Beware Candidates Who Say “Always” And “Never” in Interviews

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Feb 15, 2021

A study titled “Why New Hires Fail” recently discovered that 89% of hiring failures result from poor (or mismatched) attitudes — not a lack of technical skills. Across more than 20,000 new hires, mishires were most likely to result from a lack of coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation, or temperament. Only 11% stemmed from a lack of technical skills.

While attitude might seem an ethereal quality and difficult to assess, you can often identify it through a candidate’s language. If recruiters and hiring managers know how to listen well, poor attitudes reveal themselves very quickly in job interviews.

Now obviously, catastrophically bad attitudes are easy to pinpoint. Think of a candidate who says something like, “I don’t know anything about your company. I’m just looking to make a quick buck.” But many candidates will try to mask their problematic attitudes, so it will take some extra effort to discover issues.

Another study, “Words That Cost You The Job Interview,” analyzed 20,572 job interview responses to identify the words that predicted likely hiring failures. It turns out that that low-performer candidates used 103% more absolutes than high-performers. Absolutes are words that indicate a black-or-white thinking style: always, never, all, impossible, absolutely, unquestionably, etc.

Imagine you asked a candidate, “Could you tell me about a time you got tough feedback from the boss?” In an ideal world, you would hear wonderful specifics about the exact feedback given, what they learned, and how they improved going forward. But low-performers are likely to give you an answer replete with absolutes, lacking the details and nuance of a high performer’s response.

Here are some real-life answers from low-performers, chock-full of absolutes:

  • “I never received any critical feedback at my last job, but then again, I was only there for two years.”
  • “I’ve never really had this experience. I’ve always only had positive feedback, but never anything that was hard to hear.”
  • “My last boss gave me feedback, but it was impossible to learn anything from it because it was so vague.”
  • “Oh, I always accept all feedback with a positive attitude.”
  • “Unless the criticism is unfounded and not constructive, I would never react in a negative manner. All feedback is good feedback. Without feedback, positive or negative, you will never be able to gauge how the work you do impacts customers.”

Notice how those responses lack detail and nuance, not to mention self-awareness and critical self-reflection. The use of absolutes can stem from insecurity, a need to show off, black-and-white thinking, or a lack of intellectual flexibility. When was the last time you experienced a situation that was “always” a certain way in the real world?

The best candidates deliver answers loaded with details and specifics. And it’s because they have wonderful experiences that they can’t wait to share with you. For example, suppose you ask a high-performer, “Could you tell me about a time you faced a tough challenge at work?” It doesn’t serve the person to say, “Oh yeah, that always/never happened to me.”

Instead, a high-performer will tell you, usually in detail, about any number of times they received tough feedback. For example, here’s a real-life answer from a high-performer: “I put out a report without checking it and I sent out false information. My boss called me on it. I was in a hurry and I skipped a critical step. He was right to talk to me about it. No matter what kind of deadline, it’s better to do the job correctly than to give incorrect information.”

While high-performers will offer details, low-performers are more likely to sprinkle their language with absolutes to try and sound like a high-performer.

Granted, it takes some practice to pinpoint this type of language in an actual job interview. But one of the fastest ways to get competent at listening for absolutes is…listening for absolutes. And I mean really listening. When the candidate is talking, you’re not talking, or interrupting, or interjecting. Instead, you’re fully present and attuned to every word that comes out of their mouth, especially words like always and never.

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