Things Not to Say in a Job Interview: Those Pesky Buzzwords

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September 27, 2011; Source: Chronicle of Higher Education | A few weeks ago, NPQ published an article about what not to say in a cover letter or resume. Now, in a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Allison Vaillancourt says that she is often asked to sit in on interviews with candidates for jobs at both nonprofits and for-profits and that this has made her very sensitive about buzzwords—and not in a good way. We give you a taste of her pungent remarks here:

I cannot stand the phrase win-win. When a recent interviewee used that phrase and “synergy,” “best of breed,” “new normal,” “next generation,” and “game changer,” all within his introductory remarks, I wanted to interrupt with, “Sir, we will be together for another 50 minutes or so. Could we ask you to talk like a real person for the remainder of the hour?” When the candidate concluded his interview by stressing that he was a “people-oriented team player” [it was] a relief because all the slots for cut-throat introverts had already been taken.

Vaillancourt says that her hatred for buzzwords has led her into bad behavior at times. “I invented a game called First to Five that I played with some fellow members of a board on which I served,” she wrote, continuing,

We would choose the buzzword of the day and the first person to hear it five times had to cough and then straighten papers. Juvenile? Certainly. Great fun? Absolutely. The words and phrases differed each time we got together. Once we chose “value-added.” Another month it was “drill down.” When reorganization was on the agenda, we decided to listen for both “low-hanging fruit” and “changing the tires while the car is still moving.”

While we would hate to make the job-hunting process any more scary and tension-filled than it already is for the job seeker, we did want to give a “heads up” that an overdependence on oft-repeated phrases might hurt one’s employment prospects.—Ruth McCambridge

  • sofi lundin

    Thanks for this post. I must say that I do agree with Allison Vaillancourt regarding the use of buzzwords during interviews and applications. However, whenever companies are announcing a position they have a tendency to use certain common words (buzzwords)to describe the qualities they are seeking in a future employee. Therefore the applicants believe that they stand a better chance of landing the job if they mimic the buzzwords. Guess its a catch 22 situation here. I would love to get some advice from Allison regarding what kind of words one could use for application/interviews.

  • Patrick Taylor

    I think you can ding candidates for using buzzwords when the business community and people who write management books stop using them. It doesn’t seem fair to punish someone for something so widely practiced. I’m reminded of a line from a Simpson’s episode:

    “Aren’t these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important?”

  • Kristin Coombes

    Thanks for the guidance. In a field where leadership positions seem to be increasingly going to individuals with business backgrounds, those with non-profit based backgrounds are wondering how they compete and language is truly a battleground of these disciplines. Job searches are increasingly turned over to outside consultants that may not know the language of the field, or discipline, and resumes are being “screened” by computer prior to being seen by the person doing the hiring. What recommendations are there for being personal when a computer is screening for key words?

  • Michael Wyland

    Sofi makes a valid point. Both prospective employers and prospective employees make unreasonable use of buzzwords in the hiring process. This is exacerbated by the resume-screening software packages that allow prospective employers to vet applicants without human interaction with the paperwork, much less the individual applicant. I know there are valid reasons for this, but it still happens.

    The fact remains that most applicants and hiring entities are both inexperienced and uncomfortable with the process, and hiring entities especially know that the process itself often results in inappropriate hires.

    All parties need a little sympathy and compassion to cope with a stressful, artificial, and regulation-constricted process.