Watch Out for These Words That Candidates Say During Interviews

We all know that someone’s personality is ultimately reflected in their language. And research has found that one’s language can predict depression, narcissism, conscientiousness, and more. But as powerful a personality predictor as language can be, most interviewers have little to no idea which words to look for in interviews.

One of Leadership IQ’s studies, “Words That Cost You the Interview,” pinpointed a number of linguistic markers that were associated with both great and poor job candidates.

For example, we discovered that the use of certain adverbs was often associated with poor job candidates (and ultimately low-performing employees). Performing a linguistic analysis on more than 20,000 actual interview answers, we learned that answers from low performers contained 40% more adverbs (e.g., “very,” “really,” “quickly”) than those from high performers.

At ERE Digital, Sept 23-24, I’ll be delivering a presentation called, “Things Candidates Say: Decoding Interview Answers for Deeper Insights.” The session will dive into which pronouns show if a candidate will take responsibility, which verbs signal a candidate is dodging your questions, which words indicate low accountability and self-awareness, and more.

In the meantime, let’s look at an actual example to illuminate the discovery. Imagine you ask a candidate, “Could you tell me about a time you got tough feedback from your boss?” Now imagine that the candidate answers with the following:

“I was generally the best performer on my team. I did my work more quickly and thoroughly than my co-workers. I thought that kind of success would buy me some credibility. But sadly, my boss often felt I was pushing too aggressively for my ideas, and he felt threatened. So on several occasions, he criticized me for not being a team player. I really saw it as a warning not to push more aggressively than the rest of the team.”

There are multiple elements of this candidate’s answer that should give us pause. But in particular, notice their use of adverbs, like “generally,” “quickly,” “thoroughly,” and “aggressively.” Do you notice how these adverbs help the candidate avoid giving specific details about any specific situation?

What does it mean when they say they did their work more quickly? Do they give any evidence that they were generally the best performer on their team? What exactly does pushing too aggressively sound like?

When candidates employ adverbs in their answers, it should ring an alarm bell in our brains to pay extra attention to their answers. 

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Of course, a great candidate can use adverbs. Maybe they say, “I was generally the best performer on my team. I know this because, for seven years, I was rated as the No. 2 performer out of 50 employees.” In that case, the candidate used an adverb, but they immediately followed it with more details to justify and explain their answer.  

Absent those specific details, insecurity, lack of experience, or trying to paint oneself in a better light can all trigger a need to embellish the facts. And that’s where adverbs often come into play. People often qualify their words with adverbs to amp things up. So instead of sharing the details of a time the candidate had a brilliant idea, a low performer might instead say, “I was quickly coming up with great ideas.” That answer, while it sounds good if we don’t dig too deeply, actually avoids specifying much (or anything, really) about how or how quickly they actually generated great ideas.

While this may strike some hiring managers as picayune, the best interviewers are acutely attuned to the words their candidates use in interviews. I’m not mandating that hiring managers become clinical psychologists; I’m simply suggesting that the more interviewers become attuned to candidates’ language, the more (and the more quickly) they’ll be able to spot warning signs of likely poor hires.


Want more insights from Mark? Join him and other presenters from leading organizations like Uber, Marriott, Boeing, and Best Buy at ERE Digital, Sept 23-24, the premiere practitioner-led event for talent acquisition professionals. Learn more and register at www.ererecruitingconference.com

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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