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October 22, 2010
TMI: When Too Much Personal Info Kills Your Job Prospects
 

While on the job hunt, employment seekers engage in a tough balancing act of providing enough information about who they are so the company can get to know them, while at the same time not crossing a line into the realm of "TMI" (otherwise known as "too much information”), where a few extra details reveal more than originally intended.

You do not want to go there. Trust me.

It's a tough situation to manage and requires a certain knack to get comfortable and in the "zone." The most important thing is to be as up front as possible, while simultaneously keeping your own counsel about not saying things that could potentially affect how an employer perceives you.

To that point, a job seeker recently asked me how honest you need to be in your cover letter and in the interview itself.

First, you should always tell the truth, no matter what, in all aspects of the job search. If you don't, it eventually will catch up with you.

Now, how much you tell, beyond the scope of the original question or job abilities, is what gets a lot of well-intentioned people in over their heads. Extraneous, irrelevant information can sink them in the long run.

Here's the truth: We all want to come across as likable in the interview or in our cover letter. When we meet people, we want them to like us. Like dating, you don't want to dump your dirty laundry out there for everyone to see and pick through before you have a chance to sell your best attributes first.

Instead, use this general rule of thumb: If you wouldn't walk up to a complete stranger on a train, airplane, or bus and tell this person something really personal about yourself, you probably will want to apply the same concept in an interview with a prospective employer. Stay focused on they specifically ask about, not what other things you'd like to add.

The trick, however, is that interview questions are notorious for being dangerous paths to walk down depending on how you answer them. What you say opens a new line of doors, and it quickly can become very personal. Some doors you definitely want to keep closed. It's not that you have anything to hide, mind you, but because it isn't of concern to the employer -- that information has no bearing on your ability to do the job.

Keep in mind you want to answer the questions in a satisfactory manner while not divulging extraneous information that has no relevancy to either the job itself, the ability you offer, the interview situation, or the prospective employer.

Sometimes, the questions you get tossed in an interview ask open-ended yet specific things, like, "Tell us of one of the biggest mistakes at work you've ever made, and what you learned from that mistake."

Ouch!

Time to deconstruct such a question and think about how you might answer it without sinking your chances by being too honest. Failure, no matter how we handled it, is not easy, and being asked to talk about it in an interview is uncomfortable and often painful. You want to be honest, but at the same time, you don't want to end the response to the question on a down note, so the key is to take a negative and turn it into a positive. That's actually what an employer looks for: They want to know about your ability to overcome adversity, not just to get some guffaws over someone else's mistakes.

If you get this type of question, you definitely don't want to leave it "dangling" by citing a failure and not having some kind of outcome that shows this failure led to the advancement of your professional knowledge, skills, or development. You want to show that you learn from your mistakes.

People who can "nail" interviews are adept at providing compelling stories that provide specific examples of both their successes and their failures (and how they overcame the failures). It's always easy to talk about successes, but the negatives are much more difficult. People usually feel compelled to try and "explain away" what actually led up to the failure.

This often is where a lot of extraneous information gets disclosed, and if you feel obliged to try and provide additional background to set the stage, stop. Focus on the outcome, not the precipitating factors. Once you've done that, you will be able to navigate easily around the "TMI" pitfalls that can happen during the interview process.

Know that the "mistake" question mentioned above shouldn't be a surprise to you -- nor should a "weakness" query or anything else that might probe your failures. These might be direct attempts from the prospective employer to poke at you in hopes of seeing how you react.

Remember, if you feel the need to try and 'explain away' anything, you are starting to move onto thin ice and are at an increased risk to flail around and start adding information that isn't pertinent to the end results to help diffuse blame.

Again, focus on outcomes. This will keep you on track to answering the question within the framework set up by the prospective employer. Try using a technique used in the TV news business: sound bites. These are short, succinct, concise, and complete responses, and that is how you need to think about your answers in an interview. Putting yourself in that mindset will help you avoid getting into personal territory and accidentally saying too much about yourself. Don't sink yourself by providing too much too much information.


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Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Careers, which specializes in mid- to upper-management résumés. She is an active volunteer in her community and donates her time teaching a résumé writing class at the Oregon Employment Department every week to help empower unemployed professionals and workers.
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