Digging for Meaning in Job Candidate Responses

While interviewing candidates for employment, how often do you receive a common, seemingly “right” response to a question, only to learn later that the answer had hidden a deeper meaning?

When Right Doesn’t Ring True
Interviewers frequently develop “magic bullet” questions that they believe are litmus tests for gaining foolproof information that will assure a correct hiring decision. But here lies the rub: Job candidates often give practiced, trumped up, pat answers to carefully chosen, yet very predictable employment interview questions.

If you think you’ve heard these responses before, you are correct. Programmed answers to interview questions are readily accessible within books and blogs for job-seekers, or in well-intended advice shared by career counselors, friends or family.

To an untrained interviewer’s ear these answers sound reasonable. Precisely because they are familiar replies, they carry the feel of the conventional. On the surface they sound right, but could these answers be masking undisclosed meanings?  

Here are some common refrains and potential alternative meanings:

“I’m keeping my options open.” 
Can mean….
“I can’t make a decision about my own future, but I’m willing to directly affect yours .... I lack self-confidence regarding my employability, but I don’t want you to find out .... I can talk anyone into hiring me, so I’ll hold out for the highest bidder .... I go through life ‘playing not to lose’ so I can do the same for you, if you let me run (your company, your department).”

“I’m seeking challenge and opportunity.” 
May mean….
“I stayed in that boring job for so long out of inertia—so now that I’m laid off I’d like my next job to be more interesting…. All of the self-help books said I should answer this way…. I am deflecting your question.”

“Money is less important than opportunity.” 
Could mean….
“The first one who mentions dollars loses and I don’t want that to be me…. I’m willing to take my time chatting with you about a job that may not be right for me… .I don’t have a clue what I am really worth.”

“I left because my boss and I had philosophical differences.”  
Possible meaning….
“We had differences over my expense account, my work ethic (go ahead—you fill in the blank from the last time you coached a cover story for a departed employee).”

“I’m flexible and open to what discipline, industry, market or technology (fill in the blank) I work in.” Might mean…
“I have no definite career plan, you decide for me…. I got by ok in the last place I worked, so I figure I can survive here too…. Perhaps you may be gullible enough not to probe any further on this question if I say it with a smile.”

The Answer is in the Digging
These provoking examples are not intended to suggest that all candidates will set out to trick interviewers. Unfortunately, in many instances, the candidates you interview are misled into thinking that it is wise to reply with stock statements.

Don’t come down too hard on people who offer planned responses. You can help job candidates by asking them to speak more frankly, or to offer you an example of what they mean by their answers. Then listen well and continue to dig until you fully comprehend the meaning behind the answer. You’ll discern more completely and make better decisions than you would by simply accepting trite answers to your favorite questions.

*Image courtesy of Photography by BJWOK at FreeDigitalPhotos.net