TMI: When Too Much Personal Info Kills Your Job Prospects

While on the job hunt, employment seekers engage in a touchy balancing act of providing enough information about who they are to employer so the company can get to know them, while at the same time not crossing a line into the realm of TMI (otherwise known as “Too Much Information) where a few details lead down a road of questioning ends up being more personally revealing than originally intended.

You do NOT want to go there, trust me.

It’s a tough situation to manage and requires a certain knack to get comfortable and in the ‘zone.’ The most important thing is to be as up front as possible, while at the same time keeping your own counsel about not saying things that could potentially impact how an employer perceives you.

To that point, I was recently asked by a job seeker about how honest you need to be in your cover letter and in the interview itself.

First, let start out by saying: You should ALWAYS tell the truth, no matter what, in ALL aspects of the job search. If you don’t, it WILL catch up with you eventually.

Now how MUCH you tell, beyond the scope of the original question or job abilities, is what gets a lot of well-intentioned people in over their heads. Extraneous, irrelevant information can effectively sink them in the long run.

Here’s the truth: We all want to come across as likable in the interview or in our cover letter. Psychologically, when we meet people, we want them to like us, but like dating, you don’t want to dump your dirty laundry out there for everyone to see and pick through before we have a chance to sell our best attributes first.

Instead, use this general rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t walk up to a complete stranger on the train, airplane or bus and tell them about something really personal about yourself, then you probably want to apply the same concept in an interview with a prospective employer. Stay focused on what they specifically ask about, NOT what other things you’d like to add.

The trick, however, is that interview questions are notorious for being dangerous paths to walk down depending on how you answer them. Simply by what you say, a new line of questioning opens up new doors, and can quickly become very personal. Some of those doors you do want to keep closed. Not that you have anything to hide, mind you, but more because it isn’t OF CONCERN to the employer… that information has no bearing on your ability to do the job.

Keep in mind that you want to answer the question in a satisfactory manner while not divulging extraneous information that has no relevancy to either the job itself, your ability to do the job, the interview situation, or the prospective employer.

Sometimes, the questions you get tossed in an interview ask open-ended yet specific things, like, “Tell us of one of the biggest mistakes at work you’ve ever made, and what you learned from that mistake.”


Time to de-construct such a question and think about how you might answer it without sinking your chances by being too honest. Failure, no matter how we handled it, is not easy, and being asked to talk about it in an interview is uncomfortable and often painful. You want to be honest, but at the same time, you don’t want to end the response to the question in a down note, so the key is to take a negative and turn it into a positive. That’s actually what an employer is looking for: they want to know about your ability to overcome adversity, not just to get some guffaws over someone else’s mistakes.

If you get this type of question, you definitely don’t want to leave it ‘dangling’ by citing a failure and not having some kind of outcome that shows that this failure led to the advancement of your professional knowledge, skills, or development. You want to show that you learn from your mistakes.

People who can ‘nail’ interviews are adept at providing compelling stories that provide specific examples of both their successes and their failures (and how they overcame the failures). It’s always easy to talk about successes, but the negatives are much more difficult, and oftentimes, people feel compelled to try and ‘explain away’ what actually led up to the failure.

This is often where a lot of extraneous information gets disclosed, and if you feel obliged to try and provide additional background to set the stage… STOP. Focus on the outcome, not the precipitating factors. Once you’ve done that, you will be able to easily navigate around the TMI pitfalls that can happen during the interview process.

Know that the ‘mistake’ question mentioned above shouldn’t be a surprise to you… and neither should be a “weakness” query or anything else that might probe your failures. These might be direct attempts from the prospective employer to poke at you in hopes of seeing how you react.

Remember, if you feel the need to try and ‘explain away’ anything, you are starting to move onto thin ice and are at increased risk to flail around and start adding in information that isn’t pertinent to the end results to help diffuse blame.

Again, focus on outcomes, which will keep you on track to answering the question within the framework set up by the prospective employer. Try using a technique used in the television news business: sound bites. These are short, succinct, concise and complete responses, and that is how you need to think about your answers in an interview. Putting yourself in that mindset will help you avoid getting into personal territory and accidentally saying too much about yourself! Don’t sink yourself by providing too much TMI!