Back in the late 70s, early 80s I attended a Careertrack seminar. I don’t remember the name of the seminar. I don’t really remember the exact topic, but one story the presenter shared stuck with me all these years.
The presenter, (we’ll call her Sue) traveled across the US doing seminars. Because of a hectic travel schedule, Sue spent a lot of time in airports people watching. One day, she noticed a woman in an absolutely beautiful white suit. It fit her to perfection and had delicate, intricate embroidery adorning the jacket. The woman was breathtaking and caught quite a few eyes as she navigated the airport terminal. Sue approached her and complimented her exquisite raiment. She went on and on about the fit and the gorgeous detailing. The woman thanked her and shared she had made the suit herself AND done all the embroidery work. This blew Sue away. Not only was the suit (and the woman) stunning; the woman created it. Then, the woman did something equally stunning to Sue. She started pointing out the flaws in her own work. “I appreciate the compliment, but I never took time to line it properly. <opening her jacket to demonstrate> Look at how ragged the seams are. I should have finished them better. And really, if you look, I probably should have trimmed up the ends of the embroidery threads a little closer. It shouldn’t look this rough on the inside. I should have lined it.” WHAT???? In about two seconds, this impeccably-dressed woman took a well-intended, sincere compliment and used it as an opportunity to point out the “flaws”, degrading herself and her talent in the process.
Sue used this example to show how we (especially woman) find it difficult to accept a compliment. Rather than say “Thank you.” or “Thank you. I always feel good when I wear this suit.” we find a way to negate our own wonderfulness. Sue challenged us that day to start graciously accepting and enhancing compliments. At the very least she wanted us to learn how to say “thank you” … and then shut up. She wanted us to stop diminishing ourselves with reasons why a compliment couldn’t possibly be valid. It’s not only insulting to the giver. It’s insulting to you too.
I use this same idea to help clients understand it’s OK to answer interview questions without offering every shred of detail about a circumstance. For example, I worked with a talented and skilled nurse a while back. During the information gathering part of the resume process, she told me about a previous job she’d lost because of family crisis. Without prompting, she told me her son’s former girlfriend (and guardian to their two children) had been arrested. Her son was out of town and everyone was unsure of the arrangements made for the children. She had no choice but to miss work, locate the children and ensure their safety. She lost her job because of it.
I was taken aback. I’d not asked for an explanation and didn’t need to know that level of detail. “Past family crisis” and “it’s now under completely under control” was all I or anyone else needed to know. Recognizing how freely she shared this information with me, I had to ask if she ever shared this story during interviews. You guessed it. Her response was “Of course. It’s the truth. My past employer was wrong and I want a potential employer to know it wasn’t my fault.” (From a hiring standpoint, do you see a few red flags here?)
Sadly, even with impressive credentials, leadership capabilities and vast medical knowledge, potential employers had little interest in her after an initial interview. When I asked if she saw a possible connection between that story and no job offer, she didn’t see it. In her mind, she was being honest. She didn’t see how an employer may see her unnecessarily-shared past baggage as overriding her expertise. In essence, she took a “beautifully-embroidered, perfectly-fitted white suit” and showed the “lack of lining and embroidery knots” with the details behind the termination. She diminished her expertise and, I’m sure, talked herself out of countless positions. (We worked out a less telling way to share that piece of her employment history.)
I’m not proposing making up things or lying during interviews, but an interview isn’t the time to show your lack of lining. You don’t have to bare your soul and share your most intimate secrets and questionable personal information. Take time to prepare and rehearse a positive response to “sketchy” portions of your work history. (And if you’ve worked long enough, you’re sure to have had a bump in the road somewhere along the line.) An interview is the time to put your best foot forward and dazzle a hiring authority with your expertise. Find a way to answer questions while painting yourself in the best possible light. Show off your perfect fit and exquisite detail … and then shut up.
PS – See the power and impact of a good story when used to demonstrate a point (or a skill). This one stuck with me for almost 30 years. Stories sell. Stories are memorable. Perfect yours.