a tale of two interview mistakes

In phone interviews, I always ask the candidate to tell me what he or she knows about the job so far. It’s surprising how many people reveal in response that they either have a complete misunderstanding of what the job entails, maybe because they haven’t bothered to read the job description since applying two weeks ago. (Keep in mind that these are all scheduled phone interviews; they had time to prepare in advance and aren’t being caught off guard by the call.)

Obviously, this is a huge strike. It’s close to impossible to recover from, because why am I spending my time interviewing you for a job that you obviously aren’t prepared to talk about, when there are hundreds of candidates who would be prepared?

I had this happen twice today (probably because I’m hiring for an entry-level job, and that’s where you find the highest proportion of silly interview mistakes). But the two candidates couldn’t have handled it more differently. The first candidate described a job I bet he’d like to have, but it’s not the one I’m interviewing for. He was so ridiculously off that I asked him when he had last read the job description. His response? “I’m so tired right now that I can’t remember what it said.” No, seriously. With no inkling that there was anything wrong with saying that.

The second candidate also got it wrong, but when I explained to her that actually the job wasn’t doing Y, but rather Z, she was mortified. She apologized profusely, and said was horrified, and when we were ending the call a little later, she apologized again. There’s no doubt in my mind that she understood exactly how she’d messed up and that she cared, a lot.

The first guy is getting an instant rejection. The second candidate — well, I might come back to her. She’s not in the top tier because she didn’t prepare, and there are tons of candidates who did. But she handled it well enough that if none of my other candidates wow me, I’d be willing to talk to her again. If nothing else, she’s certainly someone I’d be willing to consider if she applied again in the future.

So how you handle mistakes matters. And recovery is possible.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    As an interviewee, I'd probably disappoint you as well if the job description was no longer online. When I was job hunting, I was sending resumes for a dozen to two dozen positions a week. Therefore, it was unlikely I remembered the position description of most positions I had applied to.

  2. Brian*

    When I apply for a position, I always print the job description and file it so I can come back to it later. I have found that I have trouble sometimes finding the original job posting when called for an interview 3 weeks later. I also want to make sure that I don't accidentally apply for the same position twice.

    I also have found that some companies have a really annoying habit of listing contract positions with more than one job shop – they then all post the position so I find 10 positions posted that look pretty much the same. If I don't save the job descriptions it is easy to miss a different position that is similar.

  3. nuqotw*

    AAM, I'm sure your organization doesn't do this, what with you at the head of it, but what about job descriptions that are worded so vaguely that it's hard to tell what, exactly, the job is? (What this says about that employer is another problem, but let's ignore it for now.) I'm talking about something like

    "Detailed, data-intensive analysis" – this could mean
    (1) maintaining and managing the data
    (2) Producing statistical analysis based on the data
    (3) Interpreting statistical analysis of the data
    (4) Some combination of the first three options.

    I admit I've read so many job descriptions that are similarly vague (strong communications skills required… okay, for what?) that I've started to discount such a question from an employer, which is clearly not a good practice.

  4. Rosezilla*

    Shouldn't they really be tailoring their cover letter to the job as well? I use a template, but I have a couple spaces where I can insert the language of the post, for instance, if it says people skills, I'll use the phrase people skills in my CL. I'm wondering if you get generic cover letters from these folks as well…..

  5. Marsha Keeffer*

    He was honest, but didn't do his homework. Her recovery was a 5.5 degree of difficulty on a 6.0 scale. When I interview over the phone, like Brian, I've got a file with all the details. In fact, I make notes before the call and spread my papers in front of me so that I can quickly supply the interviewer with more detail if she needs it. Whiffing a phone interview by not knowing the position description just wastes everyone's time.

  6. Anonymous*

    The solution is simple. Prepare for a phone interview like you would for an in-person interview. This also includes saving the job description and cover letter on your computer so you can access and review them beforehand.

  7. Amanda*

    I certainly disagree with the way the first guy handled the mix-up. But, for the second person to apologize so profusely so many times may indicate that she has a timid, non-communicative, can�t-stand-up-for-herself personality. This would be an issue for me, even in an entry-level position.

    I would have just apologized to get it over with, once, and move on. We all make mistakes, and although a mistake in a phone interview isn�t so fabulous, this one doesn�t warrant such attention.

  8. Sabrina*

    It's for this reason that I set up an Access database to keep track of jobs I applied to and all the information regarding that job. I also keep a PDF file of the job description so I can refer back to it before an interview. Of course if they don't set up one in advance and just do an on the spot one then all bets are off. I hate that. I could be driving, out to lunch, on the way to another interview (that actually did happen) or in the middle of downing a Boss in World of Warcraft!! LOL :)

  9. Just Another HR Lady*

    To me, knowing the responsibilities of the job is not just an indication of being unprepared. I often wonder how a candidate even knows they are interested or qualified if they don't know what the job is? Questions about the job I don't mind, but a clear lack of understanding of what the job entails takes someone off my list.

  10. Bohdan*

    How often do job postings really give you an idea of what the job is? Especially in human language instead of copy-and-pasted lawyer language from the companies official description?

    People get in the habit of just scanning descriptions because the descriptions are often worthless. Perhaps yours aren't (and most companies feel that, of course, their descriptions are accurate and wonderful).

    I agree they should prepare. But honestly, two-years ago that would have hardly phased me unless it was completely ridiculous. As you pointed out, I think the main difference is the hundreds of candidates who have done the research.

    It's only by comparison that this seems so egregious.

  11. Mary*

    Being unprepared for a scheduled phone interview? Yikes!

    On the flipside, I have applied for so many jobs whose listings were not what the job was REALLY about. It really makes you feel lame when you're interviewing and realize you're not on the same page and very well might have wasted both your time.

    Its imperative that both parties are forthcoming about what the job actually entails. Saves a lot of headache.

    1. Anonymous*

      SO true!
      I applied for a “cleaning job” only to get the interview to find it didn’t to have anything to do with cleaning and then had to pry it out of them that was just vacuum cleaner sales.

  12. Volga*

    Both the candidates are having their own skills may be first one has done that knowingly as. May be the call's impact not so good on him and he changed his mood and said in that way. This may be the one reason.
    And yes I too liked the second candidate for her situation handling capability and sharpness which really requires a lot in every job.
    Whenever I interview over the phone I always keep notes with the company details and put them in from of me while talking. By this I can provide all the informations promptly needed and asked by interviewer.

  13. Mel Vault*

    So one of them sucked more than the other and you're not hiring either one. The one who sucked less most likely has enough common sense that she will have a job in the unlikely event that you take the initiative to reach out to her for an opening in the future. And the really clueless guy is never reading this blog in a million years.
    Is that about right?

  14. DC*

    Okay, so I do prepare for interviews quite extensively. I read about the company, read about the department, and do all the homework necessary to give me an understanding of what they do and what this position entails.

    However, I have to agree with a few of the other posters. When I have been asked to tell my interviewer what I understand of this position, it often baffles me when they come back with a "Yes, you've got the gist of it, but it's more like…" when that whatever it REALLY is was not written into the job description.

    I've gone into two interviews now that I distinctly had this problem. Both have followed my response with a, "You're on the right track, but this is also a job that will have you primarily organizing files, sorting paper, etc. etc. Are you okay with this?"

    As a matter of fact, I'm not okay with this and wasn't in either one of these instances, because it was not ever indicated in the job description that this is what that position is about. Further, it is not necessarily a responsibility I'm okay taking on. (I'm just using filing as my example here.)

    /End mini-rant. I've just noticed this is a problem that several companies I've interviewed at have: they're advertising the job to be much more glamorous than what it really is like. If they had been honest from the get-go, it would have saved both theirs and my time, since the position and myself were not going to be a good match.

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