Up there on the list of communication blunders, just under the Merlot-fueled email, is the interview overshare. You chastise yourself in the car on the way home, dumbfounded as to why you did it, and what prompted it. It’s like the Recruiter borrowed Wonder Woman’s Golden Lasso of Truth and all this stuff just started pouring out.
Do you ever wonder why TSA doesn’t allow liquids over 3.4 ounces? It seems so small, but it’s not about any individual liquid. The problem is when certain liquids are mixed in larger quantities, you can make something pretty explosive. The same is true for interviews. Many of your jobs have a vial that you don’t want to open. How do you manage all these liquids and not cause a problem?
Plan before you pack
Here is a helpful exercise to prepare for interview success. Find a piece of paper or create a table on your computer. Make the following set of headers, then complete from your most recent job to your least recent. Spend some time on this. If you have been working for a while, focus mostly on the last 10 years.
- Company name
- Company size (approximate, think small, medium, large, global)
- Title (if you had multiple jobs at the same company, make each of them a line item)
- Total tenure
- 1-2 sentences about the scope of your work
- Reason you left (5 words or less)
- How you felt about your job (anything that has to do with your emotional response to your work)
You’ve seen those new packing cubes or organizers. You can take 6 weeks of clothes and fit them into a carry-on bag. At this step you take the years of experience you summarized following the list above, and you look for trends. This sorts your history in to handy packing cubes. For example, have you primarily been in 1-2 industries or have you moved around more? What size companies are best for you? Have your tenures all been fairly long? Have your roles been increasing in scope and/or responsibility? This will help you create a great response to “tell me about yourself,” or “walk me through your resume.”
Bag is packed
Generally speaking, Recruiters want to know if there is anything that will reflect badly on their screening if they do not find and address it, so if you left for any other reason than for an advancement opportunity, you should be prepared to bring it up first, and briefly dispense with why this does not need to be a concern. Once a Recruiter unearths this without you offering it in full disclosure, they will have already lost trust in you, and you will likely not be able to regain their confidence.
Leave at home
As you formulate your career overview, please plan to leave out the last column, how you felt. Trust me, we have all had a boss who was not compatible with our work style. Many people have been bullied or harassed. We all have that one coworker who was impossible. Our emotions about these situations are valid and are often left unresolved. Speaking with a counselor or mentor about these is helpful, but discussing them in an interview is not.
You may believe that you need to do this to be honest and/or to be understood. Let’s consider that.
Honest: There is a great deal one could be honest about—perhaps your shoes are too tight, perhaps dinner didn’t agree with you, perhaps the signed baseball on the Recruiter’s desk is a team you hate—you would not share all that with the Recruiter. (At least I hope not.) The recruiter has all these same feelings about their own career experience, but they do not feel obligated to tell you that. Why? Because you are a stranger. The reverse is also true. The recruiter needs to assess your skills, motivation and cultural fit, but beyond that you are a stranger, and all your former colleagues are strangers. You may be completely justified in your feelings about past relationships, but since they don’t know any of the players, they may conclude that the only common link in all the dysfunctional stories is you.
Being understood: Ask yourself why being understood is important. It’s probably because you want to be accepted and appreciated, and perhaps you didn’t feel that way in some of your prior roles. Unfortunately though, we do not get a choice on our coworkers. We cannot predict chemistry. By all means network with anyone you can to try to learn more about the team, but realize two things. One, it will be from the perspective of the person you ask, and they see things differently than you do. Second, the makeup of any team is in constant flux, so this is just a snapshot of one period in time. After all your research, remember that while you are keeping to yourself the fact that your colleague was a bully or your manager took you for granted, the recruiter knows which member of the team is a jerk. They cannot change that, and they cannot tell you for a host of compelling reasons.
We have covered what material should not be shared and why, so now we need to know how to avoid sharing it. This will help us have an easy trip through the security checkpoints in the interview process.
First comes awareness. You know what you wrote, and what you are trying to avoid. Next comes the awareness of the “extreme” examples. Often you will be asked for the “best” example, or the “worst” example of something. It’s these questions that lead the mind to the more emotionally-charged examples. Be aware of this and mentally shave off the “best” or “worst,” and seek an example that is not so emotionally-charged. If you are concerned that your mind may go blank, consider your most challenging jobs (emotionally), then list some examples of your best work product in those roles. Focus on that content rather than the dysfunctional players.
Bear in mind that some of your strong emotional responses may be positive, which is a different kind of oversharing. Enthusiasm is high, but you may err on the side of giving too many details that are hard to follow, and you may speak too fast. As you consider the work you are most proud of, take a moment to organize your thoughts into a high-level project overview, making sure to highlight the final result.
Don’t leave your bag
Periodically in every airport is the automated reminder not to leave your bag unattended. You are responsible for making sure it continues to remain safe after leaving security. In the same way, you have to monitor your discussion for clues that you are heading toward emotional topics.
Like in the move When Harry Met Sally, “It’s already out there!” How do you know when you are already going down that path, and change direction? What is your warning flag? The use of “he or she said…”is a clue. When you go down the road of dialogue, it’s to prove a point where someone disagreed with you, or was supporting you, but either way it can lead to the emotional examples. It’s also way too far into the weeds. My eyes get glassy thinking about it, and trust me, I have made this mistake myself.
A second clue is you wonder if you are making any sense, or if you are forgetting things. If you aren’t sure if you are clear, you probably aren’t. It may be good to stop and say, “Give me just a moment. This was a complex project that I’m excited to tell you about, and I just want to think about the best way to explain this.”
Pack an organized bag with the results of the career overview you developed. Unpack your heavier liquids, and leave them at home. Once the conversation takes off, keep your flight up above the turbulence. If your best efforts still find you experiencing a bumpy flight, demonstrate self-awareness, and be prepared to discuss what you learned about yourself, and how you improved.
Buckle up, and enjoy your flight!
This article is based off a seminar I have provided for Career Prospectors several times over the years. If you are in the Richmond, Virginia area and are in a job search, I highly recommend this group.