Intense gaze at a challenging job interview

Subtle job interview red flags that employers notice

Peter Harris|

Seasoned job interviewers can tell a top performer from a weaker candidate just by listening to the way that they describe their past accomplishments. Even if your achievements sound impressive, there are hidden cues in your choice of words that can undermine your chances.

Here are some things that recruiters and hiring managers will be on the lookout for that can be deal breakers in your job interview.

    Your choice of words. I had a candidate who hedged all of the accomplishments he had listed in his resume with the word ‘basically.’ I basically worked on this. I was basically responsible for that. It was such an odd qualifier to his story, that I started to ask more probing questions, and it turned out that he had indeed greatly exaggerated his achievements. ‘Basically’ was the red flag that sparked the suspicion. You can read the full story of how that job interview went down.

    Your verb tenses. Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude, and CEO of Leadership IQ, conducted a study tracking 20,000 new hires that revealed high performing employees speak in the past tense 40 per cent more often than low performers.

    Murphy explained to the American Management Association (AMA), “When you ask high performers to tell you about a past experience, they’re 40% more likely than low performers to answer using past tense verbs. That’s because high performers actually have the experience to recount and they’re not afraid to reveal their attitude to you.”

    Low performers, meanwhile, use the present tense 120 times more often, and are 70% more likely to use the future tense.

    So, a high performer will tell you what they “did” rather than what they are “doing” or “will do.”

    For your next job interview, remember what you’ve accomplished in the past, think about how it can be related to your interviewer’s business, and explain how you did it and what the results were. Employers like concrete, relevant examples from your past. Talking about works-in-progress or what you plan to do next is less impressive.

    Your use of pronouns. According to Murphy, “high performers are 60% more likely to speak in first person during the interview, while low performers are 400% more likely to refer to second person (you, your).”

    Murphy told AMA, “You’ll hear high performers using a lot of first person pronouns (‘I did…’). On the other hand, a person who has nothing to share or who wants to hide something (like a bad attitude) will use absolutes and speak in a fluffy way using lots of adverbs and lots of future tense verbs and far more second and third person pronouns. You’re going to hear a lot more ‘he/she did’ than you will ‘I did…’ from low performers.”

    Beware especially of the ‘we.’ Many people are uncomfortable talking about themselves and will fall into the habit of ‘group speak’. For example, “When I was at ABC Corp. we totally realigned the way we tracked our sales and our customer follow-up process. This lead to a 30% boost in sales.”

    A 30% boost in sales is great! But you just said that ‘we’ did it, implying it was a company decision and a team effort. The interviewer wants to know what you did. What set you apart as a standout member of that team.

    Overuse of the word ‘we’ can give the impression that you were just in the right place at the right time. The company was successful and accomplished things while you were there – not necessarily because you were there.

    For your next job interview, be sure to talk about your specific contributions and accomplishments to the team’s success. It’s okay to take full credit for your work without being boastful. That’s what interviews are for.

It is often true in life that how you say something can be as important as what you say. This is especially the case in a job interview which is all about creating a positive first impression. So pay attention to your verb tenses and pronouns. You don’t what to leave your interviewer with the notion that you aren’t actually accomplished, but were merely accomplishment adjacent.

See also:

Five resume red flags that make employers reject you right away
The only job interview question that really matters
Eight signs that the job interview isn’t going very well (and how to turn it around)
I didn’t hire a woman once because of her pants


Peter Harris
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Category: Job interviews
  • jackie

    men tend to use “I” more and women “we”.. and some cultures speaking of “I” is frowned on.. and team/group is emphasized so this might be a weak indicator of performance..

  • KarenFed

    plus if you are going to be a part of a team, people want to know whether you are a team player or whether you are just there for yourself. How then does not speaking in “I” help?

  • aspromised

    Most jobs don’t require or entail having “great personal accomplishments” or re-engineering anything! Most jobs don’t include the flexibility for any of this, so when asked those inane standardized questions at an interview is a contest of who can lie most glibly.