5 bad pieces of career advice

I’m sometimes unnerved by some of the career advice that gets repeated over and over in job-hunting guides and career columns. There are five particularly bad pieces of advice that I cringe every time I see.

Bad piece of advice #1: When interviewing, figure out what the interviewer is looking for and shape your answers accordingly. This is a recipe for landing in a job that you either hate or aren’t good at. Or both. You might be able to suppress your real self for a couple of hours in an interview, but you won’t be able to do it for 40 hours a week. If you want to land in a job that you’ll love and thrive in, show the real you. You’ll turn off the employers who aren’t right for you and you’ll attract the ones who will

Bad piece of advice #2: When an interviewer asks about your weaknesses, offer up a weakness framed as a positive. This is the fastest way to exasperate me. Claiming that your biggest weakness is perfectionism and you work too hard is disingenuous and looks like you’re avoiding the question. Candidates who can’t or won’t come up with a realistic assessment of areas where they could improve make me think they’re lacking in insight and self-awareness … or, at a minimum, just making it impossible to have a real discussion of their potential fitness for the job. I want to know about your weaknesses not because I’m trying to trip you up, but because I genuinely care about making sure you’re a good fit for the job. I don’t want to put you in a job you’ll struggle in, and I definitely don’t want to have to fire you a few months from now. Isn’t it better to lose the job offer now than the job itself later?

Bad piece of advice #3: Leave the months off your resume and only list years.This drives me crazy, because if you just list “2006,” I can’t tell if you were there for one month or 12 months — and it makes a difference. It also makes me wonder you’re intentionally trying to disguise a series of short stints. Deliberate deception isn’t good in a candidate.

Bad piece of advice #4: Use a non-chronological, “functional” resume format. This format is used most often by people who have gaps in their employment history, and it’s very employer-unfriendly, because it makes it hard for me to get a handle on exactly what your career progression has been. If you have gaps in your work history, I’m going to find them, but if you make me do detective work to uncover them, I’m going to be annoyed. Keep the chronological organization.

Bad piece of advice #5: Don’t complain to your boss about your incompetent or lazy coworker unless it’s directly affecting your work. I appreciate the “don’t tattle” spirit of this advice, but I want to know if employees are getting demoralized by a coworker’s shoddy performance, even if it’s not impacting their work directly. And I also want to know what they might be observing that I haven’t picked up on, so I can pay closer attention. To be clear, I don’t want to hear about it repeatedly, but I do appreciate a one-time heads-up, delivered in a discreet, professional way, if it comes from a solid employee. Not every manager share this stance, but I believe plenty of the good ones do.

What bad career advice have you seen?

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. Philip Duhe*

    Regarding Bad Advice #3, in the perfect world, showing months not years is right. However, how do you avoid not having your resume canned before you get a chance in the interview to explain short stints or gaps? There may be logical and legitimate explanations, but I won’t have a chance to explain if I am screened out ahead of time.

  2. Anonymous*


    That, my dear, is the purpose of a cover letter. Without a cover letter, I’m not even bothering to read your resume. In all my ads, it says “submissions without cover letters will not be considered.” If you have a glaring gap, take a moment to address it. If you’re currently unemployed, address it, instead of assuming I don’t notice you haven’t worked in over a year. The number one piece of advice I give friends is to create a sensational cover letter…it’ll really grab a recruiter’s attention.

  3. HR Godess*

    I agree with anonymous. If you got laid off, put it on there. If you were out for personal reasons, say that. If you put nothing and do not explain it either in the cover letter or resume body, I don’t take the time to find out. It’s not because I’m not interested, it’s because there are 500 other resumes I have to read. Unfortunately, it’s a time issue.

  4. HR Maven*

    Wonderful post! Worst I see in interviews is the ‘rehearsed answer.’ I know that candidates but NOT to the point that it’s forced.

    When I have a candidate give a canned answer (and trust me, we can hear it) I ask for more. And many candidates freeze.

    So practice but not to the point of robotic.

  5. Ask a Manager*

    Philip: Yeah, I think there are times when it’s the best of several bad options, and when you probably should. However, I hate it when people do it as a default.

    Anonymous and HR Godess: That’s a good point. I really believe the cover letter may be the cure for all ills.

    HR Maven: Ugh, the canned answer! I totally agree. You can always tell when it’s canned. Sometimes the wording even sounds like it’s straight out of a template from a job-hunting guide.

  6. Anonymous*

    Agh. This makes my head spin because I had the experience of having a very long period of time when I was underemployed. I guess there is no masking gaps if your employment history does have gaps. But still I see no reason to say a functional format is a piece of bad advice when in cases like a long stretch of unemployment or underemployment this is the best way one can put one’s best face forward. Should one, in cases like this, immediately address that period of unemployment or underemployment in the cover letter and therefore, call more attention to something that you’d rather downplay?

  7. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous, I think I’d say the same thing I said to to Philip — sometimes a functional resume may be the best of several imperfect options. If the candidate is good, I’m not going to reject them just because they used a resume format I don’t like. But it still aggravates me :)

  8. Rebecca*

    Full disclosure: I’ve done all 5 of these things at some point. But I’m going to argue about #5, which assumes you have a competent manager. A good manager will address the problem correctly, but good managers are rare. Adequate managers will do nothing, and poor managers will do anything except address the problem, including shooting the messenger and/or rewarding the bad employee (I’ve seen both happen more than once!).

    So why is this bad career advice perpetuated, anyway? Who’s out there thinking that these are all good ideas?

  9. Wendy*

    I need some help, I'm interested in a position that my company has posted, because it will give me a variety of field experience I can use later on since it will be working with different department, but money is what will motivate me to change but I don't want to be upfront about that, might make me look bad when I ask my boss about it. How should I approach this? Any advice is appreciated, thanks.

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