Our Take: Watch What You Say

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When the context is a job interview, this column's title is a no-brainer. But many tried-and-true tenets of interview behavior are just as valid for other, far less formal situations.

Recently I attended a networking event where I met several new people, a few of whom worked within different wings of an organization I wished to learn more about. When I asked, one quickly launched into a description so brutally frank that it could be fairly labeled a "jeremiad."

"Dysfunctional" was one of the first words out of her mouth. An uncaring, tyrannical supervisor who expected his underlings to imitate both his workaholism and his particular way of performing certain tasks. A culture where co-workers never converse or leave the office together during work hours. Yada, yada, yada.

I wasn't surprised to learn she had been a human services professional in a former life.

Blabbing About Colleagues

Without prompting, this person disclosed the colleague sitting next to her had been "fired" from an immediate past job, although quickly hired by an affiliate. They both appeared to feel the initial employer's management style and reputation was such that getting fired was a badge of honor. Still, it struck me as odd for them to serve up sensitive information to a new acquaintance whose attitudes might well differ from their own. I've noticed, though, that people who have clinical training often seem distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that a normal, healthy person could see life differently than they do.

I wasn't the only participant taken aback. An ex-colleague of theirs seated nearby, who'd been poached by a well-known firm some time ago, overheard my conversation partner sum up his motivation for leaving as, "he couldn't take the abuse." The former colleague replied, "That's not true. I left because my current employer offered more money," and went on to say neither the long hours nor the boss's gruff style had posed a problem for him.

My takeaway from the evening: the gap between appropriate behavior in different types of work-related settings might be narrower than you think. No matter how informal the setting, it's smart to weigh your words.

Loose Talk Reflects Mostly on You

We've all heard "don't bad-mouth your current or past employer" is an ironclad rule for job interviews. Why? Because such talk often reveals less about the employer than it reveals about us. Besides hinting at poor etiquette in general, venting in any professional setting may betray a problem with self-control. A disinterested observer might also interpret it as sour grapes flung by a less-successful employee whose output or work ethic was held in low regard by their supervisor or co-workers. Such perceptions can do harm, regardless of merit.

All of this applies whether the conversation's primary purpose is business - in a job interview, say, or any workplace interaction or external meeting - or social. Wherever you are, your statements and behavior will reflect on your character, and perhaps that of your employer. That's why professional disciplinary codes typically punish certain behaviors outside of work: someone who abuses drugs or commits a felony, for instance, brings dishonor on the entire profession. While the sorts of faux pas we're discussing here are far less serious, the principle is the same.

Now for my "glass houses" paragraph or, as it's called in our business, full disclosure: Under the circumstances, my own response was hardly a model of decorum. In the end I could not resist reacting - perhaps too frankly - to what I had heard. And while voicing my judgment about the wisdom of anyone publicly passing judgment on their employer, I made a remark that could be (and promptly was) misconstrued.

In the final analysis, the road map for job interviews may be useful for navigating a wide range of work-related gatherings, informal as well as formal. I don't mean you must always keep your true thoughts and feelings to yourself, as you would in an interview. What I am saying is, strong opinions about your employer and personal revelations about yourself or colleagues ("she was fired"), are best kept under wraps until you know enough to reasonably predict how your audience might react.

Originally published June 20, 2008.

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