Dear HR: why do interviews have to be such right word, wrong word, buzzword bingo mysteries?


I gots dem low-down, don’t know de answer, interviewing for a job blues.

I have a job interview tomorrow, and in just about every way you can imagine – short of the fact that I hate work, anyway – this gig would be ideal for me. An industry I know well, a set of responsibilities I’ve spent the last 25 years proving I can do exceptionally well, and so far it seems like the company might be a nice cultural fit for me (aside from the hate work part) – sounds promising, right?

If you’re smart, you do as much prep as you can for these things. You read up on the company and its offerings, you do some industry background, you talk to any friends you have who know the company or the hiring manager, and maybe you even read some advice from Human Resources experts on how to put your best foot forward in interviews.

I get the periodic emailer from The Ladders, which is chock full of helpful info. Like this recent article, entitled “What words should you never say when being interviewed for a job?” Let me pull out the highlights (although you really should give the whole article a gander because interspersed in here are more detailed explanations as to why these words are bad).

Here are a few that are considered “red flag words” by interviewers. Avoid these because these words don’t do you any favors. I’ve listed alternatives to use instead! [Ed. Note: exclamation points are a sign of serious business advice.]

Perfectionist — another word for “procrastinator”

What the candidate should say instead: detail oriented

Multitasker — another word for “unfocused”

What the candidate should say instead: organized, can work under competing deadlines

People-person — another word for “I don’t understand what this job entails”

What the candidate should say instead: Collaborative, customer-focused, client-facing

Intelligent — another word for “I don’t have to try”

What the candidate should say instead: analytical, big-picture thinker, fast learner

Hmmm. Okay. The only one of these in my current repertoire is “intelligent,” but maybe I ought to tread lightly. Companies probably don’t like intelligence, although very intelligent folks I know have suggested possible reasons other than “I don’t have to try.” (In truth, I’ve had jobs where I didn’t have to try and a couple where I actively tried to leave my brain at home because it got in the way. But I digress.)

Then there was another one a week or two later called “6 phrases (and 6 words) you should never include in a cover letter.” This was troubling because I make a couple of these mistakes in my letters. Only a couple, though. I mean, some are pretty clearly bad ideas, right? Like “I need this job”?

“I’m confident I’m the perfect person for the job.”

“I need this job because … ”

“I would like to know the salary range for this job … ” or “I’m requesting a salary of … ”

“I think … ”

“I would be a good fit.”

“To whom it may concern:”

Words to avoid in your cover letter:



“Feel” or “Believe”



Although, wait – didn’t that first article tell us “detail-oriented” was a good thing to say?

In any case, I’ve gotten a few interviews with this general letter, so whatever I’m doing isn’t tragically bad.

Then there’s this other article on why it’s bad to talk about how you like “a big sandbox.” Unless, of course, it’s good.

Job-seeking advice isn’t all thou-shalt-nots, though. Just last week week Glassdoor offered up “12 Buzzwords to Say in Your Next Interview.” These are awesome:

Buzzword #1. We.

Buzzword #2. Flexible.

Buzzword #3 Leader.

Buzzword #4. Plan.

Buzzword #5. Initiative.

Buzzword #6. Opportunity.

Buzzword #7. Measurable results.

Buzzword #8. Success.

Buzzword #9. Mission statement.

Buzzword #10. Like.

Buzzword #11. Story.

Buzzword #12. Thank you.

Most of these I already knew from years of interviewing and, of course, reading about interviewing. But who knew “we,” “like” and “thank you” were actual, honest-to-god HR buzzwords? Apparently I’ve been interviewing since I was old enough to speak and didn’t know it.


Ever get the feeling it’s a rigged game? We know a vast majority of jobs are filled through existing networks – good old American know-who, as it were. And sadly we know many postings are for jobs that don’t actually exist. And now we learn – if we didn’t already know – there’s a secret language. You think “intelligent” means, you know, intelligent. Instead, it’s like you’re at a dinner party, you say “please pass the potatoes” and the whole room explodes in laughter.

Is hiring about what’s best for the company or about proving you’re clever? Is it about getting the best people on the bus or about getting people who know the code? I mean, the worst candidate in the world, an absolute moron, can study these articles and regurgitate the magic words, right?

You know what, HR manager? I haven’t worked in your company, so I won’t pretend to know everything I’ll need to in order to succeed. But I am intelligent and intelligence helps me learn quickly. Down the road it helps me see better ways of doing things, and maybe even gives me insight into something we aren’t doing but ought to be. You’d understand this if you were intelligent.

I wrote once about things employers could do to make it easier on job hunters and better for themselves, and I’d like to add one to the list. Instead of hiding behind your buzzword bingo card when we talk, how about you listen, and if I say I think I’d be really “good” at something, maybe that doesn’t mean I’d just be good, which isn’t great or awesome or earth-shattering, it’s just … good. Maybe I lean toward understatement. Maybe I’m one of those people who is wonderful but I’ve been taught not to be boastful.

Maybe I don’t subscribe to The Ladders. And maybe the last three people you thought were perfect hires, but then had to fire, maybe they had.

Have to go bone up for the interview now. Wish me luck.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s