Headhunter and career coach Dandan Zhu.
Headhunter and career coach Dandan Zhu.

What should you never say in a job interview?

As a headhunter, I've heard hiring managers complain about what they don't like hearing when they're interviewing a candidate.

This applies at all levels, for all types of roles and across all industries. Here are a few key phrases that really turn employers off.

1. WORK-LIFE BALANCE IS VERY IMPORTANT

This would be fine to say for someone looking for service jobs, blue-collar roles or low-level white-collar (admin, office roles) jobs.

Essentially, jobs without career milestones, targets, a serious goal of upward mobility and career progression and don't need highly-engaged staff who are long-term oriented.

For a waitressing job, I would just need to specify my hours/days I'd like to work, and that would be that. My employer couldn't care less about what I do with my free time or my degree of commitment or focus on the job since it's a highly substitutable, less-complicated job, where many people can do the role and there's no shortage of workers or roles.

However, for individuals seeking to create a career and earn an employer's long-term trust, especially in the corporate world, a big turn-off is letting your employer know you have already checked out before you even start the job.

For these roles, (1) the candidate competition is fierce, (2) the role demands and requirements are high and (3) the commitment level expected from the candidate is similarly aggressive.

For a global technology firm, for example, there are crucial deadlines and projects people need to adhere to, and that could change on a dime.

If someone is unwilling to be a team player, sacrifice their work-life balance during difficult times with often almost impossible project deadlines, the whole business could suffer as a result. In these roles, someone who cares a lot about work-life balance will simply not match the business and job demands.

In roles like mine, sales and recruiting, we especially have to be career oriented. Work-life balance is second to client and business needs.

For the high incomes that come with white-collar roles and sales jobs like ours, we can't ever shut off. When we are hiring for producers or any type of employee in our organisations, we run away from those who aren't revenue-focused and are more lifestyle oriented.

2. I'D RATHER DO SOMETHING ELSE

Sometimes, employers will ask you what you envision your future to look like.

The fastest way to send an employer running is, in response to a question about long-term career goals, to discuss anything other than the career/job/role at hand. Don't sell against the current role by saying you'd rather do something else.

For example, a candidate might answer they'd like to experiment, learn, and perhaps move into another job instead of progressing in the role they're interviewing for. Or they might say they'd like to grow, develop, and become a leader in the role they're interviewing for.

Who do you think is more likely to get hired?

3. THE WORD 'NO'

This one is more about the mindset of the word 'no' rather than a mindset of 'yes'.

Even if you don't know how to do something or are not interested in something, an interviewer is looking for a candidate with a mindset that's geared towards growth rather than limitations. Therefore, this issue is more attitude related.

If a candidate doesn't know how to do something, they should still describe with their best effort how they'd adapt, learn how to do it, or have done something similar or transferable that will predict success in their new endeavour or opportunity.

The positive energy and potential that comes with a 'yes' mindset is also more attractive to most employers who are looking for candidates who embrace challenge rather than fear failure.

4. TOO MUCH 'WE', NOT ENOUGH 'I'

In other words, focusing on team dependency rather than personal achievements.

Companies today are looking for autonomous, self-managing, and organised team players who ultimately can succeed in a team because of their individual capabilities.

Thus, while team orientation is important, employers want to hear about how you can succeed on your own and your own unique accomplishments.

Be careful - in an effort to seem humble, many candidates downplay their personal achievements and individual actions taken to reach success.

Instead of saying 'I', they rely too much on 'we' due to their discomfort related to self-promotion. Even if they are truly strong candidates, they end up selling themselves short.

Conversely, candidates who actually are objectively worse tend to oversell their capabilities and hog credit, which is why people sometimes have horrible colleagues and bosses in roles they don't seem to deserve.

5. INAPPROPRIATE LANGUAGE

This includes unfriendly, derogatory, pessimistic, arrogant or abusive language. It goes without saying no employer wants to hire a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Jokes in poor taste about religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or anything that could be a sensitive topic to others, even if discussed offhandedly, will torpedo your chances of landing a job.

The solution is to find company cultures that fit your particular style. If you like to swear and make jokes freely, it's easier to work in a sales culture than in a tight and regulated office environment. However, most company cultures will still be intolerant of egregious social boundary overstepping.

As a candidate, while you may have your own agenda you're afraid to share, sometimes being too easy to read can hurt your chances of getting a job.

Understand where your employer is coming from and your interviewer's vantage point. Then, formulate the right strategy to take in regarding your communication style and attitude.

Choose and pivot which pieces of your personality to highlight or downplay to put yourself in pole position to win.

Dandan Zhu is chief executive and founder of Dandan Global Group

This article originally appeared on Quora and was reproduced with permission


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