things you should never say in a job interview

Just as important as saying the right things during a job interview is making sure that you don’t say the wrong things. Here are 10 things that you never want to say in an interview.

1. “What does your company do?” If you ask questions about the company that could have easily been answered with a modicum of research, you’ll come across as unprepared, unmotivated, and maybe lazy.

2. “My old boss was a jerk.” Your boss might have been an abusive tyrant, but, rightly or wrongly, the convention is that you don’t badmouth previous employers in an interview. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances were. It’ll raise enough of a red flag in your interviewer’s mind that it’s just too risky.

3. “My salary requirements are flexible.” Really? So you’d accept half of what you were previously making? Your salary requirements almost certainly aren’t that flexible. Look, I’m no fan of employers who play coy themselves about salary, but claiming you don’t have a range in mind yourself sounds insincere.

4. “I need to check with my wife/brother/neighbor to make sure they can drop me off in the mornings.” This is like saying, “I’m probably going to be late or not make it in at all a lot of the time.” Keep your commute difficulties to yourself or you’ll raise a red flag.

5. “Would I be able to play a role in (something totally unrelated to the job you’re applying for)?” You might be really excited about the company’s social media operation or that big party they put on in Malibu every year, but if it doesn’t relate to the job you’re applying for, don’t imply that it’s far more exciting to you than the work you’re actually interviewing to do.

6. “What benefits do you offer?” The time to inquire about benefits is when you’re negotiating the details of an offer. At this stage, your questions should center around the job itself and the organization.

7. “I’m a perfectionist.” Even if it’s true, this has become such an interview cliché that your interviewer will assume you’re being disingenuous. We’ve heard hundreds of people claim they’re perfectionists; try something new.

8. “I don’t have any questions.” You might be spending eight hours a day (or more) in this job, at this company, with this manager, and there’s nothing you’re wondering about? Interviewers want to know that you’re interested in the details of the job, the department you’ll be working in, your prospective supervisor’s management style, and the culture of the organization. Otherwise, you’re signaling that you’re either not that interested or just haven’t thought very much about it.

9. “Sorry I’m late.” Do whatever it takes not to be late, even if you have to leave two hours early to ensure you’re there on time. It’s very hard to get past the bad impression that being late to an interview will leave. Interviewers assume that you’re on your best behavior now, so if you’re late to the interview, they’ll assume you’ll be unreliable on the job.

10. “I desperately need this job.” Even if you do, don’t talk to your interviewer about it. Job offers are based on what’s best for the employer, and you’ll come across as naïve and inappropriate if you talk about personal need rather than why you’re a strong fit for the job.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. a question*

    About the salary thing: so what would you recommend instead when the person is applying for a job that they are not entirely sure what the duties are? Most companies are going to come back with “you said you would take $xXXx, and now you want a lot more” and the reason you want more is the responsibilities are more than they originally beleived. As an example, take an engineer who thinks they are supervising EIT’s and then finds out after giving a range that they expect him or her to sign plans. That would a lot greater responsibility- and liability- than what they really expected. So how do you get them to see that the salary expected is really flexible based upon the job expected when they ask at the beginning of the interview your salary expectations?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ah, good question. What you’re talking about is different from just saying you’re flexible on salary in general. What you want to say is, “I’d want to learn more about the specifics of the job responsibilities before I’d be comfortable naming a salary range.” If pressed, you could explain the factors that you’d weigh.

      1. maddy*

        I wish I had said that instead of “flexible and negotiable”… because the employers used it against me when offering salary. What they offered was way below average and when I suggested my price, they came back with “well you said salary is negotiable and flexible”. Yea, well when I said flexible I didn’t mean $20,000 less than what I had anticipated; but they just kept going about how I said it was flexible and blah blah blah…. so this is all they were going to offer…. Yup, I’ve learned my lesson

    2. Anonymous*

      Even before it gets to the talking about salary stage, I would hope that I can gain enough information from an adequate position description and company website to have a reasonable expectation about salary. If things change from that, my salary expectations should also change. I would consider it a red flag if the employer wasn’t on this same page…

  2. Ev*

    For the questions one I have before said “Well, you have answered all of the questions I had in mind (For example why the role is available, and a few more) so I don’t have any more. Thank you”

    I did once get stuck in traffic and thought I was going to be late (even though I should have been 15-30 mins early) and ended up phoning them to say I would possible be late due to an accident on the way… and ended up getting there with about a minute to spare. Felt stupid but got the role anyway.

  3. v*

    The questions one is a tough one, because I think employers are learning to answer all the general questions an applicant might have during the interview, and unless there is a detail or two one is unclear or, it IS difficult to find a question when in reality one doesn’t need to know anymore.

    In my interviews, the interviewers tend to start by an introcution of the firm, department, culture and the job, then ask a few questions and after that dialogue go on further to illustrate what the job will be like and what is expected from the employee both skillwise and socially. And somewhere in between all the details from hours to the reason the spot is open are covered. So there’s not much left to chew on, most of the times.

    So, I do think that as advice on what to ask is getting more common, the companies are learning to answer these things beforehand. It might be different in other companies and fields, but personally, this is a struggle. I can see how this comes in handy when it is not an advertised position with multiple candidates but a single-person candidace, but when there are several applicants, the dude with the most experience always wins.

    1. Bob G.*

      I agree with what you are saying for the most part about most decent companies and interviewers anticipating and answering the most common questions during the interview. In most cases what I find is as they discuss the culture or the job itself you can usually find some “clarification type” questions. I find that this shows you were paying attention to the descriptions and picturing yourself in the role and thinking about what questions you would have that weren’t touched on in the overview provided.

      When I’m truly stuck for a question I will usually say “no you answered all the questions I had coming in” and briefly mention a few of them just to again show that I was paying attention and I have retained what we discussed. This is very rare though because generally an overview of the job will still leave room for questions if you think about actually doing the job as described.

    2. a question*

      As far as I am concerned, I will always use AAM’s question about what separates someone good at the position from someone who is great. Even when they have answered all your questions about the physical details of the job, it is guaranteed to get an interesting answer.

  4. Anonymous*

    Speaking of what not to say, this one tops my list. We had asked the candidate to describe a time when he faced conflict. He proceeded to tell us about a horrible manager he had. He never resolved anything, and he told us he would never want to work with that person again.

    Asked him what–if anything–he learned from the situation.

    “Maybe I just don’t like people.”


    That’s the first memory that flooded to mind when I read your headline. :)

    1. Anonymous*

      For some reason, the comment-bot stripped text from my reply. Let me try again, because it loses meaning without that context.

      “Maybe I just don’t like ::insert ethnic class:: people.”

  5. Stephanie*

    Re: the salary question

    So what if you ARE somewhat flexible (i.e., you’re unemployed and just need ANY income even if it is half your previous salary)?

    I also find it’s gotten super common for employers to ask salary requirements/history during a phone screen. For example, the interviewer will ask “What were you making at X position?” And you can’t lie as that’s something easily verifiable through an HR office. My last position was at a government agency in an area with a high COL (DC), so I’ve found that when interviewing for a position in a location with a lower COL or in the nonprofit sector there’s sometimes an awkward pause after I state my old salary. Sometimes I think that the interviewer will automatically assume I’m too pricey based on an old salary. (Ha, I know this sounds like I was making money hand over fist…far from it.)

    Anyway, I know a smart interviewer would take COL into account for a previous salary and not make assumptions overall, but those seem to be far and few between nowadays. What’s everyone’s suggestion for getting around this without being like “I made X” followed by a bunch of verbal diarrhea of “Oh but I know Minneapolis has a lower COL than DC” or “I will accept a lower salary based on opportunities for advancement, bonuses, etc.”?

    And on a side note, while there are many, many things wrong with the federal government application process, I will give USAJOBS credit for clearly listing salary ranges on all the positions.

    1. Henning Makholm*

      How about treating that as an opportunity to show that you have done your homework?

      “In raw numbers, I made $X. Based on living costs between [location P] and [location Q], I think that would be roughly equivalent to $Y around here”.

  6. Another Nonymous*

    I went to my last interview with a full page of hand-written questions, which I checked off as they were answered. The interview was the most interactive one I had ever been on – much more a discussion than anything else. In fact, I really looked at it as interviewing them (there were 3 managers in the interview), and was extremely prepared

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I’ve done that, too. I always ask if it’s OK for me to take notes as we talk (no one’s ever said no), and I make it a point to write a couple of very brief notes.

      I really like Alison’s question about what sets a great employee apart from a good employee. I’ll use that next time for sure!

    2. Stephanie*

      I’ve done that before–I had a handwritten list of questions and notes about the company prepared. While I’m talking, one of the interviewers goes “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I saw your list of questions and you have AMAZING handwriting! It’s almost like a font!” I wasn’t sure how to respond this as I was thinking “Ok, he probably wasn’t listening to what I said and was just staring at my notes. Maybe he at least saw I had some good questions and did my research…”

  7. Anda T*

    I’m glad that showing up late was addressed, but what about showing up early. We had a candidate show up ridiculously early, over half an hour early. She didn’t even apologize (this, after showing up for her first interview 2.5 hours late). I don’t think she saw it as a problem. Meanwhile, it caused everyone’s schedule to be flip-flopped to accomodate her arrival. It was a series of interviews and we were all scrambling for the rest of the day.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I’m gobsmacked that you rearranged your schedule for that person! Why would you do that? Let her cool her heels in the reception area until her appointment.

      1. Anda T*

        Our office is so little, there is no reception area. (Which she had been here before, so she was aware.) We had no choice but to sit her in my boss’ office and scramble to get the committee together.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In that case, I’d recommend saying, “You’re about half an hour early, so why don’t you go get some coffee and plan to be back here right at 3:00” or something like that. No reason to scramble!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ha, I almost mentioned that in the post! Totally agree — have ranted about it somewhere before although I can’t find the link now.

      However, I’m a big believer that if a candidate arrives ridiculously early, you don’t need to accommodate that — you explain to them that you’ll be starting on time, and then you return to what you were doing until the scheduled time.

      1. Stephanie*

        I think part of the problem is that there are all these interview books/coaches/workshops/whatnot hitting people over the head with the message of “ARRIVE EARLY AT ALL COSTS! DO NOT BE LATE!” and failing to point out that showing up an hour early is just as bad.

        1. Anonymous*

          But you don’t walk in to the interview that early. You sit in your car, find a shady area nearby, fix your hair in the restroom, find a quiet spot to review your resume, questions for the employer, etc. I was at least a half hour early for my interview, but I didn’t walk into the reception area until about ten minutes before.

    3. Dawn*

      My question here is why did she get a second interview when she was 2.5 hours late to the first one? Was there some extraordinary circumstance involved?

      I agree that if someone is that early, they should be made to wait in the reception area, board room, conference room, etc., or told to come back at the appointed time. In my opinion, showing up that early shows a disregard for your interviewer’s time and doesn’t make a good impression.

  8. Mike C.*

    “Hey folks, great to meet you! I just wanted to let everyone know that I’m XX years old and belong to YY and ZZ protected classes! I hope this interview goes really well for all involved!”

  9. Ethan*

    In terms of salary, how about being afraid of high-balling or low-balling? I just graduated with my masters and have been applying to jobs in the non-profit (arts admin) sector. I’m not sure of what these companies have been paying these more entry level positions, and while I’ve had some experience, I’ve never been salaried. I have some friends who have held similar position, but they’re either in places with significantly higher or lower standards of living.

  10. wits*

    As a former receptionist, I have to agree with the advice to go find a coffee shop somewhere if you arrive more than 20 minutes early.

    I know AAM’s article was about what not to ask an interviewer, but it’s also a good idea not to grill the receptionist about the organization, your chances, etc, because it’s annoying and the receptionist has to work to do. Also, don’t be rude to the receptionist or ask her for anything if she doesn’t offer (like beverages or if she will throw out your gum).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I so agree about not taking up a lot of the receptionist’s time — I have always looked at that as an indicator of the candidate’s own work ethic.

Comments are closed.