Taking the Fat Words Out of Your Hiring Process

Taking the Fat Words Out of Your Hiring Process

by Sara Bennett | December 4, 2023

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If you’re a recruiter, you won’t have to wait more than 5 minutes into  a conversation with a hiring manager to hear at least one “fat word”. “I really need you to find me someone who is a  “critical thinker!”

And those fat words get communicated and re communicated throughout the hiring process.   Check out any  job posting and see how many fat words you can count.  Goal oriented? Customer focused? Fast moving?

Yep, the world of hiring and recruiting is full of fat words, each of them signaling information that is intended to be  important to a successful hire, but often becoming the culprits behind so many hiring mistakes.

This blog discusses how to recognize and deal with the fat words the come into play in almost every hiring process.  Our goal is to help both hiring managers and recruiters raise awareness of how often fat words get embedded into any hiring project and share some ideas about how to address them.         

What are Fat Words?

Simply put, a “fat word” is a word that is open to multiple interpretations – meaning that if several people were to hear or read the word there is a high likelihood that each person would walk away with a different understanding of what that word meant.

While fat words can how up in several places during the hiring process, they typically come up during the first meeting between a hiring manager and a recruiter where the list of skills, personal qualities and talents the hiring manager would like to see in their new hire gets created.

As example, consider the word  “professional” which is a term that shows up a lot on lists of preferred candidate qualities and often in job postings. When used in a job posting the intent is to screen out candidates who aren’t “professional”.  But in a world of quick click responses, it almost never works.

And that’s because the word “professional” is one of those fat words.  Most candidates consider themselves  “professional”. One hiring manager might use the term to reference candidates with advanced education or training in a particular area of expertise, while another uses the term to describe someone who will show minimal emotion at work and stay away from office gossip.  How each of these “stakeholders” define the word “professional” makes a big difference in what candidates you are trying to attract, how the candidates will be screened, and ultimately which candidate is selected based on the belief that you are hiring someone who is “professional”.

Here’s some of the fat words we run into regularly….

  • Problem Solver
  • Team Player
  • Results Oriented
  • Customer Oriented
  • Service Oriented
  • Goal oriented
  • Multi Tasker
  • Mission Driven
  • Smart
  • Quick Learner
  • Self Managed
  • Resourceful
  • Ambitious
  • Aggressive
  • Conscientious
  • Attention to Detail

When it comes to screening and hiring the right employee, fat words are the enemies of “fit finding”. 

Here’s why….

Most recruiters who’ve been in the business for a while are trained to think in behavioral terms. For these recruiters its easy to envision what behaviors the hiring managers are likely referencing when they use a fat word.  But a fat word in the hands of hiring decision maker not trained in behavioral ways, can be a real problem.

One member of a hiring team, for example, might tell you they are looking for a “critical thinker” – someone who is good at understanding the big picture and knows how to use their current resources to solve problems .  Their recruiter, on the other hand, might think of that “critical thinker” term very differently – someone who has a tendency to challenge the status quo and isn’t afraid to create some disruption along the way. The recruiter who runs with their own definition of a “critical thinker” and doesn’t take the time to find out how that term is being used by the hiring manager, is likely to refer a shake up artist for a job that requires a steady hand.  That’s the dynamic behind a hiring mistake about to happen, all caused by a fat word left unexplored! 

 Defining Fat Words the Behavioral Way

We’d like to share what we think about fat words and how our recruiting team is trained to both spot them and build then into the candidate screening and vetting process. Keep in mind that our work is always done in the context of our job which is to help PACE clients find and hire the candidate who is the “right fit” for the job. Our recruiting, screening and vetting processes are performance based, designed to predict a candidate’s future performance in a specific job, once hired.

First of all, the fat words need to be recognized for what they are – “fat”. To get a hiring process off to the right start, everyone who is involved in the hiring decision needs to understand the importance of defining what is meant by the words that get put on their candidate “wish list.” Fat words are easy to spot because they are often “trait” words – referring to qualities the preferred candidate “is” not what they “do”.

The recruiter’s job is to help the hiring manager get those “trait” words defined before the recruit even begins. If that step is missed its not easy to course correct down the road after candidates have been recruited, screened and vetted.

  • You mentioned you wanted to hire someone who is a strong communicator. I’d like to take a moment and get a good understanding of how you are using that term in the context of this hiring project.”      

Frame the conversation to reveal examples of specific behaviors that represent the fat word.           

    • “I’d love some examples of specific behaviors you are referring to when you describe someone as a “strong communicator.”
    • “When you think about that term as it relates to your top performers, how do they tend to communicate differently from those employees who you aren’t strong communicators?” 

Ask about the context in which those behaviors are likely to come up. (Specificity matters)

      • “What situations will come up for this employee that will require them to use the “strong communication behaviors you’ve described?.”       
      • “When and how often do they occur?”
      • “Will they be using these skills in person? Over the phone? In writing? etc.     

Find out what “bad behavior” looks like and how it impacts the employee’s performance.        

    • “Have you had any experience working with an employee whose communication skills or style was a problem in your work environment ?   Were there any commonalities amongst the employees that had difficulties.”

In a tight candidate market, its helpful to find out if the hiring manager is willing to train/develop the needed behaviors in the employee they hire?

    • “Is there room for an employee who met most of your other expectations but is light in their experience with scenarios like you’ve described, how able or willing are you to train or develop an employee to communicate in the way you’ve described?”   
    • “What experiences have you had working with an employee who didn’t have experience in the environments you’ve described. We have assessments we can use to uncover aptitude, but how willing and able are you to provide on the job training.”  

Screening Candidates for FAT Word Behaviors

Once a recruiter is clear on how a hiring manager is using a fat word and has helped the hiring team translate those words into descriptions of the actual behaviors believed important to high levels of performance, the candidate screening and evaluation processes is the easy part. The vetting process becomes a set of assessment exercises, including interviews, designed to uncover how the candidate has behaved in the past or is likely to behave in the future when faced with the same or similar situations that they will encounter in their new job if hired. 

The following represent the key steps in the evaluation interview…

Start by describing a typical scenario the candidate would face if they were to become an employee

“We are looking to hire someone who is a strong communicator. What that means to us is someone who will interact with customers on a daily basis who are either very angry or frustrated because the product they bought from us didn’t work as expected. What they’ve found is that 9 times out of 10 the issues we deal with are being caused by the customer not accurately following the install instructions.  Unfortunately they don’t know that when they call in to complain and your job is to both help them reinstall the product and mitigate the bad feelings they are expressing about our company and this product.”     

Uncover if a candidate has dealt with the same or similar scenarios in past jobs

“Have you dealt with the same or similar situations in the past.”   

Ask follow up questions to uncover…

    • How the candidate handled the same or similar situation – “how they behaved?”
    • How they describe their successes or failures in the same or similar situations, obstacles they faced? Obstacles they overcame?   
    • What they learned
    • What they liked/didn’t like about these types of challenges

How does your interview need to be adjusted in a tight labor market?

One question that always comes up when hiring in tight labor markets where hiring managers face serious shortages of  candidates with relevant work histories is – how can we identify candidates with the talent it takes to be successful but not actual work experience?

 In a tight labor market it is always wise to have a back up vetting/screening plan for candidates with the talents necessary to be successful on the job but lacking actual work experience. The issue is that employers can’t afford to by pass high potential candidates when there is substantial risk that a job will go unfilled and negatively impact the team’s performance.

Having faced this scenario in both 2022 and 2023, our back up plan at PACE has been to tap into our large arsenal of professionally developed aptitude tests designed to detect candidates who have the underlying talents to behave effectively in a specific role even though they lack specific work experience that would verify that prediction.  These assessment tools are designed to do the same thing we are discussing in this blog – to translate “trait” words into behavioral patterns or habits in ways that predict on the job success and to find out how often and in what ways a potential candidate uses those behavioral patterns.

At PACE, we are big fans of aptitude assessments and make them part of our candidate vetting process on a regular basis.

In Summary….

If you’ve been looking for ways to improve your hiring results, one of the first things you can do is drill down on all the fat words that you hear frequently used to describe a “preferred” candidate or employee. The goal is not to remove these fat words from your list of preferred qualities, but to use them as important clues as to what behaviors an employee will need to display in order for them to be successful on the job, to be the “right fit.”

Unfortunately most fat words come with layers of camouflage which means you have to dig deep into what behaviors the hiring manager is looking for in a new employee, that, for them, defines hiring success.



PACE Staffing Network is one of the Puget Sound’s premier staffing /recruiting agencies and has been helping Northwest employers find and hire employees based on the “right fit” for over 45 years.

A 5-time winner of the coveted “Best in Staffing” designation , PACE is ranked in the top 2% of staffing agencies nationwide based on annual surveys of customer satisfaction.

PACE services include temporary and contract staffing, temp to hire auditionsdirect hire professional recruiting servicesEmployer of Record (payroll) services, and a large menu of candidate assessment services our clients can purchase a la carte.

If you’re a hiring manager looking for a service that will actually “make a difference” to who and how you hire, contact us at 425-637-3312 or fill out this form and we’ll be in touch!

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