Dark mode switch icon Light mode switch icon

What HR says vs what I hear

12 min read

I have spent a few years sharpening my saw and looking for a new professional challenge after 7 years of a decently paid, yet very boring corporate career. Since 2017 I attended numerous job interviews, talked to dozens of recruiters and cancelled many promising processes at various stages. I also heard certain statements way too often and we need to talk about them.

This wasn’t the first time in my life when I was looking for a new job. But this was the first time it took more time than I thought. It yielded lots of confusing messages and massive loads of disappointment.

I completely rearranged the way I look at interview processes and I feel I’m a little better at understanding what the other side looks for. I’m also a tiny bit better at predicting my chances long before I send my resume. I no longer feel bad about saying ‘no’ to interesting opportunities if I see any red flags.

I want to start immortalizing things I learnt so far by noting down common statements I’ve heard during various interview processes and sharing my true thoughts about them, even if they sound very unpopular. My opinions evolve over time and this blog is designed to live longer than me, so I sincerely hope this article ages badly.

As an introvert by nature I listen very carefully and analyze a lot but I’m not always as vocal as I’d like. So, this is what I really think when I hear certain statements during job interviews.

‘We don’t have traditional hierarchy / We use Spotify model’

Not true. You love fancy terms too much.

You do have some sort of hierarchy. There’s no such thing as ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ in a world that moved from the industrial era to the information era quite some time ago. The world didn’t start in 1990s and didn’t stop evolving in 2020s.

We, humans, are the products of millions of years of evolution. We’re slaves to numerous instincts we may no longer need in a contemporary workplace, but they still determine our behaviors whether we like it or not. Developing notions like ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ allowed us to survive as a species. They also prove to be somewhat useful tool for creating organizations that want to get big things done.

Regardless of your state of denial, your company isn’t by any means special. It DOES have some sort of hierarchy. You misrepresent reality by refusing to use commonly known terms like ‘leader’, ‘manager’ or ‘subordinate’ to describe it. Just because I call my team leader a ‘coworker’ and drink litres of alcohol with them doesn’t change the fact they have some degree of control over what I do within my work hours.

And one more thing. Please think twice before mentioning ‘Spotify model’ or other fashionable terms. I never worked at Spotify and I have no idea what it means. You probably don’t know for the same reason. You spend a significant chunk of time probing my technical skills, so nothing stops me from examining your level of knowledge of agile methodologies to prove you don’t know what you’re talking about. Describe your company in our own words or stick to common boring terms that leave no ambiguity.

‘We strive to be something more than just a workplace’

I never know what it means. Every single company has something different on their mind. It can sound like a promise of something exciting, but it can also be a cheap brainwashing technique. Only a very fine line separates one from another.

Having been rejected so many times I no longer treat this message as a positive signal. It only provokes me to ask detailed questions about different aspects of daily work.

For some companies it’s an unfortunate way of saying something absolutely innocuous: that they care about their employees’ well-being and there’s no catch. This is fine and I’m always eager to discuss that in detail. Other companies try too hard to introduce weird rituals copied from corporate blog posts or LinkedIn ‘celebrities’.

‘We value work-life balance’

Really? Your recruiter was sending messages at 7pm on Friday and I remember you mentioned 9am to 5pm as your working hours.

Also, one of your employees admitted they were checking Slack once every few days during their vacation.

And finally, the decision about coming back to the office was made by the management board on the basis of a non-decisive poll result. Could I talk to someone who was against that decision so that I can evaluate what questions were asked?

Work-life balance means a lot of things for different people and it’s a highly individual matter. I reject a lot of interesting offers solely based on the office location or the amount of office days per week. I consider myself very flexible in this regard as long as some rules are followed, like paying for any amount of overtime work and not imposing them against my will. You aren’t CD Projekt RED and you aren’t inviting me to help building the next Cyberpunk 2077.

I get it. It’s called ‘work’ for a reason and you can’t cater to every single wish I may have as your employee. But I have one expectation: be honest and be ready to explain where my freedom ends and committee-driven decision making begins.

And yeah, your HR department may have a work regime that is very different from mine, hence the rejection at 7pm on Friday. But how do I know for sure?

‘There’s a chance it can be negotiated’

Meaningless noise. Common answer to uncomfortable questions.

There’s no way I can verify your claims or hold you accountable for them. My next question will be ‘how many people succeeded in negotiating that so far’ and you better be ready to provide a real number, even approximate. I’m also happy to hear ‘no such option’ as the answer.

Underpromise and overdeliver and we will be fine even in the worst of times.

‘We also considered you for higher positions within our company structure’

Meaningless noise disguised as transparency. It has strong potential to discourage me from looking at your job offers ever again.

Don’t tell me what you were doing if it didn’t end up with any meaningful decision on your end. I can’t verify your claims anyway. Plus it makes you lose face if you eventually decide to decline my application. What is this sudden bipolar disorder?

‘We need people who know our work methodologies better than you’

Nice term for ‘we found a better match’ or ‘we want to see if grass can be any greener’ after an interview process I spent quite a lot of time on.

You know, finding a better candidate for your job is fine. I’m not a tomato soup, I don’t expect each and every one to love me. I’m not a seven-year-old any more and I’m used to being told ‘no’. But I expect to be able to extract some value from every ‘no’ I hear. I grow as a professional and a human being thanks to actionable feedback.

Oh, and one more thing. In case you really meant what you said about my knowledge of ‘your’ work methodologies. Unless you developed your own patented way of organizing work (highly unlikely), ‘your methodologies’ aren’t really yours. They have been around longer than your company and you adopted them like everybody else. Basics of them can be learnt from YouTube within an hour. If I wanted to give up my free time, I could easily get certification on them. It is my grave mistake I didn’t lie about knowing them during the interview process.

Actually, if you use such a weak reasoning to decline my application, then maybe it’s good news we won’t work together. What would be your reasoning if you had to terminate my contract due to company downsizing or other reason outside of your control?

And if you really need someone who is good at agile or whatever looks good on LinkedIn this year, at least edit your job offer and add it as a requirement so that other candidates with high levels of self-awareness can save their time and not bother applying. You know, some of us do read job descriptions very carefully and dislike wasting our time.

‘…if we get back to you with a positive answer, which will probably happen…’

Hold on, hold on, hold on. We may have enjoyed talking to each other, but please, don’t promise things you may not be able to deliver.

I once was a fool to believe that. Once. Then the company said ‘no’ and I was also a sad fool.

Any person who uses similar statements during the recruitment process is either a liar, a politician, or has no idea how decision making works within the company they work for. I no longer treat those messages as positive signals. It’s nothing else than a meaningless placeholder.

‘We’re considering hiring more people so we can get back to talks soon’

Nice way of saying ‘we spent so much time and money on this recruitment process and we want your permission to keep your resume in our base so that we can save some money’.

I have no reason to believe any of your future plans. You can basically say anything that makes me feel good and I have no way to verify your claims. You can also change your mind.

A handful of recruiters reach the level of intimacy when we start discussing weather, our day at work or current events. They stick out from the crowd and I’m more likely to cut them some slack when they mention any future plans for their department. But I still treat statements that sound too good to be true with a lot of caution and nobody is exempt from this rule.

‘We only hire best talents’

Everybody says so. This is such an overused cliché. If everybody hires the best people, nobody hires the best people.

Most human qualities, from work skills to coffee preferences, can be placed on a spectrum. If we agree on Gaussian distribution, there is very little chance you will talk to anyone who is ahead of the bell curve unless you misalign numbers on your graph. And if your recruitment process is well designed, you will have filtered out questionable candidates anyway. You are most likely to meet average people who may happen to have unique skills and interesting stories to tell and you’re there to decide if you find those relevant to your context.

Also, I have a high level of self-awareness. I’m humble enough to admit I actually know very little about my area of expertise. Admitting I suck at stuff is a powerful force thanks to which I keep learning new things and get better than the past version of myself. In no moment of time, however, I thought of myself as ‘exceptional’, ‘the best’ or ‘outstanding’ and your job offer might actually sound discouraging to me solely because it uses these terms. Don’t tickle my impostor syndrome. I’m a skilled craftsman, not a marketer.

Whenever you say ‘we work with the best / hire the best’ you produce harsh noise that will likely scare me away. ‘We work with experienced engineers with wide technical experience and extraordinary magician skills’? Way better.

There’s only one rule

Be. Freakin. Honest. Even. If. It. Makes. You. Look. Bad.

Employer branding is not about fancy photos on your LinkedIn page. Not even about a nice office and perks. Abundance of emojis in your status messages won’t make any unhappy employee of yours less unhappy.

Every single company has at least one skeleton in their closet. Great companies, even if they let their skeletons rot for too long, aren’t afraid of acknowledging them.

Be ready to get any claim challenged by me during a recruitment process. After all, you have a liberty of examining every statement of mine so nothing stops me from taking my time to ask a lot of questions. I take lots of time to prepare for each interview. I tend to ask very specific questions and treat all answers as meaningful. Even ‘I don’t know’ can be the answer I want to hear.

I didn’t start my professional career yesterday and I know my role in the process. You, the interviewer, know your role too. There’s a chance we’re both struggling playing our roles well and we’re trying to get through this with minimum damage. There’s also a non-zero chance we’re totally not destined to work together. Sometimes tiny details break the deal. This is absolutely fine.

Say it the way it is. Even if I hate it

You want a stronger craftsman with proven technical experience and I didn’t exactly cut it? Okay, cool. Tell me what objective quality I was lacking.

You actually expect me to work overtime and answer phone calls 24 hours a day? Okay. Let me know as soon as possible. I may say ‘no’, but I will appreciate honesty.

Your management board reads Dilbert strips as an educational resource and takes notes? All right, good to know.

You had doubts about my application? Okay, I appreciate sharing that.

I gave a wrong answer at a critical stage of the interview and that buried my chances early? Okay, let me know which one it was. I can handle constructive criticism.

You want to reach out to me next time you look for a new employee? Don’t tell me that, but just do it next time you see an opportunity. My inbox is operational 24/7 and I read every message even though I suck at replying to all of them.

And that’s it. No need to overcomplicate.

Originally published on by Łukasz Wójcik