What’s a “Team Player”?

By , June 14, 2012

In a job interview, what does it mean when the interviewer asks, “Do you consider yourself to be a team player?”

Try searching Google for that exact phrase and you’ll find lots of definitive, absolute (there can be no other) explanations for the question — each offering a different interpretation. You’ll also find complaints by job-seekers and also by human resources professionals, criticizing the question as meaningless and unanswerable.

In recent years, my internet marketing consulting practice has dwindled as prospective clients turn instead to an ever-expanding pool of competitors.

I’ve applied for many hundreds of full-time, in-house jobs for which I’m qualified (often “overqualified,” I’m told), and I’ve been interviewed by dozens.  Time and again, I’m stumped by the question, “Do you consider yourself a team player?”

Sure, I enjoy working collaboratively, and seeking consensus. And I’ll step up when needed, putting in extra hours, or setting aside my own workload, to support a team member facing a deadline. I’ll share advice and my experience, and I’ll mentor new team members. As an attorney and as a consultant, I’ve often worked collaboratively with a larger team, sometimes on a single project with the same team for many months.

But many people seem to use the term “team player” as code to mean something very specific, sometimes to avoid openly discussing “difficult subjects.”  The encoded question is, “Will you ‘go along’ with what the rest of your team (or team leader) decides, even if you think it’s unethical or illegal?”

In two recent interviews, the “team player” question arose immediately after I mentioned some aspect of “marketing ethics” (such as my refusal to send spam email, or to buy links), and the implication seems to be that they expect their new hire to surrender any ethical beliefs for the good of the team (or the team leader, or the company).

In other interviews, the question seems intended to probe my ability to work in a “group  environment,” which is a fair inquiry, since I’ve spent 16 of the past 20 years working “alone” (first as a solo attorney, then as an internet marketing consultant). It’s reasonable for an interviewer to wonder how I would “fit in” to a traditional office environment, or work collaboratively with a team. When the context suggests this meaning, I can address that question.

But the term “team player” doesn’t have a uniform meaning, and often it’s pretty clear that the interviewer is reading it off a checklist, so I’m often forced to choose between offering an answer that I hope is relevant, or asking (challenging) the interviewer to explain the question — and challenging the interviewer seems likely to be viewed as evidence that I’m not a “team player.”


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