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Pre-Employment Tests, Interview Skills & Hiring
7 HORRIBLE PHRASES JOB APPLICANTS MAY SAY TO YOU: Be Aware + Beware of These Warning Flags
By Michael Mercer, Ph.D.
Jul 13, 2010, 15:26

First, pre-employment tests can tell you if a job applicant has qualities similar to your best employees.  If the applicant’s pre-employment test results look good, then you can feel comfortable spending time interviewing the applicant.


When you evaluate job applicants, you can learn a lot about them . . . if you listen to how they talk.


In my third book – Hire the Best – and Avoid the Rest(tm)” – the most frequently quoted phrase I wrote goes something like this:  “The behavior you see from a job applicant during your screening process is likely to be the very, very best behavior you ever will see from that person.”


Isn’t that the truth? 


For example, let’s say you want to hire a mannerly person.  Well, if Applicant A is mannerly during your screening process, that person probably will act that mannerly or worse if you hire Applicant A.  But, if Applicant B acts unmannerly during your screening process, then you may expect that person to act that unmannerly – or even worse – if you hire Applicant B. 




Imagine the atmosphere you want in your workplace.  Most managers desire a professional and friendly atmosphere.  That means your employees must act professional – so they represent you and your company well.  Pre-employment tests will tell you is the applicant will ‘fit in’ your corporate culture in terms of interpersonal skills, personality, motivations, and intelligence.


Unfortunately, some job applicants talk at work the same way they do off-the-job.  This often creates a monstrous problem – if you want your employees to convey a professional demeanor to your clients, prospects, and co-workers.  Since pre-employment tests cannot hear how job applicants express themselves, you must conduct in-depth job interviews in which you observe how the applicants act and talk.




Give pre-employment tests and job interviews and reference check job applicants. 


And also, carefully listen.  Hear if they talk in the professional manner you want your company to display.


Here are seven (7) phrases applicants may say that can give you an awful lot of useful insights into the person you might hire.


1 & 2 & 3 = “KNOW” PHRASES

Examples include

-  “… you know?”

-  “I don’t know.”

-  “Do you know what I’m saying?” 


When someone makes a totally clear statement, but ends it with the question, “… you know?,” I always wonder why they are asking me.  Doesn’t the person realize s/he made a perfectly clear statement? 


Next, resourceful people do not say, “I don’t know.”  Instead, they say, “I’ll find out” or “I’ll ask someone who knows, and then I’ll tell you.”  Beware of job applicants who fantasizes you feel impressed when they utter, “I don’t know.”


Finally, “Do you know what I’m saying?” can feel unnerving.  On the cartoon show “South Park,” one of the characters – named Butters – starts a business.  To speed up his learning curve, he attends a convention of people from across North America who operate similar businesses.  Those people end almost every sentence by asking, “Do you know what I’m saying?”  At first, Butters politely answers, “Yes, I know what you are saying.”  Finally, after he hears “Do you know what I’m saying?” for the umpteenth time, Butters replies, “Yes, I know what you are saying – so you don’t need to ask me again.” 


Important = You do not want to hire an someone who sounds dim, because they uncontrollably keep spouting “know” phrases, such as “…you know?” or “I don’t know” or “Do you know what I’m saying?” 


You crave to hire employees who are productive, dependable, and speak in a manner that represents your company well.  Do you know what I’m saying?




Imagine a restaurant waitperson did something for you.  You said, “Thank you.”  Then, the waitperson said, “No problem.”


“No problem” is not a simple, innocent phrase.  It clearly tells you the employee provided the service which was “no problem” to provide.  You reasonably can wonder:  If it was a “problem” for that employee to do, would the employee have done it? 


When one of your customers pays for something, your customer expects your company to provide the service or product.  But, if your employee says, “No problem” to the customer that implies the employee did his or her job only because it was “no problem” to do their job. 


Is that the impression you want to give your customers? 


Or, if an employee helps a co-worker, and then says providing the help was “no problem,” that co-worker reasonably could wonder, “If I asked my colleague to do something he considered a ‘problem,’ would he have done it?  It sounds like that employee may prefer work that is ‘no problem’ to do.” 


Result = Saying, “no problem” instantly makes the person seem lazy and uninterested in doing work s/he might consider a difficult or a “problem” to do.


I bet you want to hire job applicants who will do their job duties – even if it includes work they feel is a “problem” to do.




This is one of the most bizarre statements your employees might say to a customer.”


Reason:  Your customers do not care if your employees get any “pleasure” from serving them.


Important:  Someone pointed out to me that when an employee does something for a customer and then says doing that deed was “My pleasure,” that could imply something highly inappropriate. 


[No, I will not explain this inappropriateness any further.  Use your imagination.  Do you know what I am saying?]


Also, what if the employee did not take “pleasure” in serving your company’s customers?  Would the employee do his job if s/he did not experience “pleasure”? 


Aspects of any job are not a “pleasure” to do.  In fact, that often is why your customers pay your company to do it.  Your customers do not care if your employees experience “pleasure” doing what they are paid to do. 


So, watch out if a job applicant gets carried away spouting “My pleasure.” 



6 = “OH, REALLY?”      

When you say something, and the person you talked to does not believe you, that person might feel like saying, “I don’t believe what you just said” or “I question the accuracy of what you said.” 


But, rather than appear rude, some people will listen to you, and then say, “Oh, really?” 


Everyone knows the person actually means to say, “I don’t believe you” or “You said something stupid.”


You need to hire job applicants who diplomatically respond to your customers and employees who say something the applicant does not believe is true or accurate.  Really. 



7 = “TRY” 

You might seriously consider throwing any applicant out the door if the person says, “try” to you.  Using the word “try” is a terribly bad sign. 


For example, I handed a copy shop employee one of my brochures to make photocopies and staple.  I stood next to the employee as he stapled one brochure without making sure all pages were neatly stacked.  The horrible result:  That brochure was unusable, because the page edges were uneven and sloppy. 


I nicely said to that copy shop employee, “The brochure you made looks sloppy, and I cannot use it.  Please staple every brochure so it looks neat and professional. 


That employee replied, “I’ll try.”


I responded, “’Try’ is not good enough.  You actually need to do it correctly.” 


I suspect no one ever told him he never should “try.”  Instead, he actually was hired to do quality work. 


When someone says, “Try,” it is their sneaky way to weasel out of actually doing something. 


For instance, if you tell an employee to finish a project by a certain day and time, and the employee says, “I’ll try,” you should say to that employee, “I do not want you to ‘try’ to finish by the deadline I gave you.  I want and expect you actually to finish by that deadline.” 


Saying “try” is somewhat like saying someone is “a little bit pregnant.”  Either you are or you are not pregnant.  Likewise, either you actually do – or you do not do something. 


So, be aware and beware when applicants tell you they “try” to do their work assignments.    Their “try” statement is a huge red warning flag waving in front of your face. 


Remember:  Try not to hire applicants who proudly say they “try.”




Certain phrases uttered by job applicants speak volumes about how they will talk and act – if you hire them.  After all, the way job applicants act during your screening process often shows you how they will act if they work for you.  Pre-employment test results will reveal if an applicant possesses personality, people skills and motivations similar to your superstar employees.  But you also need to listen carefully during job interviews. 


So, be aware – and beware – when an applicant says:

1.  “… you know?”

2.  “I don’t know.”

3.  “Do you know what I’m saying?”

4.  “No problem”

5.  “My pleasure”

6.  “Oh, really?”

7.  “Try”


Use pre-employment tests, reference and background checks, and other job applicant evaluation methods.  Plus remember:  You can learn a lot about job applicants . . . by listening to phrases they use, you know?  So, try to listen for these horrible phrases, you know?.  Do you know what I’m saying?  And congratulations . . . take pleasure when you observe these warning flags. 




Michael Mercer, Ph.D., is a speaker and management psychologist.  His 5 books include “Hire the Best – & Avoid the Rest(tm)” and also “Absolutely Fabulous Organizational Change.”  He created all 3 “Forecaster(tm) Tests” – pre-employment tests companies use to select productive employees.  Dr. Mercer delivers speeches and seminars at companies and conferences.  You can contact him – and get no-cost subscription to his management newsletter – at