The word you are saying too much in job interviews

Author: Jane McNeill, Director, Hays Australia 

The language you use throughout your job interview is very important, but there’s one word that could undermine your suitability for the role in the eyes of your interviewer. It’s a short word, but one that conveys a lot. This word is “we”.

Before I go any further, let me clarify; I believe the use of “we” is fine in certain contexts during an interview, for instance when talking about team successes. I will go into this in more detail further on. For the most part, however, the use of the word “we” can undermine your suitability. To solve this issue you need to get personal, first-person personal, by using the pronoun “I”. Here’s why:

Painting a picture of your suitability

Your interviewer wants to hear about your results, not those made by others. As such, the interviewer will be asking interview questions geared around your experiences, skills and achievements, for instance “Describe a time where you went above and beyond to achieve a professional goal?”

In these cases, avoid using “we” at all costs. The interviewer needs to know whether you would potentially perform well in the role and how you approach professional situations. Talking about what “we” have done won’t give them the information they need.

Therefore, your answer to my above example may sound something like, “I was given the personal goal of increasing the sale of X by Y percent over a one-month period. I asked our sales director to mentor me on how I could improve my sales technique. This involved coming in an hour early for our mentoring sessions, reading his recommended books and listening to podcasts in my own time. It worked though, and the following month I exceeded this goal by Z percent.”

Demonstrating that you take ownership of the good and the bad

It’s one thing saying “I did this…” in a positive context to take responsibility for your achievements. It’s another being able to take ownership for the more challenging elements of your job, including your mistakes.

The interviewer may well ask you a trickier interview question to ensure that you are responsible for all elements of your role, both good and bad. For example, “Tell me about a time you failed” or “Tell me about a time a task didn’t go to plan”. Starting your answer with “we” will only serve to tell the interviewer that you are very quick to pass the buck.

The use of “I”, on the other hand, will show that you are responsible, self-aware and a self-improver. For instance, “I faced a challenging situation during my role as X. I made the error of doing Y, but I learned Z from the situation…”

Striking the balance between ‘I’ and ‘we’

There are, of course, exceptions. “We” is a perfectly acceptable and advisable, word to use if asked about your ability to work in a team. Using “we” in this case implies personal humility and a team focus.

In such instances, you’ll need to use the word “we” to discuss an objective and result that a number of people achieved together. For instance, “We all worked together and combined our strengths and skills to beat our all-time record in September.” However, be sure to then revert back to “I” to describe the part you played in reaching this achievement. For instance, “My role as X meant I was personally responsible for delivering Y skills to the task. This achieved Z result.”

To sum up, this tiny word puts you front and centre, ensuring you focus on your own individual results when answering an interviewer’s questions. The vast majority of the time, you must own your successes but also your challenges, and claim them as your own. In doing so, you paint a more accurate picture of your personal experiences, endeavours, and suitability for the role.

Thank you for reading! For more useful advice and insights about the world of work, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.

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