I was recently interviewing a candidate with the CEO of the company I'm doing a search for. As the candidate is answering a question the CEO stops him and says, “I hate it when people use the words we and they in their answers. I'm hiring you, not we or they, so I want to know what you did. I would prefer it if you used ‘I' instead.” I thought WOW that is a pretty strong statement and it clearly signaled to the candidate how to better answer his questions. So what do you think was the next word out of the candidate's mouth? If you answered “I” you would be wrong. It was “we.”
It wasn't that the candidate didn't want to answer the question. It wasn't that he didn't want to follow the CEO's suggestion. He was in the habit of saying “we.” Like most candidates, he has been trained to respond this way. Every book, coach, recruiter and outplacement firm seems to stress the need to use the word “we.” The fact is, there is a need to use the word “we” during an interview, but not all the time. As the interviewer you should help the candidate navigate these waters.
It isn't the candidate's fault for using “we and they.” I believe managers have to take some of the blame for this. For example, if a candidate uses “I” too often the interviewer often thinks, not a team player, they have a big ego, this person is arrogant, it's all about them, they couldn't possibly do all of this, or they like to take all the credit. Have you ever had these thoughts? What honest manager hasn't? As a result candidates have been trained to to respond with “we” so as to eliminate those thoughts. For the most part, managers are getting the monster they created.
A good interview is a blend of “I” and “we.” Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and interviewers need to help tame the monster. Just as the CEO did in his interview, consider working with the candidates. They are in an environment where they are not comfortable. It is not the same as when they are working and in their comfort zone. This is a common mistake made by interviewers. Cut the candidates some slack. It's an interview. Give them the same consideration you would want if you were a candidate out interviewing for a job.
Instead of eliminating the candidate, try coaching the candidate much like the CEO did. Let them know they have your permission to use the word “I.” Reassure them that you will not think they aren't a team player or have a big ego. It will take some coaching and patience so the candidate gets comfortable using “I” instead of “we.” If you help them just a little you may not lose a good candidate for the wrong reasons.
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I welcome your thoughts and comments.