“How You Say It” Is Critical in Your Job Search
Are You Wording Things About Your Experience in a “Glass-Half-Empty” Way?
By Brian Sullivan
In previous R&W Group Blog posts, we have covered missteps to avoid in your resume in two separate posts. One of those ten examples was the use of negative language. While it was briefly covered in the second of the two aforementioned posts as something to be mindful of while constructing a resume, it is also important to eliminate this err of negativity in all elements of the job search process: cover letter, interviews, and even in passing comments with individuals who might be able to help you in your job search.
While we will speak quickly on making overtly negative comments during your job search, the bulk of this blogpost will be about what we consider “Glass-Half-Empty” language, which can take on many forms, often entirely subconscious and unintentional. Lastly, there are instances where negativity is acceptable, unavoidable, or even beneficial to the interview process. This will later be reiterated and further explored, but be mindful of doing this and only lean into potential negativity with intention and prudence. As a rule of thumb though – if you don’t have to go negative, don’t… and, if you do, make sure it serves a purpose and come back to the positive quickly. Let’s get started!
Avoid Explicit Negativity
Whether in a job interview, resume, or casual discussion with a network connection, avoid being outright negative. Most people know this tip, recognize what going negative looks like, and understand how it can often be perceived by a hiring manager. Examples include disparaging a former employer or place of employment; criticizing the compensation or benefits they offered; lamenting over a perceived slight or snub for a promotion or other recognition; badmouthing coworkers or clients for any number of reasons; or just generally finding issue with something in your past or current situation, especially if there is no resolution.
It can be very tempting to enter into this negative space. Some interview questions like “why are you on the job market?”, “what was your recent position like?”, or “are there areas where your supervisor could improve in their leadership?” almost feel like an invitation for either a chance to provide context about ongoing obstacles or to vent to a seemingly sympathetic listener.
However, these questions can also be opportunities to honestly discuss some of these pain-points (shy of an interview turning into a therapy session). Maybe you are on the job market because your current employer is drastically underpaying people in your department. It’s possible your current position is one that breeds a toxic work environment. Perhaps the list of things your supervisor does well is shorter than his/her potential areas for improvement. While all of that might be true, it’s important to not take the bait, no matter how enticing. Instead, first evaluate if you can answer the questions in a more positive way. Even though you are underpaid, are there other reasons you’re seeking a new position like professional development or growth potential? Despite your current employer bringing out the worst in people, did it also provide opportunities to develop new skills, potentially in high-stress and fast-paced situations? While your boss may be more inept than capable, is there one of those shortcomings that you can discuss, followed by offsetting it with one of his/her strengths?
As we started hinting at with these three previous examples, sometimes leading with a bit of pessimism and following up with a tidier ending is the best approach – presenting the less-than-ideal truth, but also showcasing your optimism and outlook. When unbridled positivity isn’t an option, this can be a good alternative and, in some instances, even better. Awareness with how to balance this approach comes with practice. Some of those reps will occur in interviewers, but rehearsing with a friend, a recruiter, or even in the mirror will help you sort out the best messaging when the truth isn’t all sunshine and butterflies.
Most people do know how to avoid the outright negative statements. However, “Glass-Half-Empty” language is far sneakier. We often don’t notice when we’re using it, but we are often pretty aware when others do – imagine if that other is an interviewer. We don’t want to tarnish that first impression.
The first type of “Glass-Half-Empty” statement is one that minimizes your experience. Candidates who have been a little discouraged by their current career prospects may speak lesser of their duties than a candidate who feels more confident about their experience. For example, an unhappy Computer Engineer might say they “just review lines of code written by programmers before submitting them to the Team Leader. I’m only a junior engineer on this project”, while a Mailroom Clerk who sees value in their work might respond “I organize all inbound and outbound parcels and pieces of mail in a fast-paced office setting, distribute those items to the intended recipients, and ensure they are able to perform their daily tasks by receiving these materials in a timely manner”.
The Computer Engineer is just or only doing their job. By framing it this way, it may sound to an interviewer that this person does not feel what they do is important, interesting, or valuable. The Mailroom Clerk, on the other hand, has given some thought in how to summarize their experience in a way that reflects why the work they do matters. They may feel just as frustrated or unimportant as the Computer Engineer but, based on their response alone, a hiring manager would never know it!
A second kind of “Glass-Half-Empty” behavior is to focus on all that isn’t. Many candidates, especially those that either lack confidence or experience, will spend a great amount of time talking about coursework toward a certification that isn’t finished as opposed to it being an ongoing area of study or something I temporarily stepped away from, but hope to resume in the near future. They might bemoan not having specific skills or types of experience as opposed to celebrating the transferrable skills they could bring to an organization. As the person conducting the job search, you may find yourself frequently thinking about the long list of things you still need to do before you arrive at a destination on your career path that makes you proud. That being said, rather than looking at the steps left to take, think about the ones behind you, and the momentum you’re building to aid you in your quest.
We will likely come up with other varieties of “Glass-Half-Empty” thoughts and behaviors in future editions, but the final one discussed in this blogpost is appearing too desperate to or dependent on a potential employer. Clearly, we don’t want to be unabashedly negative, nor do we want to be rude, cavalier, flippant, inappropriate, or unprofessional, but we also should avoid approaching them with a hat-in-hand demeanor.
By this, we mean that candidates acting desperately accommodating towards their interviewers often do not make a great impression. Manners and professionalism should be exercised, but subservience undermines what you’re attempting to do in an interview. Junior and insecure candidates, again, won’t only overdo the politeness, but will sometimes expend multitudes of energy on how this job will benefit them. If we were a jobseeker like this, we might try to convey how this organization will open up many doors for us, how the position would be a great complement to our education, or how grateful we would be if the hiring manager would only give us a chance. Some of this might be, and probably should be, true when we’re applying to jobs, and it’s okay to share those details with an employer. However, only sharing with them how the job they’re offering will benefit you both comes off as selfish, plus it places you in an impossibly deep hole from which only the hiring manager can save you. That level of reverence is not normally interpreted in a flattering or polite way, but usually as grasping at straws. To be clear, we don’t want to be a jobseeker like this.
A job interview is a discussion between two parties. One is looking for a job to help pay their bills and further their career goals – that one is you. In the examples we just outlined, we have a good understanding of what our motivations could potentially be when interviewing for a position. However, the second party is an employer, looking for a solution to a problem they have. While the hiring organization is the second party, the solution to their problem, ideally, is you, the jobseeker. It’s fine to talk about what working for them might do to benefit you, but look at the glass half-full and think about how you can benefit them by being part of their team. Employers respond infinitely better to candidates who spend much of their time describing their potential offerings and peppering examples of times they’ve delivered those offerings in their background than they do to candidates who hope to be the nicest and most flattering applicant they interview. This less about what this job could do for you, and more how you could do amazing things in this job for the organization and their clients.
When Being Negative Isn’t a Negative
We won’t spend much time here, as we’ve already discussed it throughout this blogpost, but a tinge of negativity isn’t the end of the world. Think about being introduced to a couple that says they never argue. Either they are lying about never having a disagreement, or there is something much larger going on at a fundamental level that is just as scary as a couple that is constantly fighting. This is the same in an interview. Never having a difficult customer, a demanding supervisor, or an impossibly narrow deadline either notifies the interviewer that the candidate is lying to look impressive, or there is a fundamental issue with the sort of experience they bring to the table. Either way, it does not bode well.
To counteract this, carefully weave in negative truths to show that you have faced obstacles, challenges, and setbacks, and that you have found ways (which you get to share with them) to overcome them. Don’t spend tons of time of illustrating how bleak and terrible conditions were; instead, provide the minimum information to convey that idea, and focus the rest of your energy on describing your thought process of evaluating the situation, the solution you arrived at, and the steps you took to resolve the issue. You can even include lessons you learned along the way.
Honesty is important in your resumes, cover letters, and interviews. While there are often sad truths in our past (or even our present), we can touch on them if we then pivot towards how we resolved them, what we learned from the experience, or what we hope to achieve in the next chapter of our lives. Remember that you are unique, and what you bring to any situation, work or otherwise, while be slightly different than what anyone else can offer. Because of that, always work on promoting yourself and your candidacy with a “Glass-Half-Full” mindset, and you’ll be surprised how much of a difference that makes. If R&W Group can help you in your job search in any way, please contact us at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!