Take the Fat Words Out of Your Hiring Process!

If you’re a recruiter, chances are you know all about FAT WORDS.  You can’t get too far into an intake call with a hiring manager before you hear the list….“I really want you to find me someone who is “professional”,  a “critical thinker”, a “go getter” a “numbers geek”, a “team player”  etc.        

And if you’re not clued into the dangers of these FAT WORDS they get communicated and re communicated multiple times throughout the hiring process as if everyone had a common understanding of what they mean (or what behavior they reference). Uncontested, FAT WORDS get built into job postings, screening interviews, even the more sophisticated evaluation interviews conducted by the hiring manager themselves. Check out any  job posting and you’ll see we’re not exaggerating. FAT WORDS are everywhere and can create miscues at every step in a hiring process.

Left to its own devices, the world inhabited by hiring managers and their recruiters is stuffed with FAT WORDS – each of them attempting to communicate something important about what a successful hire needs to “be” but so many times the reason behind what turns out to be a hiring mistake. Because the meaning of FAT WORDS isn’t always pinned down before the recruit begins, its easy for these words to side track the hiring process and kidnap the hiring result. Where do I find a numbers geek? How do I spot a critical thinker? What does it mean to be professional?  

This blog discusses how to recognize and deal with the FAT WORDS that so often find a way to trickle into a hiring process. Our goal is to help both hiring managers and recruiters understand the downsides of these FAT WORDS and the techniques that can be used to translate them into descriptions of behaviors – something much more tangible that both a hiring manager and their recruiter can agree describes the behavior being referenced by the use of a FAT WORD.                   

FAT WORDS Defined!  

Simply put, a “fat word” is a word that is open to multiple interpretations and/or has multiple meanings depending on who is talking and who they’re talking to. If several people hear or read a FAT WORD there is a high likelihood that each person walks away with a different understanding of what that FAT WORD means – what behaviors its trying to describe.

FAT WORDS typically come up during the intake meeting between a hiring manager and a recruiter and, left unchecked, end up as the “traits” that become part of a traditional job description or the preferred candidate profile. In fact, most traditional candidate profiling tools are actually lists of the hard and soft skills, personal qualities and required education or work experience the hiring manager would like to see in the candidate they hire. These are the types of lists that invite FAT WORDS into the hiring process – having the appearing of directing the type of candidate who should be recruited but in reality doing anything but.

We’d like to make the case that traditional preferred candidate profiles and the FAT WORDS they include are a source of a lot of hiring mistakes. As example, consider the word “professional” – a term that shows up in a lot of preferred candidate profiles and subsequently in the job postings we see  apparently intended to attract the right candidates. We’re assuming the intent of these job postings is to screen out candidates who aren’t “professional”, but in a world where its so easy to read and click, it almost never works. Everyone thinks they’re “professional.”

What is a more interesting and helpful approach is to dig deep into the descriptions of behavior the hiring manager is actually referencing when they use the term, professional. As example, one hiring manager might use the term to reference candidates with advanced education or training in a particular area of expertise. Another uses the term to describe someone who will show minimal emotion at work and can be counted on to stay away from office gossip. Some hiring managers simply use the term professional without any specific behavior in mind – they just want to hire a “good candidate” who can do the job.

Our point is that how each of these “stakeholders” uses the word “professional” makes a big difference in who will be recruited and ultimately hired. We all might believe we’ve identified a candidate who is “professional” and each of us referring to a different set of attributes and behaviors. Not that helpful when it comes to hiring. (Keep reading for some examples)


  • 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 can become serious obstacles.        

FAT WORDs in the hands of hiring manager or recruiter not trained on the importance of linking words to behaviors, can quickly become a serious problem – wasting everyone’s time with candidates who are not what the hiring manager is looking for, or worse case causing a hiring manager to make a costly hiring mistake. As example, let’s say a hiring manager wants to hire a “critical thinker” and shares that information with their recruiter. But when they use the FAT WORD “critical thinker” they are envisioning  someone who is good at understanding the big picture and knows how to use their current resources to solve problems. But what if their recruiter uses the same FAT WORD, “critical thinker”, but envisions instead someone who is good at challenging the status quo and not afraid to create some disruption along the way.

In this scenario it would be all too easy for the recruiter to recruit for and refer a shake up artist to a hiring manager who is actually looking for a steady hand. The world of unexplored FAT WORDS is fraught with lots of opportunities for miscues.  

HOW TO redefine FAT WORDS the behavioral way!

We’d like to share how we train our PACE recruiters to spot FAT WORDS in the hiring process and the simple techniques we use to help our clients clarify what they really mean when they use a FAT WORD.

We are sharing this methodology to help both hiring managers and their recruiters adjust their mindsets about why an effective PREFERRED CANDIDATE PROFILE shouldn’t become a list of SKILLS or TRAITS a candidate must HAVE, but a list of RESULTS a successful candidate is expected to ACHIEVE post hire.  Because at PACE, our recruiting, screening and vetting processes are RESULTS based, we use descriptions of BEHAVIOR to help us identify candidate’s who have a history of BEHAVING in ways our hiring manager would like their employee to behave.

We call it RESULTS BASED because it is focused not on what skills, experiences and talents a candidate has, but what they are expected to do with those skills, experiences, and talents.  

Here’s our short list of what to do to turn FAT WORDS into descriptions of BEHAVIOR…

1.  Pay attention to any WORD that gets floated in a hiring manager’s JOB DESCRIPTION or PREFERRED CANDIDATE PROFILE that do not contain a description of a specific behavior. 

These are often the “trait” words – words that refer to qualities a preferred candidate is expected to HAVE or BE without reference to what the candidate is expected to DO. Once we spot those words, we see our job as helping the hiring manager translate those words into specific descriptions of what they want a candidate to DO.   

And its important to get those trait words translated into behaviors before you start the recruit. Skipping the definition step is 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.”      

2. Ask the hiring manager for examples of how they see a particular trait play out in terms of BEHAVIOR.  

  • “I’d love some examples of WHAT 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?  Can you give me some examples.” 

3. Ask about the CONTEXT in which the preferred behaviors are likely to come up. 

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

Yes, it’s as simple as that…BUT it takes time and patience to get each trait pinned down into descriptions of behavior.

Screening candidates for the “right” behaviors…

Once a recruiter is clear on what behaviors a hiring manager is referencing when they use a particular FAT WORD, the tools and methods (including the interviews) used to assess candidates to see if they tend to use the behaviors the hiring manager expects is a parallel process and is best left to another blog. Just know that candidate vetting is actually a series of carefully sequenced exercises, interviews, and other structured interactions with a candidate designed to uncover how they have behaved in the past when faced with the same type of goals and situations they will encounter once hired.

Vetting is all about uncovering information that will affirm that the candidate is ABLE to meet a hiring manager’s expectations and to make assessments if the candidate is intrinsically MOTIVATED to do so. Identifying the CAN DO and the WANNA DO components of each candidate is what allows you to select the candidate who is the “right fit” for the job.

And don’t forget studies have shown that the candidate who is the “right fit” for the job will outperform they’re equally talented but less well matched counterparts as much as 2 to 1. That’s a big payoff for a hiring process that is based on results.      

In Summary….

If you’ve been disappointed in the performance or retention of who you’ve recently hired, one of the first things you can do to address that issue is to assess the degree to which FAT WORDS have crept into your hiring process. The intent is not to eliminate these FAT WORDS from your hiring vocabulary, but to get everyone on the same page with regard to the behaviors these FAT WORDS are intended to describe and to determine how important these behaviors are to achieving the expected RESULTS of a successful hire.  Unfortunately, FAT WORDS often come with layers of camouflage and can require a recruiter to dig deep into what BEHAVIORS and/or RESULTS the hiring manager is actually referencing with their FAT WORD.  Turning FAT WORDS into descriptions of behavior is what ensures the hiring manager and their recruiter are on the same page.

If you would like to learn more about our RESULTS BASED hiring process, check out this web page we’ve devoted exclusively to this topic!


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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