Things you should never say to a recruiter, part 3

“How do I break through the bureaucracy?”

“What’s the secret handshake?”

PS: early process negativity won’t get you an interview (quite to the contrary) and the secret handshake/bureaucracy break-through is being the best candidate.

Comments (44)

  1. Tim says:

    I’m giving myself the secret handshake as I type this.

  2. Vicki says:

    Well, I am certain there are plenty of people who would like to be in the Secret Squirrel Club – but maybe they feel that there’s no way they will be hired unless they try those bad tactics.

    Could it maybe be nerves getting the best of them?

    I’ve had my share of anxiety – I know I’m not immune to it – but I would have to agree with you about such statements that are so bold and won’t get a candidate anywhere.

    I guess I sit in the middle of the quandry though ….. on one hand, people (i.e. candidates) are simply trying to understand the hiring process and on the other, it must be frustrating and discouraging when someone tries to ‘backdoor’ a position by thinking you will secretly tell them something to help them solidify a job offer.

    Interesting — I’ve taken enough psych courses to be a dangerous armchair psychologist! 😉

    Here’s a question though, Heather… isn’t it common courtesy for a "thank you" for your help from potential candidates? Would you view that as "scheisty" or unprofessional? I have a tendency to think just the opposite, but I am not in your career field. Your thoughts?

  3. John Elmer says:

    Let me throw in another:  "What are they looking for?" or "What do they want?"

    (Might it help if you read the job posting or job description?)  If the candidate asks a specific about the job (hours, pay, etc.) he/she can be referred to the hiring manger.  but "What are they looking for?"

    I’m tempted to answer "not you" (but I don’t)

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Tim, I’m going to hold off on my follow-up question and just say that you are very talented. : )

    Vicki-I think it is anxiety that leads them to a poor choice of humor. I think funny is OK sometimes, but not if it tends to be negative. Also, they don’t realize that they are insulting the recruiter. If you got the job for the "secret handshake", then what value is the recruiter adding? I think that some people can get frustrated and have a bit of a chip on their shoulder by the time they reach the recruiter. No matter how frustrated they already are, though, the recruiter can be their advocate. They just have to resist the urge to be negative (something I know a thing or 2 about), because they’d just be shooting themselves inthe foot.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thanking a recruiter for their help. It’s a courtesy but it’s part of the recruiter’s job to help. I don’t think it’s "scheisty" unless the candidate is expecting some extra consideration by buttering up the recruiter. I don’t think that a "thank you" would necessarily qualify as that. OK, now everybody that I have helped in the past, don’t feel like you need to send me a "thank you" mail. Seriously : ) I feel the love.

    JOhn-agreed, they need to read the job description. THey could ask some clarifying questions. Like "I noticed that the job description listed the requirement of strong cross-group colaboration skills. Can you tell me a little about who the person would be collaborating with and the current nature of those relationships?".

    Man, I am great at telling other people what to say in an interview but I’ll tell you, I’m not sure I would think of all this stuff if I were on the other side.

  5. Wine-Oh says:

    Do not ask the following unless you want the interview to end fast.

    -Do I get a cube or an office?

    -Can I work from home?

    -Can I have a Blackberry?

    -Can I wear jeans to work?

  6. Vicki says:

    Ok, makes sense to me…

    I remember trying to hire a staff member – but the job wasn’t posted yet. Another employee in a different department had heard about it and he gave me a potential lead for a good candidate.

    Again, the job had not gone through the chain of command yet, so it was not even a real position – but you know the rumor mill….

    This contact went beyond submitting her resume – she called me and my assistant daily, she even managed to get my BlackBerry number to call incessantly. She dropped by my office to bring me her portfolio, snail mailed her materials, e-mailed once a day and continued to leave messages.

    My assistant begged me to tell her off!

    I told the person who recommended her that she was *really* taking the wrong route to success and that seemed to discontinue the constant barrage of "PLEASE PICK ME!" tactics.

    I saw her weeks later at local marketing firm and she was in a temporary position – she noticed me right away and introduced herself again… She felt she HAD to tell me that it was her annoying persistence that always landed her a job, but she could see that it didn’t work "that time."

    Wow! Ya think?!

    It seems she crossed the fine line between showing interest and being very desperate.

    Granted, I was working for the ONLY paying employer in the area at the time and pay rates were the best one could get – so she really wanted to land a job with the company.

    She has since been my model of "what not to do," in terms of extremes!

    Just thought I would share… I am sure most of you have plenty of these horror stories! 🙂


    P.S. I have a big interview Monday morning… It’s not with MS, but it is a high-vis company… I can tell all of you here, with honesty, I don’t mind the interview process but it still gives me butterflies in my stomach any time I think about it!

  7. Ivan says:

    You still need to account for cultural differences, what might not be acceptable to a recruiter in the US might be the norm elsewhere.

    I guess the best advice you can give any candidate is to be humble. I have rejected excellent candidates in the past for not treating the recruiter with sufficient respect "ohhh, but that was ONLY the recruiter". That type of arrogance is a bad sign, if the candidate cannot treat all people that interview him/her as equals than I don’t want that person on my team. It’s a sign that they lack sensitivity or empathy.

  8. Yikes.  HR horror stories.  Some of these statements/actions are either extremely bold or blatantly stupid, either way, they’re no good.  I’m sure desperation factors in to some of this, as well as ego.  I guess you can’t blame some people for trying different routes to success, even if they are proven dangerous time and time again.

    Vicki – Congrats on snagging an interview, good luck!

    Since we’re on the subject, what is the secret handshake?


  9. Paul says:

    You mean there isn’t a secret backdoor? No special incantation and fraternity pledge? Next you’ll be telling us that there isn’t an Easter Bunny, and that Bill Gates is an invention of the PR department.  Say it isn’t true.

    As a wise songwriting sage once said:


    Find out what it means to me!

  10. eR0CK says:

    Maybe it’s my ignorance, but it’s utterly shocking that some candidates actually say things like this, especially in an interview with Microsoft.  There really isn’t an excuse for it and its unfortunate posts like this need to be made to address the obvious.

    Although like other comments seen above, I think that your nerves sometimes interfere with what you want to say and how you wanted to say it.  That comes back to the fundamentals … in most cases, if you’re yourself and don’t try to say what you think MS wants to here, you’ll be far better off.


  11. Jim S says:

    I think Tim has a dirty little whore mouth…

    Just kidding! But I do find his innuendo to be inappropriate.

  12. HeatherLeigh says:

    Vicki- I have had to tell people before that they were being "too persistent"…you have more patience that I do!

    Ivan-good point. However, a candidate interviewing for a US-based position should also keep in mind the cultural norms of US companies. At the end of the day, if the person would be doing the job in the US, then it’s incumbent on them to follow the corms of that geography. That said, a little cultural sensitivity never hurts in recruiting, that’s for sure!

    Derek-the only secret handshake I know is for my college sorority. Because when it comes to make-up tips and parties with college boys, security is of the utmost importance!

    Paul-amusing that the easter bunny and Bill Gates are both mythical figures. I’ve seen Bill G in person…granted it was in a packed room, but he’s real, I swear!

    eRock-you make a good point. I think joking around when you are nervous can go awry. I mostly get the comments about the secret handshake and bureacracy in e-mails…no excuse for those I am afraid, but at least if someone is in my office, I can find out what they mean by secret handshake and give them the opportunity to take it back : )

    Jim S-and that’s the difference between innuendo and just saying something. Is the "whore mouth" thing a reference to something? Well, there it is…

  13. Tim says:

    What about "Cute shoes!"? Just wondering…

  14. Tim says:

    Or, "Wow, your Receptionist is a real B***."

  15. HeatherLeigh says:

    People "forget" they need to be nice to the receptionist. Back when I was seeing candidates all the time, we used to hear from the receptionist on the professionalist of the candidates we brought in. I’d wait until the intreview process is finished to complain about the receptionist.

    "Cute shoes" is fine…"how much did they cost?" isn’t.

  16. Vicki says:

    Probably not a good idea to say, "Cute shoes! Just too bad that they don’t go along with the rest of your outfit."

    Not good either…


  17. Wine-Oh says:

    Maybe another way to phrase it is to say "Cute shoes… Where did you get them?" But then again probably not a good move if you are a man and the receptionist is a woman! :-0

  18. HeatherLeigh says:

    "Cute shoes. Do you have to go to a special store to get them in a size that big?"

  19. Tra says:

    "No one wants to hire me.  Must be ’cause I’m old."  (This one was especially brutal as the opening line in a phone screen).

  20. Tra says:

    Recently got . . .

    I don’t really like supervision.

    In fact I’m pretty bad at it.

    In fact, it’s probably what I am worst at.

    People are just hard to work with, don’t you think?

    From someone whose resume started with

    "Objective: seeking a position in management"

  21. Tora says:

    Cute shoes. You squeeze your clubbed foot in there rather nicely!

    Cute shoes. Let me guess, Payless?

  22. BobTurbo says:

    I would start off the interview by asking my interviewer "So, whos your top 5?".

  23. Wine-Oh says:

    Top 5 candidates or top 5 best wedding songs?

  24. Vicki says:

    "Cute shoes. Reminds me of those remote control boats I used to play with when I was a kid…"

  25. J.J. says:

    I have some experience related to this process but from a different angle. I had an interview with a company famous for its technology and creativity last Spring. When I arrived at the lobby, I was surprised to see a full court: people sitting in the couch everywhere and a big line at the receptionist desk. It took a while to register as well since there was only one computer and each visitor had to sign in using the computer and hit "I accept" button plus hand-written signature. After I had registered. The receptionist shouted at me "application!" I was puzzled at the question. she shouted again and the third time since I still did not know what she was referring to. Finally, she said in a very loud and sharp voice "Aren’t you here for an interview?" I said: "Yes." She said :"Then give me your employment application form." I said :" I have sent the forms to my recruiter.” She made a phone call and said "Your recruiter did not have it so you have to fill it out here". She passed me some blank forms for me to fill out. I sat in the chair and struggled a bit. I knew there was a lot of private information required on the form since I had already filled one.  And I was supposed to hand it to the receptionist so she could lay it open on her desk? At that moment, all the horror stories I heard about the interviews with that company came up in my mind…I started to wonder if I should just leave. I didn’t leave. I told myself not to let "small things" like this bother me. After all, I took a day off and this was the third time we rescheduled. Then the recruiter showed up. She was not the one that had been contacting me. She was very nice and friendly. Throughout the day, almost everyone I met was nice and courteous. Some people were late but they sincerely apologized. So it was a totally different experience from what I heard or encountered in the morning. But at the beginning of the day, I thought back upon the morning experience. And I must have been in a defensive mode for a while.

    So the question here is whose action to take? The company or the candidates?  Should the company watch for all touch points with candidates to give them the best experience or at least not to frustrate them? Or should the candidates take all the detractions into consideration to overcome them and focus on the interview? Is there a fine line that should not be crossed or it is a deal breaker if crossed? Where is that fine line?


  26. MSDNArchive says:

    At a previous company, our HR team made it their practice to take every prospective employee out for lunch at one of the nearby restaurants. I always thought these sessions were a bit awkward — especially since you never knew who was sitting around you (our office was in Belmont, CA, which is across the freeway from Oracle HQ) — until I talked to one of our recruiters about it. She told me that her reason was that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat a waiter. She also liked to see how people reacted in a chaotic environment, and with a mix of HR, future team members, and sometimes management. I thought that was very interesting.

    But then again, I was just there for the free lunches.

  27. Vicki says:

    JJ – that is a candidate’s nightmare!

    You know, one way to move away from the jitters at interviews is to think of YOU being the one INTERVIEWING as well. It really takes all the frustration out of it.

    You see, I have had enough interviews in my life… only because I am a military spouse and have moved every three years! It wasn’t a choice.

    Right now I am faced with FINALLY being able to take the big career leap and actually stick to a company. I’m calling this my "Forever Home Focused Job Quest" (there’s no acronymn there, so don’t even try). Most importantly: I’m not going to work for just any company. Period.

    I’ve learned that I have to approach my job search just as the recruiters and companies are seeking out their candidates.

    They only want top performers -and guess what? ME TOO!

    It is about asking intelligent questions and doing your research – on both sides.

    My interviews I had this week proved to be really good, but the companies just did not impress me. I was the one who had to call back to rescind my application because I wasn’t interested in moving forward. Yes, "Picky Vicki" here…

    At least I didn’t say, "Cute shoes… can I try those on?" or "Napoleon Dynamite is my favorite film!!"

  28. HeatherLeigh says:

    J.J.-Yes they should!  Absolutely. That’s definitely a topic for another post. Let me just say that because I am offering advice on what candidates should not say, I’m not saying that companies should treat candidates poorly. It’s a big problem with companies today. And I think I know what company you are referring to from the description as I experienced the line at the computer (to get a name tag) when I was at an event hosted at their campus.

    My answer to your questions is that the candidate has to decide what they will withstand based on how much they want to work there, unfortunately. I’d say that you should take your experience as an indication of how they treat people. So use the information in the scope of your decision about whether you want to work there but also consider whether your experience is an isolated incident (maybe just one bad receptionist) or systemic.

    I don’t want to say that Microsoft has a perfect record of exceptional candidate experiences but I do believe that we treat people with care and respect overall and it reflects how we feel about our employees as well (I’m sounding a little PR-ish…sorry). I guess the bottom line is that if you have a bad experience you need to look for evidence that it is or is not part of their corporate culture.

  29. HeatherLeigh says:

    cbuck- I have done lunch interviews before and they aren’t my personal favorite because it’s awkward to talk and eat (for both people). But the point you make is a good one. I don’t so much focus on how they treat the server because even the most difficult person to work with can be nice to the person that could be spitting in their food. But you can tell a lot about a person’s composure so if they are going to be in a customer facing position (and I use the term "customer" generically…could be candidate-facing, partner-facing), it could be good to get a sense of some of their social interaction skills when the topic is lighter versus when you are working through case-study questions. Taking someone out of the traditional in-office interview setting can be good.

    Vicki-you are giving good advice. Turning the tables a bit can really help change your perspective. That’s why I always think that the time to be looking for a job is whenyou don’t need to (hey, I’m a big proponent of interviewing every so often to understand your market value and confirm in your mind whether you are in the right place.

    I’ve rescinded interest before. One recruiter was really shocked when I called her back post-interviews to tell her that now that I knew more about the position, I wasn’t interested in it anymore. I do think that the recruiters tend to think of their companies as the "deciders" until you get to the offer stage and the money talk starts. For me, job content has always been much more important.

  30. Wine-Oh says:

    JJ- That scenario sounds very familiar to me. I wont ask what company it was at…. BUT I wonder if its the same place where I experienced something very similar at a very large online media/technology company whos name I wont mention but their logo is yellow and purple and based in the Silicon Valley.

    Did you get the job at the end of the day?

  31. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh…same exact one I was thinking of.

  32. J.J. says:

    Heather – Yes. I was aware of your topic. Your mentioning of the receptionist reminded me of the incident. After all, we as candidates can’t really control how the company act but we can control ourselves. Thanks to Vicki as well. I totally agree with what you and Heather said. Also, I think we all know that one receptionist or a few people don’t represent a company. Unfortunately, we are humanbeings and we tend to act on emotions. It is hard to put a genuine smile on our face right after an unpleasant experience (: at least for me:-)), isn’t it? What I have learned from this is "expect unexpected". I was unfamiliar with the concept of showing my application form to the receptionist. To me, that was almost like showing my presentation materials to her if I had been there for a business meeting. I could 1)leave 2)argue 3) comply. I complied but I was unhappy.

    Wine Oh – if you think you got it then you have. I can’t be more specific 🙂 if you really want to know, let’s use email.


  33. BobTurbo says:

    Top 5 ahhh….. its a male thing.

  34. Kit says:

    If this was a question presented to the Recruiter before the interview process then the process needs to end right there.

    I think that good Recruiters do not need that kind of headache. It is also a waste of time for other Microsoft Employees to spend time on this type of individual.

    A person who ask this will not hesitate to cheat in other ways. It is a question but also a statement about themselves.

    I think everyone should treat an interview with respect on both end the Company and the Interviewer. There are ways to lighten a conversation but not with tasteless questions like that.

  35. Wine-Oh says:

    Ive travelled and interviewed alot in the past year for job interviews at companies around the country. Each one had a varying experiences.

    The whole interview process (especially those out of state) is an extension of the brand and gives you clues as to whether or not you want to work for that company. I had one company give me a welcome kit with a tshirt a map, and a free dessert coupon at the hotel; Another company let me stay the weekend in the city on them. Lastly, another place had the full time driver for the executives personally greet and pick me up at the airport and give me a tour of the city.

    These are all nice touches and says the process starts at the beginning. On the other hand I have had those experiences where the hotel was nasty, or the HR people didnt care that it took 5 hours to get in the night before, or the person you were scheduled to meet with blew you off, even knowing you were in from out of town. (I wrote them after and said I wasnt interested in ever working there).

    Bottom line: its better for a company to try and make a good impression oin a candidate from the beginning. They will remember if something was off. Everyone who works for a company is an ambassador and should make visitors feel welcome.

  36. HeatherLeigh says:

    JJ-I think Wine-oh and I both know who it was ; )

    Bob-well that explains why I didn’t get it, but not why Wine-Oh didn’t get it. Or maybe he does.

    Kit-you make a good point. THe person either 1) has poor judgement or 2) is looking for a shortcut. Either way, could/should make the interview process a quick one.

    Wine-Oh- wow! Some of those companies sure pulled out all the stops for you! Cool!

  37. Wine-Oh says:

    JJ did you end up getting an offer from the company?

  38. Paul says:

    Let me turn the tables and offer one thing you should never do as the employer:

    Many years ago, I had interviewed an outstanding candidate that I wanted to hire. She was interested and excited. She knew other people at the company. It was all good.

    Our final step, after you were certain that you wanted to offer a position was an interview with the CEO (we were small, and no one got an offer without meeting the CEO).

    So, the candidate was seated in his office and asked to wait. About 10 minutes later the CEO showed up and sat down. He started firing questions without ever looking at the candidate or properly introducing himself. He continued playing with a paperclip that he brought along, paying far more attention to it than to the person in his office.

    Then, the paperclip fell to the floor. And, what do you think happened next?

    The CEO got down on his hands and knees under his desk trying to find his bent paperclip, and continued firing questions, popping his head out from under the desk like a whack-a-mole thingie, and then ducking back under while  the candidate was expected to continue answering.

    Strangely enough, the offer was made, and I knew nothing of this odd interview. That is, until about a week later, and we were waiting on a response that we had expected would be nearly automatic. I heard a rumor from friends of this person that some very odd things had happened during the meeting with the CEO.

    So I called the candidate. She wouldn’t come out and say what had happened, but I could tell she had cooled considerably on the company by the "distance" and non-commitment I heard on the phone that hadn’t been there before. I reminded her that there was no doubt in my mind that she was the right person, and that we obviously had a need, and what a great learning opportunity it would be.  Also that her friends had been very enthusiastic in their recommendations and I was very much looking forward to a positive answer. Asked her to let me know by the end of the week (a couple of days past the original offer expiry) and left it at that.

    Well, I did get the right answer in the end, and many months later I heard the whole story.

    So, do you think it’s kosher to discuss the kind of boss you never want to have again?  I’m just saying . . .

  39. Wine-Oh says:

    Paul, WOW! Interesting discussion. I have to add my own story to this. I had blocked  it out prior, but reading your thread made me remeber it.

    About 6 years ago I worked at a .com. Back in those days, you interviewed with everyone from your boss to the copy machine just to see if you fit in. Very similar to your scenario. So my final interview was scheduled for a saturday (not odd for .coms), and the guy looks at my resume and goes "nice address… who pays your rent? What do your parents do? How much money do they make?" Knowing what I know today, I should have bolted. I wanted the job and I just told them it wasnt any of their business and it was irrelavant.

    Little did I know that was the basis for how much they were paying me.  The company was notorious for this kind of questioning. The CEO once took me aside and asked me how much money I had in the bank. I told him none of your business. He goes "Thats what I thought, and handed me a bonus check." I had breakfast with him (at his house) one morning and he asked me how much "the company" payed me.

    While I did learn alot from the job and from working there, I put up with too much of this crossing the line of whats right and wrong. Some people did sue the firm. When I left I had to hire a lawyer just to get my stock option package that was promised to me. And yes they are still around. No more .coms for me.

  40. Kit says:

    I have run into alot of odd interview and some even more peculiar and much more weird then the situation presented by Paul.

    I find that there are also many highly inteliigent people who do act somewhat weird and offbeat so I really do not take that into consideration relevant to some of the things they do. I ususally do my research in the company before I have an interview with them. Anyone see the movie ""Goal" I thought that was great and there are certain things in there that reminds me of offbeat people

    I have interviews where people test your grounds and come out attacking even. I know there are certain Microsoft Interviewers who do this. It is not extreme and I think it is a good tactic to see how people hold their grounds and deal with conflicts which everyone will deal with in any companies. I think Microsoft Interviews are very thorough.

    Wine-oh situation though- that is just unethical and those questions actually are violations. That company would be in court. I would never work for a company like that. I draw the line on persoanl questions like that. Nowadays people are not even supposed to ask if you are married or have kids.

    The only thing that I wish Microsoft would do is standarize their offer such as in the bonus and stock option area more so that it will not be such a pain to negotiate on that. It seems there are different level of respects given to different candidates even though it is for the same position level. I think it is grueling enough for them to do good research and be successful in the interview.  In any case. Does Microsoft have some type of guidelines on that or does it depend on the group’s budget?

    I think Microsoft’s interview is a great learning experience though.

  41. Wine-Oh says:


    I agree. I learned alot from that situatuon. But it was a trade off because it was an awesome gig at the time. People did sue later on. I had to hire a lawyer when i left to get my stock options. Sadly the CEO is loaded and buys people off.

    I too have been through the microsoft interview loop expereicne. Its a long day and I wanted a drink at the end. But its thorough to say the least.

  42. Chris Sherer says:

    I feel sorry for all of you.  Grow up.  If you have nothing to offer, don’t.  If you do, why worry about an interview?  Thank God I got out of programming in ’85.  What a bunch of whining sycophants.

  43. HeatherLeigh says:

    Ahhh, now there’s the voice of reason! Years after the post was written. Whatever.

    Keep on doing what you do, people. And don’t listen to the negativity.