Job Interviews: When Silence is Golden

Have you ever put your foot in your mouth, figuratively speaking, and then wished you could take back what you said? That’s an uncomfortable experience in any situation, but it’s potentially disastrous in a job interview. Once the words are out of your mouth, you can’t un-say them.

That’s why the title of this blog post is “Job Interviews: When Silence is Golden.” Now, don’t get me wrong: When you prepare for a job interview properly, it means that among other things, you’re doing your homework–on the company, the job, hopefully the person or people you’ll be interviewing with, and so on. That’s so you can say the right things at the right time.

However, to increase your interview effectiveness and avoid missteps, you also need to learn to use silence as one of your interview tools.

Two Kinds of Silence in Job Interviews

Like the positive and negative ends of a battery, there are basically two kinds of silence in job interviews. One is what I call the deer-in-the-headlights silence. That’s when the interviewer can immediately tell that you have no clue what to say in response to his/her question. This is awkward, to say the least.

Some job seekers have more trouble with this type of silence than others. Their mind seems to go blank when they’re asked something–especially if it’s not one of the topics they’ve carefully rehearsed beforehand. Even if you’re one of those people, though, you can and should work on avoiding this kind of silence in your job interviews.

The other kind of silence is one that’s thoughtful, reflective–and short! When you use silence as an interview tool, it means you’re giving yourself a brief mental pause before taking whatever the next step is.

For example, if you’re not 100% sure what the interviewer’s question meant (what he/she was really asking), you can pause for a couple of seconds to get your thoughts in order. That might lead to a question of your own, such as, “It sounds to me as if you’re asking….Is that correct?” The interviewer should either agree or make some sort of clarification of the question. Either way, you’re better prepared to answer it appropriately.

Speech versus Silence in Job Interviews

Part of the problem job seekers have is knowing when to talk and when to be silent. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about it, I like to think of it this way: If you’re asked a question and you’re clear about what your answer should be, you don’t need to use silence. If you feel uncertain, take a few seconds to get squared away. It’s not mandatory that you start speaking the moment the interviewer stops talking. Also, if you don’t want to appear too eager about something, you can pause briefly and then make your comment. That enables you to appear interested but not desperate.

Where Did “Silence is Golden”Come From?

My limited research on this quote indicates that there’s considerable uncertainty about its origins, but it apparently dates back centuries, at least in some form. One longer version was “Speech is silver, silence is golden.” That suggests to me that speech has its place, its value, but that silence can be even more powerful if used appropriately. Think about this concept the next time you’re engaged in job interview preparation.


Internal or External Hiring: What It Means to You

Whether you’re looking for an internal promotion or a new external job opportunity, the subject of internal versus external hiring could have an impact on your job search. You need to be aware of the possible implications and effects it could produce.

Internal or External Hiring at Various Levels

Companies will often go for an internal person–that is, promote someone who already works for the company–because of several factors, including the following:

  1. The individual is at least something of a known quantity and is presumably well familiar with the workings of the company.
  2. He/she might have internal champions who emphasize the value the individual can bring to the company based on previous contributions.
  3. If the individual has done a good job of networking while employed at the company, he/she might be perceived as a strong asset who merits a greater opportunity.
  4. Promoting from within tends to be a simpler and less costly process than going outside.

This is true at all levels of the organization, but it can become even more important at senior levels, where the costs of external recruitment easily climb into the stratosphere, especially if executive search fees enter the mix. If you’re the external candidate, you might not consider that aspect, but it can definitely play a role in the hiring decision, including whether to pursue internal or external hiring methods.

What the Hiring Method Means to You

First, you need to be aware that whether you’re an existing employee or an outside candidate for a position, you’re going to have competition. That competition might come from others inside your company or from individuals outside the company who are hoping to break in. You can’t assume, for example, that because you already work for the company, you have the inside track all to yourself.

On the other hand, if you’re the one trying to join a new company, you need to be realistic about the possibility that you might even get an initial interview but not necessarily be the hiring choice because someone inside the company has the edge for a variety of reasons. What’s important to understand overall is that your competition can come from two directions–someone inside the company or outside candidates.

Whichever situation is yours, it’s wise to scope things out as thoroughly as you can to get potentially useful hints about what you might be facing. For instance, if you’re going for an internal senior-level promotion, you might need to be aware that other managers are likely to be considered for the position you’re targeting. If so, you should think about doing some due diligence to get an idea of what you’ll be up against.

Internal or External Hiring–Which is “Better”?

An article by Todd Henneman called “The Insiders or the Outsiders” includes some striking information about the hiring trend for CEOs, including the fact that the turnover rate in 2013 was higher than it had been since 2008 and that the tenure of CEOs was down from 11.3 years in 2002 to 8.1 years in 2012. However, it appears that the preponderance of CEO hiring activity has focused on insiders. This seems to be based on the idea that the insiders bring a lot to the table that an external candidate might not have.

To quote from the article: “‘Internal is better in every case unless you have a really deficient internal candidate,’ said John Thompson, vice chairman of the global CEO and board practice, at executive-search firm Heidrick & Struggles….’External candidates should really be head and shoulders above internal candidates to be chosen.’”

Job Offers and Foot-Dragging Employers

Have you ever had the experience of interviewing (multiple times) for a position and feeling as if an offer was just around the corner…but it didn’t come and didn’t come and….? Then you know how frustrating and exasperating it can be. What you might not have considered was how seriously this situation can derail your job search and prevent you from reaching a successful conclusion.

Job Offers Aren’t Inevitable

Even if you’ve done everything right and it seems like you’re a prime candidate for the position, that doesn’t mean an offer is coming soon, if at all. The company might be operating in one of the following modes:

  • An internal power struggle is holding up progress, and no one is making any concessions–or likely to in the foreseeable future. “Your” position is in limbo as a result.
  • Business revenues have been less stellar than expected, and budget cuts are looming as a distinct possibility. Hiring managers are playing the wait-and-see game at this point.
  • A competitive candidate who wasn’t initially available for some reason has now become viable. He/she might have an advocate inside who is going to bat for him/her as the choice.

Of course, any number of other possible reasons could be at the heart of the problem. You’ll probably never know for sure. What matters to you is that the expected offer isn’t happening.

What Can You Do about Foot-Dragging Employers?

Not a lot. You can and should do a reasonable amount of follow-up after each interview. However, that doesn’t mean basically stalking the employer, making daily phone calls, etc. Unless you get a reliable indication that the delay really is very temporary, don’t count on it ending soon. That means, don’t put off everything else in your job search while you wait for that coveted offer to reach you.

In the past, I’ve had clients who put their entire job search on hold because an offer was “imminent,” only to find that they had wasted weeks, even months, because no offer ever came. Consequently, they had to re-energize themselves, get momentum going again, jump through all the hoops they were going through before they thought they had things nailed down. That’s discouraging, to say the least.

What Should You Do about “Pending” Job Offers?

Keep your job search active and in full swing until you have a firm, written offer in hand and have negotiated the key elements, including start date, salary and benefits. Then, and only then, should you dial-back your job search and shift to an ongoing career management outlook.

Does Your Resume Have the “Right” Words?

A sure-fire attention-getter in the media seems to be publishing a list of the best and worst words to use in a resume. CareerBuilder has recently contributed to the ocean of opinion on this subject with its list based on a survey of hiring managers, which ranks their views of the Best and Worst Words to Use in a Resume.

According to Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s VP of Human Resources, “Hiring managers prefer strong action words that define specific experience, skills and accomplishments….Subjective terms and cliches are seen as negative because they don’t convey real information. For instance, don’t say you are ‘results-driven’; show the employer your actual results.”

However, as with many such statements, this one (and the lists as a whole) carries some baggage that makes it less than 100% reliable.

Worst Resume Terms

The survey results indicate 17 terms you should presumably avoid using in your resume. Here are the top 5, including the percentage of respondents who listed them:

  1. Best of breed (38%);
  2. Go-getter (27%);
  3. Think outside of the box (26%);
  4. Synergy (22%);
  5. Go-to person (22%).

Best Resume Terms

Survey respondents advocated using 15 strong verbs and terms to help describe your experience in your resume, including these 5:

  1. Achieved (52%);
  2. Improved (48%);
  3. Trained/Mentored (47%);
  4. Managed (44%);
  5. Created (43%).

The list included a couple of terms that were not verbs: Revenue/Profits (23%) and Under budget (16%).

So What are the “Right” Words for Your Resume?

It depends. One of my esteemed colleagues, Robin Schlinger, is very knowledgeable about Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and how the systems handle resumes. Briefly, here’s what she had to say about CareerBuilder’s list:
“Some of the worst terms are the ones that ATS systems are checking on, based on job announcements….The best terms all seem to be results driven words. They are not the words, in general, that ATS systems sort on….We need to write for both the human (achievements) and machine (keywords)….”

As I’ve said before, many of the changes employers have made in how they process and handle applicants’ resumes were not instituted to make your life as a job seeker easier, and nowhere is this more true than with ATS processing (as I said in my last post). You need to study carefully each job posting you want to respond to and do your best to make sure you are on-target with the words and phrases used, at the same time as you strive to inject a strong value message into your resume content.

Caveat: Just throwing a string of keywords into the mix will not (as I’ve said before) automatically win you points with the ATS and get you to the top of the candidate selection heap. You need to put some thought and effort into the development and refinement of your resume. Hey, no one promised it would be easy! Just be careful you don’t take as gospel the official-sounding pronouncements of publications such as the CareerBuilder best-and-worst list.

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and Your Job Search

If you’re doing your best to ignore the whole subject of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), this is a heads-up for you. The trend of using ATS for most if not all applicants (and even at senior levels) has become so pervasive, it’s foolhardy to ignore the situation.

ATS a Growing Trend

As a resume writer who wants to give my clients the best possible support, I have viewed the advent of ATS as a growing nuisance. It makes life more difficult for my clients and for me. I used to think that at least senior-level managers and executives could bypass the ATS obstacle; but I attended a two-hour teleseminar recently that opened my eyes.

It’s probably true that in rare instances, such as where an executive is dealing directly with a company that wants him/her for a specific position, it might be possible to avoid the ATS screening—at least, through most of the process. However, there is now NO guarantee that even in those circumstances the resume won’t be put through an ATS eventually.

Nearly all large companies and corporations are now using some form of ATS. That doesn’t mean, though, that you’re home-free if you’re only submitting your resume to small companies. They might not be able to afford their own in-house ATS, but services are springing up that they can pay for on a case-by-case basis. Also, I believe at least one major online job board now makes its ATS available for single-job postings that employers pay to post.

ATS and Keywords: Hard-Skill or Soft-Skill

Hard-skill keywords are still vital, but they’re not the only factor in getting your resume past the ATS barrier. Soft-skill keywords could also come into play–and this is after resume writers like me have been telling clients to ignore those because “no one searches for them”!

If you’re submitting a resume in response to job postings, it’s hugely important to take a good look at the information in the postings. For example, “fast-paced customer service” could be one of the keyword phrases the ATS has been told to look for. Other possible items could include the name of the college or university where you earned your degree and your GPA (particularly if you’re not yet senior-level).

Although keywords are more critical than ever with an ATS, a good keyword match is only the beginning. Recruiters and hiring managers are seeking people who have done the job they’re trying to fill, and they’re looking for the best possible match. If your keyword-rich, ATS-friendly resume doesn’t get selected in a search, it might be because you’re not fully qualified or you’re not competitive enough with other candidates.

By the way, not all ATS are created equal, so no matter how hard you try, you’ll probably never reach a 100% match. However, you should still give it your best shot if you’re really interested in being considered for the position.

ATS and Your Job Search: A Tip

Whether or not you can completely circumvent the ATS route, you’re still likely to have a more productive job search if you don’t confine yourself to responding to posted openings. Take an active approach to uncovering opportunities that haven’t yet been widely publicized, and you could exponentially increase your chances of securing an interview–and, ultimately, a job offer.

Job Performance: How Do You Measure Up?

It’s easy–sometimes all too easy–to get caught up in the day-to-day activities of your work-life and not take a good look at how you’re really doing overall. This approach bears an uncomfortably strong resemblance to a racehorse with blinkers on. If you’ve fallen into that trap, now is the time to free yourself from it.

Job Performance and Blinkers

Just to give a little background, blinkers have at least a couple of purposes when used with horses: to prevent the horse seeing to the rear and, in some cases, to the side; to keep the horse focused on what is in front of him, encouraging him to pay attention to the race rather than other distractions.

Now there’s nothing wrong with concentration in and on your job performance. Distractions that keep you from performing at your peak effectiveness should probably be disregarded as much as possible. Savvy employees know that they need to achieve good results and meet or exceed the expectations of their boss(es) if they hope to succeed long term.

However, if you’re wearing mental blinkers regarding your job performance, you might be heading for a fall in terms of your career success. Remember, blinkers keep you from seeing much of anything except what’s right in front of you. When you’re on the job, lack of awareness about what’s going on around you can prove disastrous.

Job Performance: Focus versus Blinkers

Essentially, success in your job performance becomes more attainable when you learn to balance concentration with awareness. There’s a time to focus and a time to assess with an open mind (to take the blinkers off for a while). How you manage this balance depends on your style, personality, preferred method of operating, and so on.

For example, if you’re the methodical type, comfortable with a fair amount of structure, you might choose to block out a specific time each week to review what you’ve actually been doing and check that against what you were expected to accomplish. If your boss has set some objectives for your job performance, that’s a good place to start.

On the other hand, if you tend to be a free-wheeler, you might be more comfortable adopting a flexible approach and doing your assessment when you feel in the mood for it. As long as you make sure you do it, the exact timing probably isn’t so important.

Job Performance: How Do You Measure Up?

So if you’re chugging along and not checking on your progress periodically, you might think you’re doing okay. But what if “okay” isn’t really okay or isn’t enough to bring you satisfaction and long-term success? You don’t need to measure yourself against other people–even other people who do much the same work as you do–but you do need a way to determine whether you’re on the right track to reach where you want to be or seriously deluding yourself.

Think how great it would be to deliver the quality of job performance that would have people falling all over themselves to promote you or recruit you to an amazing new job or career opportunity. That rarely (never?) happens by accident.