Stop reading too much into what employers say: a guide for jobseekers and workers alike

Candidates look for hidden meanings and coded references, perhaps confusing a job interview with a session with the Illuminati

A correspondent on LinkedIn claimed to be shocked when told she was not a good fit for a job and wanted to know what the employer meant by this. All over the internet, people are asking what the employer can possibly have intended by this or that remark. 

After seeing half a dozen candidates, the prospective employer was probably more concerned with what to have for lunch than giving this person a subtly encoded message. Job search is a stressful business and it is understandable that interviewees anxiously try to figure out what the employer is thinking; however, this is almost certainly a waste of time.

Let’s look at some typical throwaway lines:

“We’re looking for someone who’s a good fit for this role.”

The pessimistic candidate hears: “And you’re not, so don’t hold your breath.” The optimistic candidate hears: “Someone like you, who would fit in exceptionally well here.”

The truth is that the interviewer wants to recruit someone who will fit in. They are hardly going to say:

“We’re looking for a misanthropic loner who won’t talk to anyone and builds paperclip sculptures.” ‘Good fit’ is just one of those filler phrases people use – you can’t tell whether you are a good fit, so don’t waste time fretting about it.

“We’re seeing a lot of candidates in the next ten days.”

The pessimist hears: “There’s so much competition, you don’t stand a chance.” The optimist hears: “But you’ll stand out however many we see.”

The truth is that the prospective employer is seeing a lot of candidates and have no idea where you will rank in the list until they have seen them.

“We need someone who’s able to be strategic.”

The pessimist hears: “It’s plain from your CV that your horizons are limited to lunch.” The optimist hears: “So this will be a great opportunity for someone like you who’s dying to escape the operational context.”

The truth is that their current strategy is to recruit a strategic thinker who will work out the strategy for them.

Overthinking is not confined to job candidates going through the recruitment mill. Employees are just as prone to it – they can spend hours deconstructing what their boss said during their one-to-one, reading the runes to try to discover what their superiors really think of them. Nowhere is this more evident than in businesses that pay performance bonuses and performance-related pay.

Employees desperately try to find out their standing. If they ask for too much and are poorly thought of, they will look idiotic; if they are well thought of, they run the risk of asking for too little. This explains the intense interest in the slightest hints from managers about their status and prospects.

Much of this speculation stems from the fact that employers can be poor at communication and that managers sometimes talk round the subject rather than giving an employee the blunt truth. The lesson for jobseekers and employees alike has to be that sometimes the employer means exactly what they say.

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