Man interviewing for a job

The one word that can basically ruin your credibility

Peter Harris|

I was interviewing a young editor for a fairly visible and important role. He was a more junior candidate than I thought we were looking for, but his resume was impressive. He had delivered significant results for some well-known websites. The projects he had led were right in line with what I needed, so I was anxious to meet with him. I was looking forward to the opportunity to offer him a chance to step into more of a leadership role.

He looked good on paper, but in the job interview he went and basically ruined his credibility with a single word. And he said it several times.

The job I was hiring for was to take ownership of a new community platform. The person in the role would source, edit and write articles for a targeted audience and build traffic to this section of the website that was critical to the company’s business objectives.

The candidate’s resume said that he had launched several targeted, sponsored lifestyle subchannels for one of the major portals. I had looked at the sites, and they seemed well designed and engaging. There were catchy headlines on a range of topics and many comments, likes and shares on the articles. So I asked the candidate, “Since you launched these websites, what role did you have in mapping out the content strategy? Did you choose the writers and topics yourself?”

He replied, “Well, I basically launched it. I was in charge of editing and publishing all of the material.”

Me: “Basically?”

Him: “When I came onboard, the new channels were technically already live, but they hadn’t started promoting them yet, so I was basically there for the launch.”

When it comes to owning an online editorial channel, there is a big difference between “launching” a new website, and “basically being there for the launch.” The level of exaggeration he had applied to his contributions in his resume was becoming apparent.

In an interview, I’m on your side. If I’ve agreed to meet with you, it’s because I think that you can do the job, and I hope that you get it. I tried to give him the chance to elaborate more on his real contributions. “So you were the editorial lead? Tell me about how you choose your topics and map out your editorial calendar.”

Him: “I was basically responsible for the content strategy. The senior editor had me running the day to day updates and maintaining the websites. I always kept the sites fresh by having the newest stories featured front and centre.”

Me: “So you weren’t actually in charge of the editorial websites, you just basically updated them with the newest stories as they came in.”

Him: “Basically, yes.”

I suppose it isn’t necessary to say that I didn’t hire this editor for the role. His resume got his foot in the door for the interview, but he proceeded to undercut all of his alleged accomplishments by saying that he had “basically” done them.

I’ve actually not done justice in this piece to how often he said the word. It was so frequent that I suspect it may even have been a nervous tic. If so, I hope he’s overcome it by now.

Running the day to day maintenance of an editorial website is a serious job, and one that takes analytical skills, creativity, and insight as well as good writing, grammar, and technical skills. He may soon be ready for bigger roles. But saying that you ‘basically’ managed something or were ‘basically responsible’ for the results will always diminish (or even destroy) your credibility.

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Peter Harris
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Category: Job interviews
  • DrCaligari

    “Basically” means fundamentally, centrally, and in the most essential and primary respects. It is not a waffle-word at all. I tend to avoid the word, however, not because I’m afraid some people will mistake it for “sorta-kinda” or “peripherally” or “more or less”, but because it’s a grossly overused linguistic crutch.

    • MLR

      It is the context in which the word “basically” is used that creates the problem.
      In the case cited above, the young candidate was using the word to cover up the fact that the information in his resume did not match his actual role in the tasks and responsibilities stated.
      If you want to demonstrate leadership abilities, and use that in your resume, then state the actual responsibilities you had leadership or ownership of. It would be far better to state that you participated in the creation of the website content, and that post-launch you had ownership of all day-to-day updates, sourcing and creation of new content, and maintenance of the websites.
      That demonstrates collaborative teamwork, and then progression of responsibility for holding primary responsibility for the ongoing success of major projects.

      • Richard

        I understand why the writer did not hire this person, but sometimes interviewers can get too hung up on a word. I interviewed for a position about a year ago and did not get the job. I asked the agency I was working through if they had any feedback (usually a rare occurrence, so you appreciate it when you get it). The agency said that the interviewer felt I used the word “we” too much. Even though I led the team in the area’s inquired about and explained that, he/she did not like that I included the team members by using the word “we” in explaining the functions performed. I thought that was a bit much and trivial in this case since I explained the leadership I took, but you never know who your going to run into on the other side of the table and what bothers them enough to not consider you.

        • MLR

          It is a balancing act to ensure you demonstrate your ability to work with a team and giving credit to the other members of the team and demonstrating your leadership abilities…and still clearly defining your own individual skills.
          It is recommended that you mention the team near the beginning of the interview, and set the scene that as a leader you promoted the teamwork mentality, and all members of your team shared in ownership of success.
          Then move on, focusing on YOUR successes. The interviewer is considering YOU as the candidate for hire – s/he is not hiring the entire team. If you cannot separate yourself from the team to tell them of the functions you performed, and your own successes, then how can the interviewer do it? S/he will always be wondering…”so who did that – you, or someone else on the team?”.
          Don’t hand the interviewer reasons to doubt your ability to work with them on a silver platter. I’m sure you are confident in your individual capabilities – so tell them that they should have confidence in you too, and leave them not wondering if you can be successful without the rest of “we”.

          • Richard

            There is not enough space here to go into all the details and the exact wording I used. I have been on both sides of the interview table and suffice to say that improvements could be made on both sides. I am not denigrating your article.

      • DrCaligari

        Well, then, I certainly wouldn’t have hired him for an editorial job either, because what the hell kind of editor doesn’t know the real meaning of “basically”? Neither would I have hired him for such a position if he used “literally” in hte place of “figuratively”, or misused “beg the question”. I might hire him as a barista, though.

  • Fark

    You say that he “basically ruined” his credibility. Did he, or didn’t he? Why are you hedging? You also say that the role he was interviewing for was “fairly visible.” Was it, or wasn’t it visible? Frankly, as I read your copy, I’m overwhelmed by the cliches you rely upon sentence after sentence. It floors me that you have the gall to go public and attack someone else for his poor word choice.

  • Sharon

    careful on what you speak, not all interviewer are open minded but all are perfectionists, because looking for someone to be on the top, they need to be serious in every words or actions, he/she will do, being tough it’s not only you are responsible or just obligation but it’s more like commitment,,, they gave you money and all, you gave them time and knowledge,,, gave and take that’s important in the business…
    never use doubtful words in an interview,,,