Classic interview flubs you should avoid

May 10, 2013: 11:30 AM ET

Pat answers to interview questions reveal a job candidate who hasn't researched the company or its challenges.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

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FORTUNE -- When Sarah Lynn Brown is interviewing job candidates, she dreads hearing them say, "I want to use my skills and grow and learn." The partner at New York-based Oceanic Partners looks for new employees who can add value to the health care consulting business. Candidates seeking a rich learning environment are in the wrong place -- go back to school, she says.

"I don't know who in their college placement office is telling them to say this, but it sends the wrong message that it's all about you," Brown says. "When someone says, 'I'm here to find an opportunity to utilize my skills,' my first impulse is to think, 'Has it occurred to you to tell me what you're going to do for this company?' "

She usually finds that probing past the pat answers reveals a job candidate who hasn't researched the company or its challenges, and she quickly ends the interview. Recruiters and hiring managers' advice to job seekers is clear: Stop using rehearsed phrases that you think the interviewer is expecting.

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"Most people have this bubble above their head in a job interview: 'Do I say what I really think, or do I say what they want to hear?' " says Kevin Fleming, founder of Grey Matters, a behavior change consulting firm. "If you've been rewarded in the world for saying the 'right' thing and not the real thing, you're going to go down this road [of] choosing to be right over being real."

That's a mistake, according to Fleming and other experts. In an Adecco survey released last month, 34% of 500 hiring managers surveyed said candidates didn't get a job because of an inability to clearly answer questions and articulate skills or experiences in the interview.

Cliché comments in job interviews can betray a lack of depth, insufficient preparation, or an attitude that is inconsistent with the employer's values or culture.

"Your job as an interviewee is to make you and your story interesting and relevant to them," says Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions. "Some words just click people off. They stop focusing on you. You become one of the many candidates who strolled in there. You're not distinguishing yourself."

With that in mind, we've asked Brown, Oliver, Fleming, and other hiring experts to identify the most egregious job interview blunders and explain why you should eliminate them from your vocabulary.

"I am interested in everything this company does." It's natural to want to portray yourself as a good fit for any open position. But that's simply unrealistic. Hiring managers are looking for someone who will be skilled and passionate for the specific role the company needs to fill, not someone so desperate that he or she will take anything.

You can hedge your bets if you can point to specific positions that fit with your background, says Kathryn Ullrich, a recruiter based in Silicon Valley and author of Getting to the Top, Strategies for Career Success. Make sure to back up your assertions with research you've done about the company, its competitive environment, and the skills needed for specific positions.

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"I'm a workaholic. I'll do whatever you want from me." You may think the interviewer wants to hear that you'll be devoted to the job 24-7, but he may actually be wondering whether you simply don't know how to prioritize your tasks.

"Do they need to work 80 hours a week to hit their numbers, or are they working 80 hours a week because of their inability to be effective during the normal … workday?" asks Janette Marx, a senior vice president at Adecco in Charlotte, N.C. "Working all the time can be good, but more and more companies want well-rounded individuals that are part of the team."

"My results weren't valued, so I left the company." It's always tricky to explain a gap in your resume. But remember that employers will identify with other employers. When an interviewer hears your results weren't valued, she will wonder why. "What you're saying to the employer is you were not good at what you did," Marx says.

"It's not that my boss and I didn't get along ... " We all know never to badmouth a former employer. But even in trying to explain yourself by citing a personality conflict or bad boss, you can get into hot water.

"If you say, 'My boss made it really tough, it wasn't the right working environment,' that tells the interviewer you can't deal with stress well. Some people flat out say, 'He was a yeller.' The subtext is what did you do to make him yell? Did you not hit your deliverable?" Marx explains.

Instead, offer specific examples to support the reason you left. "The better response is: 'I was a casualty of a department in which eight people have turned over in two years in a team of four people. My performance is stellar, and I can give you plenty of references," Ullrich says.

"I'm a team player." Not only is this a huge cliché, it raises an alarm with some interviewers that you may not be able to make an individual contribution. Ullrich's hackles go up when she hears "we" too often.

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"A lot of times people can ride on the coattails of the department," she says. "I still want to know what you contributed to that team. Were you the leader, troublemaker, doing the spreadsheets and grunt work? I need to know what your role was."

"I'd like to make a contribution." Sure, many people go into a field because they want to make a difference. But in the end, we work to earn a salary. Save the contributions for your favorite charities.

When Brown hears this line, she asks, "A contribution to what? I've asked that, and they can't justify it."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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