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How you kill your job interview with these 5 phrases

kill your job interview

Don’t let anyone kill your job interview

What will kill your job interview

If HR is the grim reaper, then what causes me to kill your job interview?

As one of the potential gatekeepers to being hired with a company, there are a number of sayings and mannerisms that will kill your job interview. Most candidates that include these phrases in their answers do not realize what they are saying or what they sound like.

I recently worked with a very good friend that I personally reported to about 15 years ago. He led very large departments, saved the Fortune 500 Company in which we were working for 100’s of thousands of dollars just through eliminating process. I can say with confidence, this is a “strategic and senior guy” that I look up to, respect and admire. This isn’t some guy off the street that was a jerk of a manager we have all read about in Dilbert or seen in Office Space. I respected him when I reported to him, and I respect and admire him now.

He was re-entering the workforce after selling his business and like most people finding the job market tough. He was interviewing consistently and was getting down to the last few candidates in a number of jobs but in the end, would found himself being declined. He wasn’t used to this. He had interviewed 100’s of candidates himself as a leader in a large company and “back in the day” was able to land just about any job he applied for. After sitting down with him over coffee and practicing his interview answers, a couple of themes quickly surfaced that will kill a job interview.  Like most candidates, he knew he wasn’t getting jobs, but he didn’t realize the impact of what he was saying.

Answers and the casual conversation would include phrases like the following:

  1. “The people working under me”
  2. My team implemented processes that saved 100’s of thousands of dollars”
  3. “50 people reported directly to me”
  4. “One thing that I did was . . . “
  5. “One thing that I directed my people to do”
  6. “I let my people do X, Y, Z.”  (I know the title says 5, that is a bonus.  Don’t say I never gave you anything)

In reading the above, you can probably tell where this post is going. . . Easy to interpret with bolded words in a sentence, but not as easy to hear when you are saying it yourself. It sounds like he created a very hierarchical, top-down department. It doesn’t sound like this was a team with leadership, it sounds like there was a boss with direct reports. I worked in the department, I knew he was a great leader, but not knowing him or the context, it sounds like he is an arrogant boss, not the gracious leader I worked with.

I hear the above phrases on a very regular basis when talking to folks at all levels. I even hear this mentality from people who want to get into a position of management. For me, when screening a candidate, anything related to the above will kill a culture and more importantly, kill your job interview. These phrases are the grim reaper of the interview process.  Below are two perspectives on why these phrases should be avoided:

From the candidates perspective:

Usually, a senior manager/executive candidate with this kind of tenure is from an older generation and a generation ago, it may have been acceptable to communicate this way. When this level of candidate uses the above vocabulary with their peers, I am confident they don’t realize what they sound like. I am not saying it is right, but this is the life of a senior manager or exec. They had teams reporting to them and they were responsible for the business goals and actions of these teams. It was “their” team, and they did “tell” people what to do.  It is everyday “business”, and this is how the business got done. The friend I was working with is senior enough that everyone he was talking with had direct reports who were also responsible for teams. Most of his day was spent talking with other senior managers. He didn’t talk to individual contributors very much; he talked with other senior managers. For this group, those 5 phrases were part of the everyday lexicon.

From a hiring perspective, the one that matters:

As I am trying to figure out which candidates the team is going to interview, I am thinking about two perspectives. I am thinking about the impression the candidate will leave with peers of similar tenure and the perspective of the folks who are going to report to this person. Any candidate that I send this interview loop needs to impress both peers and direct reports.  Twenty years ago, when this candidate was interviewing for a job, he didn’t interview with an individual contributor. He only interviewed with peers and people senior to him. In today’s interview loops, team buy-in is just as important and it is not uncommon for sr. leaders to interview with younger, less experienced employees. If I send a senior leader into an interview with a less experienced employee and this mindset is displayed, I will have a pissed off interviewer. I look like I personally endorse this mentality, and it looks like the company culture endorses this mentality.  These phrases can kill your job interview:

  • “My team” vs. “I was fortunate to work with a great team and we accomplished a lot together”
  • “People under me” vs. “The team that we worked with”
  • “My people” vs. “Our team”
  • “I let my people do this” vs., “I asked the team to figure out a way and together we were able to accomplish the following”

It may be a subconscious score with the person conducting the interview, but this kind of talk isn’t going to create goodwill with anyone that will potentially report to or interact with this candidate.  It is going to turn people off.   If they have any say in the matter, (and they absolutely do) they may not articulate what you are saying or your communication style, but they will figure out a way to decline you. Every employee wants a manager that is going to look out for his or her career.  Most people want to be treated as equals. If you are a senior leader, yes, I know I “report to you”, I am “under you”, and an I am one of “your people”.  I already know this, I don’t have to be reminded, and I most importantly, I don’t want to be reminded.  Only someone who is insecure would remind me of this.

Will the hiring decision of a senior manager/executive be made based on a single individual contributor?  Maybe, maybe not.  I know I would much rather be a candidate that has potential teams asking the department head to hire me vs. telling HR “he was an ass”.  I want to be the candidate that creates excitement and buzz after the interview loops, vs. a “here we go again.  I need to train another manager on what we do and they really aren’t going to listen” attitude.

Yes, our friend didn’t realize he was one of “those guys”, and was able to land the next job he interviewed for.

Any other job interview killers out there?

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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