How to be yourself while job hunting: 9 unspoken rules

Job seekers have to walk a fine line between sharing and oversharing. Here's how to stay professional while letting your personality shine
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“Just be yourself!”

That’s the text from a friend you read right before walking into a job interview. Or the closing advice from your recruiter before they send you into a networking event. This classic advice sounds easy and is intended to put job seekers at ease. But there’s a little more nuance at play here.

For instance, how much personality do hiring managers want to see? Which topics should be considered off limits? Is there a magical ratio of professional background to personal information that showcases that you are not only the most qualified candidate, but also the best cultural match?

We asked career coaches and recruiters to share the unspoken rules behind “being yourself” in an interview or at a networking event. Read on for advice on how to leave a lasting impression while letting your personality shine, professionally.

[ Is it time to shake up your approach? Read also: 9 counterintuitive job hunt tips. ]

1. Learn as much as you can in advance

Taylor Hadley, vice president of national recruiting, AIM Consulting: "Standards for how personal to get during an interview can vary by region, industry, team culture, and the specific role you are applying for. For example, a software engineering job at a technology company is going to have a different standard than a client-facing sales position in financial services. It also matters how closely teams will be working together. Is it a corporate enterprise where employees work independently in cubicles, or a startup agency where employees are working shoulder to shoulder in a small space or even out of someone’s home? Also, do you already know the team you are interviewing with – in which case an overly formal approach would strike an odd note – or, are you meeting new people that you have to impress?

"It’s generally okay to share information about your interests outside of work; for example, that you like hiking, or repairing bicycles, or writing poetry."

Generally speaking, when it comes to sharing information, it is best to err on the side of professional until you know more about the company and the people who work there. If you are lucky enough to be working with a recruiter who knows the organization pretty well, you can get upfront information about the culture and how to put your best foot forward. It’s generally okay to share information about your interests outside of work; for example, that you like hiking, or repairing bicycles, or writing poetry. But there’s a big gap between showing personality and oversharing intimate details about your personal life. The general rule is don’t go overboard and never be negative. If you aren’t sure, ask your recruiter about the people who are going to be interviewing you and what you might expect them to ask. A good recruiter should be able to get you this information and give you some guidance to set you up for success.”

2. Imagine you are on a first date

Do not make conversation that is remotely political in nature.

Sandi Knight, senior vice president and chief human resources officer, HealthMarkets: “Treat a first interview like a first date. You are trying to impress the other party with your skills and personality as much as they are trying to impress you with their company and opportunity. Yes, it is important to ‘be yourself,’ but it’s equally important to be respectful, professional, and personable during an interview – whether it is with a recruiter, a hiring manager, or anyone else. Be prepared to showcase your strengths but not in a manner that is too boastful. Be inquisitive and ask good questions and be ready to thoughtfully listen to the responses. Be respectful of others’ backgrounds and do not make conversation that is remotely political in nature because it is inappropriate.”

3. Avoid taboo topics

"Make sure the conversation is at least 70 percent about work, and not just play."

Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO, GetVOIP: “It’s true that there is a fine line between being yourself and oversharing. One area that isn’t gray is socially taboo topics – these are best to keep off the table during your job interview discussions. Another area to avoid: habits that would be detrimental to your work performance. For example, if you love gaming until 2:00 a.m. every night, your interviewer is going to have a red flag about your ability to show up to work on time and stay focused through the afternoon on little sleep the night before.

However, you can feel free to talk about people in your life, pets, volunteer activities, travel, art, books, movies, and much more. The caveat is to make sure the conversation is at least 70 percent about work, and not just play.”

4. Have fun … but not too much

Brett Ellis, career coach and executive director of Brett Ellis Career Marketing Services: “I say be yourself at all times. If they don’t like you before they hire you, chances are they won’t when you start working there. That can lead to disengagement and put you right back on the job hunt. After all, most candidates are qualified for the jobs they apply to. It often comes down to who they like the most, not who is the best for the job. Another way to showcase your personality is your attire. I like to wear fun/professional clothes. They are great conversation starters. The girl in the bright yellow shoes or the guy in the pink floral shirt will get my attention, and I’ll use a compliment as a conversation starter.

I recommend that people avoid drinking or having more than one drink in networking situations. I find that people tend to blur that line of oversharing when they overindulge. I’ve seen my fair share of messy people at networking events, and it’s not a good impression. Especially because it’s often your first impression. Overall, think about the impression you want to make before you even enter that space. For me, that drives most of my actions and conversations. I’m a work hard, play harder type of guy, so that’s usually the impression I try to leave. I want people to think, ‘I want to hang out with that guy. He also seems like he does great work and makes it fun.’”

5. When in doubt, keep it professional

Laura Handrick, HR specialist, “The line between sharing personal information should be much closer to not sharing personal information at all. The reason is, your personal information isn’t necessary during an interview and can backfire, making you the victim of unintended bias. When you’re at an interview, your focus should be 100 percent on how you can and will do the job. Whether you have kids, an ailing parent, or are going through a divorce are all information that an interviewer doesn’t need to know.”

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.