualify candidates if they aren't following the same script as the interviewers. I once went to an interview where I was asked how I worked. I answered honestly that like to be finished work at 5 pm but often start working at 3-4 am. This was of course interpreted as meaning that I wasn't a team player.


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