What Not to Say

Someone resigned yesterday. It was the first time this individual had this experience and they were anxious. I asked, “What’s your biggest fear?” The reply, “They could ask me to leave immediately. And they could take my phone. Also, they could not pay me what I’m owed for the first quarter.” We discussed each of his concerns. After, as he felt better, the focus turned to the exit interview. My response, “Say nothing of substance.”

When you have one foot out the door, don’t assume it’s a good time to educate the boss, the boss’s boss, HR or anyone else, on how things ought to be. There’s no point. Focus instead on how you’ve been pleased to have had an opportunity, grateful for what you’ve learned and a simple thank you. That’s it. And when speaking with colleagues before departing, the same is true. Be cautious.

But it’s not just someone who’s resigning who ought to be careful about what they do, and don’t, say. Imagine you’re speaking to a recruiter and telling them about how your boss’s boss is a problem, how you think the boss’s boss is the decision maker and a penny pincher. Is it ever wise to say that to a recruiter? Unlikely. Because the candidate may not know the relationship that the recruiter has with either the candidate’s boss or their boss’s boss. Loose lips sink ships. No reason to lie. Just say less than you know. In one situation, the recruiter told the candidate that she knew the candidate’s colleagues. Nevertheless, the candidate continued to air dirty laundry. There is no benefit to sharing details of a certain nature with a recruiter.

Similarly, a candidate ought to be careful in an interview. Never make a negative comment about colleagues, nor your place of work. The world is too small. For all you know, the spouse of the hiring manager may currently work with you. And if a hiring manager conducting an interview finds the candidate doesn’t use a filter, well, that suggests they don’t have the capacity to be discreet. And discretion is a valuable quality in an employee.

Sometimes candidates are asked questions about a complex work matter they’ve navigated. Some of the details may be sensitive or highly confidential. It’s best to convey to the hiring manager that you’re glad to discuss the components that aren’t confidential. Then, do just that. A candidate who recognizes that they shouldn’t compromise their values in an interview is one that a hiring manager will recognize as having backbone. Just as discretion is an attractive quality, so is having a backbone.

It is not uncommon for hiring managers to drill candidates on topics. Candidates may think it’s because the hiring manager has a genuine interest in them. Sometimes, that’s true. Other times, however, the hiring manager is just trying to learn about how the competition is grappling with matters. Recently a candidate was questioned at length about some cutting-edge work. He was forthcoming in his answers. And the interview was lengthy. Unfortunately, he didn’t get hired. The candidate felt a bit abused. Similarly, several lawyers who interviewed for a role thought that they were basically pumped for free legal advice. It’s challenging to manage that situation. The candidate is damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Don’t discuss politics. In part because you don’t know if it’s a trap. But even if it’s not a trap, it’s just not what should be shared. Getting tangled up in politics is a no-win situation. Moreover, it’s best to say little about current events and religion. Just listen. Don’t jump in. “That’s an interesting point.” or “I’ve never thought about it in that way.” are reasonable responses.

But it’s not just the candidate who has to watch what they say. The hiring manager should be thoughtful, too. Some hiring managers may become overly enthusiastic when interviewing and then make the mistake of oversharing. They may speak about the current team members and include some unkind comments. Or, they may mention some confidential issues that shouldn’t be discussed with anyone outside of the company. It’s one thing for a hiring manager to pose a question like, “Hypothetically, if you were asked to deal with A,B,C, how might you approach it?” That’s a lot different from “We’re dealing with A,B,C, and it’s been challenging. Have you confronted these sorts of issues?” While a candidate may recognize that the reason for the question could well be because the hiring manager is already dealing with these issues, it’s still better to lean on “Hypothetically…” Certainly some candidates are asked to sign a NDA. Before signing, it’s important to read it.

Moreover, hiring managers should be careful discussing who they, and the candidate, may know in common. There is a tendency for both hiring managers and candidates to spend some time playing “Do you know.” Best not to say anything negative. And under no circumstance should anyone overstate the actual relationship. If you give the impression that someone is a close friend when, in fact, you could barely identify them in a police line-up, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Equally important, hiring managers shouldn’t say to a candidate, “We’ll be having you back” when actually, they’re uninterested. Even if a hiring manager is certain the candidate is a superb match, say nothing. Too often a hiring manager will explain at length the balance of the interview process with a candidate they know isn’t a fit. Then the candidate finds themselves wondering what transpired. Best if the hiring manager says, “We’ll be in touch.” and then, follows up accordingly through HR or the recruiter.

As for recruiters, some wrestle with what to share with both candidates and hiring managers. They struggle with revealing feedback to either party. Often they will mention a sliver of what’s been told to them. Sometimes, the recruiter is best saying nothing. They, after all, are the messengers and shooting the messenger is a popular activity.

Hard to imagine that Shakespeare was much concerned with interviewing when the Fool in King Lear said, “speak less than thou knowest.” Nevertheless, he was on to something. Remember, you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that ratio. It will make it easier to avoid saying something you’ll regret.