can I trash-talk another candidate who’s interviewing for the same job as me?

A reader writes:

Suppose I go to a job interview and it so happens that I know one of the other candidates and his work. Would it be acceptable to comment on it and say in what ways my work is superior to his/theirs? Like, compare pieces of achievements?


It would come across as really obnoxious — arrogant and jerky. Do not do it.

Your job is not to tell the employer how you compare to the rest of their candidate pool; they will decide that on their own. And you should trust that if you’re really that much better of a candidate, they’ll see it; you do not need to let them know.

(And you can read about a time when a candidate did this in an interview with me here. His comments included the hilarious line, “He didn’t do anything last summer except go to Burning Man.”)

Do not do this. You will not get the job, and you will become the talk of the office.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Lexy*

    A not insignificant part of me desperately wants you to do this and then for the hiring manager to write in with a WTF question for Alison.

    mmmmm.. delicious shadenfreude

    1. Lily*

      A candidate once wrote a letter to the head of my company complaining that I had refused to interview her despite her excellent experience. I would like her to write to AAM and explain what she thought she would achieve with by writing this lettter!

  2. Andy Lester*

    There are so few hard and fast rules in job hunting, but “never speak ill of anyone else” is one of them.

    I just gave a talk at a careers conference yesterday where I explained about how I specifically ask candidates questions that give the opportunity to speak poorly of others. “Tell me about a project that didn’t go well” is a good example. I do this because I want to see if the candidate is someone who will trash talk. The visual on the screen behind me is of soldiers laying landmines, because if you do trash others in the interview, it’s like stepping on a mine and you lose. (Here are the slides if you’re interested.)

    Seriously, OP, never ever ever diss any one else, including other companies, in an interview.

    1. Mike C.*

      You know what? I’m really tired of folks like you who insist that hiring managers ask questions that are little more than traps. They take advice from people like you and press and press for more and more information until they’re practically pushing the candidate on the so-called landmine.

      Here’s a thought: why don’t you ask specific questions of your candidate that will measure how well they will perform on the job and fit your company’s needs instead these secret morality tests?

      1. Andy Lester*

        I’m really tired of folks like you who insist that hiring managers ask questions that are little more than traps.

        I’m not insisting on anything. I’m just explaining what works for me, and using it as a cautionary tale for the OP.

        why don’t you ask specific questions of your candidate that will measure how well they will perform on the job and fit your company’s needs

        That’s exactly what I’m doing when I ask “tell me about a project that didn’t go well.” One of the job skills that I find to be important is the ability to discuss problems that have occurred in the past without blaming others. It’s not a “morality test.” It’s a test to see how well they get along with others.

        There is far more to hiring people than simple “Can you do the job”? There are three questions as far as I’m concerned: “Can you do the job?”, “Do I want you working for me?” and “Do I want you on my team?” The “Can you do the job” is only one third of it.

        1. Kimmie Sue*

          I ask this question in nearly every interview. Not to potentially place a land-mine, but to see how the candidate handled the project. What did they learn from it? What might they do differently. I think its a great question. We all make mistakes but are we able to take responsibility as well as learn from it?

          1. Andy Lester*

            Not to potentially place a land-mine, but to see how the candidate handled the project. What did they learn from it? What might they do differently?

            Sure, and that’s always the follow-up if the candidate doesn’t address it in her answer. I always tell people to explain the follow-up as well.

      2. Anonymous*

        No one is going to answer the question, “Are you a team player?” with the answer, “No. I’m a complete jerk to work with.”

        Asking a question like the one cited above is a very good way to preview what a person will do when adversity strikes a team. A candidate who does not have enough savvy to be diplomatic and generous at that point is a potential nightmare.

        I just gave a reference for a colleague, and described a situation where Colleague had graciously helped me out when I got in a jam because I had made a mistake. The reference checker said, “Huh. She told me about helping a coworker, but didn’t say one thing about a mistake.”

        Speaks volumes about a person. Keep asking the question. It’s not a landmine: it’s an opportunity for the candidate to display how great they are.

      3. BC*

        I totally agree, these questions drive me nuts too. Sometimes, the reason you are looking for a job is that your coworkers are idiots who are at fault for all of the problems, and sometimes the thing you’ve learned from that is “look for another job”.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          Yes, Yes, Yes!

          After a while, you do get tired of covering for these people, especially when your boss is one of them.

          In trying to think how to phrase something like that without trashing anyone, I could only come up with “differences in corporate culture”.

      4. Anonymous*

        Agreed. Because this question can easily just be a tool as others have described, but when you’re actually picturing it as placing land mines that’s not how you’re using it.

      5. Lily*

        The question is also about the ability to learn from mistakes. If people blame others, and show they are unaware of ever having made mistakes in the past, they probably won’t be aware in the future. If I hire a perfect person, then I will end up responsible for all their mistakes and my own are enough, thank you!

  3. KT*

    I see this a lot when interviewing internal candidates. Not only does it come off as unprofessional and tacky, they seem to honestly misrepresent where they stand among their competition. For example, if Bob and Steve know they’re up for the same internal promotion, Bob might say “I’m a better team player than Steve and my projects have been more successful.” However when I speak to Bob and Steve’s manager I’ll often hear the opposite is actually true.

    1. Piper*

      On a related note, I despise the question that some (extraordinarily bad) interviewers ask: “Why are you better than all of the other candidates?” So many things wrong with that question, I don’t even know were to begin.

      1. incognito*

        I’d be tempted to say that while I hadn’t met the other candidates, my interviewer had… “So why don’t you tell me why I’m better than all the other candidates?”

        I would, of course, only say this in my mind.

  4. Kris*

    I really hope the OP was just writing this to see what Senior Blogger Green’s answer would be and was not actually wanting to do this. Never focus on anyone but yourself and the company you are interveiwing with in an interview.

    If I had someone do this I would not only wonder if this person would be the super gossipy type in the office if hired but it would make me wonder why this person seemed so unsecure with their prospects that they had to drag another canidate down. Hopefully your resume and achievements can set you apart enough to not have to drag someone down to make yourself look better by comparrison. Because it will only make you look bad.

    1. Kris*

      And yes I do plan to call Alison Senior Blogger Green for the forseeable future (unless she asks me not too) :-)

      1. Spreadsheet Monkey*

        I believe she changed that to “Supreme Blogger Green” in the comments on that post. Back to Minion School for you! ;-)

        1. Kris*

          I read those comments but I must’ve missed that one. OK. I beg your pardon Supreme Blogger Green.

          1. Anonymous*

            Hopefully SBG is good for short – and could be supreme, senior, superstar….. Although it’s probably a dodgy cartoon somewhere!

  5. LT*

    I wouldn’t trash talk another candidate. I might, however, use what I knew about this other candidate to present myself advantageously. For example, I might highlight unique experience that I have but the other candidate does not have. And I wouldn’t mention the other candidate at all.

  6. some1*

    Yeah, don’t do this, LW. You know how much we all hate attack ads during elections? This is what you’re asking to do.

  7. Blinx*

    Did you ever notice how diplomatic celebrities are when speaking of other celebs? On a talk show, they’ll be asked what it was like to work with a certain director or actor. They’ll always say that they were great to work with and have nothing but respect for their work. They’ll never trash talk another celeb, but you KNOW there’s got to be instances when they really disliked the way a movie turned out, or thought less of the effort another actor put in.

    You know who’s a master at this? Donald Trump. Even when another celeb has made a colossal mistake or misspoke, the Donald always has something good to say about them. Whatever you may think of Mr. Trump, he’s a MASTER of diplomacy, and I always think of this when I’m asked about a coworker, whatever the situation.

      1. KellyK*

        LOL. Yeah, just because someone has a skill doesn’t mean they use it consistently. (And I will refrain from further comment, lest Supreme Blogger Green smite me for getting into politics on her blog.)

        1. some1*

          I didn’t mean to get political, either, but he IS a celebrity I’ve heard him speak ill of over and over.

    1. Ivy*

      I have heard plenty of celebrities talk badly about a filming experience or the movie itself. What they won’t do is they won’t talk badly about it WHILE the movie is being promoted. I feel like that might even be in their contract. Although I will agree that they generally don’t talk badly about other actors.

      Also… I really don’t know if you should take your cues from Donald. I’ve heard him say some spectacularly un-masterful and undiplomatic things…..

      1. Blinx*

        Hmmm, good points all. Perhaps not the best example.

        I do think, though, that no matter what opinion you may have of coworker X, even if you complain about them daily to your family or friends, in an interview situation, there are ways to be diplomatic. There must be some aspect of their performance or personality that you can speak well of.

  8. Z*

    When I interviewed for my current position, I was asked, “Why are you the best candidate for this position?” I started my response with, “Well, I don’t know who else you’re interviewing, but…”
    Now I’m imagining someone answering this question with, “Well, I happen to have heard what four other people you’re interviewing, and boy howdy, let me tell you why they stink.”

    1. A Bug!*

      It was a secret test. They really wanted you to have seduced the hiring manager’s assistant to gain access to the short list, and then prepare a report on each candidate.

      You failed to take the initiative, but it sounds like everyone else did, too, so you lucked out. You should remember for next time, though, or you might not be so fortunate.

      1. Lexy*

        lol… I’m assuming you meant “deduced” but I like “seduced” better. The mental picture of THAT interaction makes me giggle.

        1. A Bug!*

          Nope, I totally meant seduced! A dimly-lit dinner, some tender conversation, then a whisper in the ear… “You know what would be so hot? Let’s go to your office and do it on a filing cabinet. Like, a filing cabinet that holds hiring records. Especially active hiring process. I’m getting all tingly just thinking about it.”

  9. Anonymous*

    If anything, you should “talk up” a fellow candidate:

    “I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Larry has been able to integrate back into society”

    1. Jamie*

      Ha! I wouldn’t say anything at all unless asked, and if asked…

      “Steve sure does try hard!” said with a sympathetic smile.

      Unless Steve was a good guy and did try hard, then I would feel like an asshat so I’d just shrug and claim ignorance.

      1. Bridgette*

        Or you could go with the line that my mom uses when I asked her if I’m pretty: “Well, she has a great personality.”

    2. perrik*

      Once upon a time, the Dilbert website offered a Performance Review Generator which might have offered the following “talk up” of Larry: “One cannot say enough good things about him. A re-evaluation of his salary is overdue. Larry is not afraid to ask questions that check the assumptions of others, and his name is frequently mentioned in executive meetings.”

      Every time my husband ran the generator, his review included the notation that he exhibited unlooked-for creativity. Scarily accurate…

      1. Blinx*

        They also used to have a Mission Statement Generator, which spit out buzzwords in the correct grammatical order. These were also frighteningly realistic. Where did this goodies go?

          1. Blinx*

            Thanks! I noticed that George Clooney is featured in several of them. Where can I apply to THOSE companies?

  10. A Bug!*

    I would certainly wonder about a candidate who felt that he or she had to tear down the competition in order to succeed. I don’t really want to work around people who are willing to throw others under the bus to get ahead. I want to work around people who respect and support each other.

  11. fposte*

    I actually think I’d be really impressed with a candidate who spoke perceptively and clearly of a fellow candidate’s strengths.

  12. Ellie H.*

    I had an interview today and I accidentally said something like “I think the people who did [certain task] before didn’t give it the same attention to detail as I did” which I am really peeved that I said. I didn’t really mean to say it and I regretted it as it was coming out of my mouth. Not quite a Burning Man level aspersion but I still felt thoughtless about it.

  13. Elizabeth West*

    Please, please please please, if I get an interview for Dreamjob, DON’T make them ask something like this. (It’s a city job, so I doubt it, but you never know.) I’m sure I can speak well of Exjob, since there were quite a few people there I liked and miss.

    The question I’m most afraid of is “How do you handle stress?” Not very well, I’m afraid. The only thing I can think of is “By diving in and fixing the issue!”

    1. KellyK*

      I think that’s a good answer. Also, if you know you don’t handle stress well, what are you working on doing to address that?

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Actually, getting put on a PIP at Exjob helped. It forced me to really think about what I needed to expend energy on, and what I could let go. Basically, I’m only in charge of my own actions, not what someone else does or doesn’t do. Also, I try to remember that when things get crazy, eventually they will change. If they don’t, then it’s time to find a new job.

  14. Anonymous*

    I know better than to speak ill of someone during an interview, but how do you politely describe someone who was a problem when specifically asked for an example of how you deal with difficult people or situations?

    I had an interview (for a sort of internship, which I was accepted for) last week where I was asked for examples of a difficult situation I’ve diffused, how I deal with difficult people, and my techniques for doing so. I started off ok but the more she probed the more I felt I was getting dangerously close to saying something disparaging as I had to give more detail. So if you’re asked to describe someone who’s given you trouble, how do you do that politely? It’s not people I didn’t get along with, it’s always two other people who didn’t get along that I had to mediate. I started with “they didn’t get along and argued a lot” but eventually that wasn’t enough detail.

    1. KellyK*

      Wow, that’s really tough. I think that if part of your job description is diffusing conflicts, pointing out that people don’t always play nice together shouldn’t be seen as disparaging, any more than you’d expect a police officer to have only nice things to say about the people they’ve arrested.

      I think one thing to focus on is being able to discuss a problematic situation without being judgmental or making assumptions. Things like sticking to the facts and giving the benefit of the doubt to both parties. A lot of conflicts can be viewed as clashes in either personality or approach, rather than one or both people just being jerky (even if it does escalate to jerkitude at some point).

      1. fposte*

        Also, focus on the behavior, not the people, and the goal you were trying to get to and how you made it more possible.

    2. Louis*

      I ask for something similar when I recruit for my team.

      “Say you work on a projet that I assing to you and you need help with a specific technology. The local expert doesn’t cooperate very well. He doesn’t give you the information you want and is not very polite when you try to talk with him”.

      I ask it because I have a few tech guru that are extremly competant but have very low telerance for junior level questions. They are a very valuable to the team because of their technical knowledge, but they are not easy to deal with on a personnal level.

      When I recruit, I need someone who will be able to deal with them without putting me in the loop everytime to smoth the communication.

      So basicly the worst answer would be anything along the line “I put the manager in CC of every interaction I have with them” and the best answer is anything along the line “I try find out why they are acting that way and see how I can make this work”.

      I beleive that aside from rare cases, people are not acting like pricks for no reason. Usually most people want to do a good job so if there is a conflict, the first step is usually to look at the situation from the other person perspective.

      1. BC*

        But… you’re admitting your company employs someone who is uncooperative and rude. That’s a red flag about you as a manager and/or your company, and tells the candidate more about you than their answer will tell you about them.

  15. Op*

    I didn’t get that job. I don’t think I trash-talked in the interview. Luckily I got a job elsewhere. I love it. I sincerely hope it will work out well.

  16. Josh*

    You should definitely trash talk that person fool! Also, perhaps you should slash their tires before they go to the interview.

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