There are lots of things you should say in an interview. You should talk about your previous work experience and how it applies to the prospective job at hand. You should talk about how your background makes you eminently qualified for not only the job at hand and your “fit” with the company that may hire you. You should definitely talk up your skills and how they will allow you to solve whatever problems are thrown your way.
And finally, you should learn what not to say, how to deflect inappropriate questions, and when to just keep your mouth shut.
Interviewers are always worried about fit, so their questions can often appear to have little to do with the job at hand. This is especially true when interviewers ask open-ended questions. The worst of these is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” This question is the probably the most inappropriate question in an interview, and one that almost everyone gets wrong. The only correct answer is, “I hope to grow in the job and take on additional responsibilities.”
Here’s why: First, you don’t know where you’ll be in five years. In today’s rapidly moving job market and uncertain economy, your job might not exist in five years. Heck, the company you’re pinning your hopes on might not exist, either. You might decide to go back to school, or travel, or move to a different location, or you might, heaven forbid, be hit by a car five minutes after you walk out of the interview. President Obama knows pretty much where he’ll be for the next four years, but not the next five. The crystal ball just gets too cloudy, so when you hear that question coming out of the mouth of the interviewer, the most neutral, slightly positive answer is the best and only logical answer.
Another form of this question is, “What do you want to do with your life?” This is very common in first interviews, and for interviews with people just entering the job market. Again, unless you are one of those people who knew at age three that you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer and actually went on to medical school or law school, the answer is, you are a work in progress. Telling an interviewer that is, of course, not something you want to do, so the only correct response is, “I want to do the best job I can right now, and if I do, the future will likely take care of itself.” Left unsaid — and it really shouldn’t be spelled out — is that the job, your relations with the people you work with, the company’s policies, and their approach to managing talent will largely determine whether or not you stick with the job or your chosen career path. As the Monkees once put it, “It’s a little bit me. It’s a little bit you.”
Then there are the topics that ought to be on your forbidden list. Do not talk about your family or your pets. You are coming into the workplace to work, not to nest. The interviewer doesn’t care about your problems, except as a means of excluding you from the pool of prospective applicants. You might be the most talented person in the bunch, but if you immediately begin to set conditions on your employment — “I have to go home each day at 3 PM in order to walk my dogs or pick up my kids” — that becomes a job or a freelance assignment you’re not likely to win.
Do not talk about race, religion, or national identity, and keep them off your resume. Companies are not allowed to discriminate, but they also don’t want people who flaunt their differences or “special” qualities. Any and all of these components of your life may be revealed after you get the job, and as long as they don’t interfere with your work, your boss and coworkers will put them down to your eccentricities and the rich tapestry of human life, but until you have gotten the job and built up a suitable level of trust with your fellow employees, learn to keep a low profile. Trust cuts both ways, and you’ll not only be learning the new job and its expectations, but who among your new colleagues is trustworthy and who isn’t.
Remember: In the best of times, companies and interviewers may be inclined to cut you a bit of slack. But these are definitely not the best of times, so you have to at least give the appearance of having the fewest “hooks” or red flags on your resume and in your interview.
Stephen Kindel is the Chief Operating Officer of The Bronx Project, a startup pharmaceutical company. He has had many jobs, written many books and hired many people over his career. His latest book, Skill Sets, is available by contacting him at
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