how to ruin your job interview

You can have the perfect resume and a compelling cover letter and show up for the job interview ready to impress, but if you make one of these stumbles, get ready to forego the job offer.

1. Being late. Being late to a job interview is often an instant deal-breaker. Hiring managers assume that you’re on your best behavior while interviewing, so if you’re late for the interview, they’ll assume you’ll be unreliable once on the job. Always allow more time than you’ll need to get to your interview, so that you have a buffer in case something goes wrong.

2. Being unprepared. Asking questions about the company that could have been answered with some basic research or not seeming familiar with the job description tell the employer that you didn’t bother to do your homework.

3. Not showing enthusiasm. A job candidate who seems lackluster or unenthusiastic about the job prospect will almost certainly become an employee who isn’t engaged with the work. Employers want candidates who seem engaged and excited about the work, so don’t hesitate to articulate your interest in the job.

4. Being rude to the receptionist. Don’t just be on your best behavior with your interviewer; make sure that you’re polite to everyone you encounter. Many interviewers will ask the receptionist about you. If you were rude or arrogant, that’s usually a deal-breaker.

5. Sounding bitter. Job searching is tough, especially in this market, but if you let an extended period of unemployment make you bitter, you’ll turn off potential employers. It’s nearly impossible to hide bitterness if you feel it, so it’s crucial to find ways to have a more positive outlook.

6. Not being able to give specific examples in response to questions. If you claim that you excel at problem-solving or that you’re an innovative genius and then aren’t able to give specific examples to back you up, interviewers aren’t going to believe you. Make sure to come to the interview prepared with specific examples from your past that show how you’ve used your skills at work.

7. Claiming you have no weaknesses. You might as well wear a sign saying, “I’m not being straightforward with you.” If an employer asks you about your weaker areas and you can’t or won’t respond with a realistic assessment of areas where you could improve, you’ll appear to be lacking in insight and self-awareness. You’ll also make it impossible to have a real discussion about your potential fitness for the job. A good hiring manager genuinely cares about ensuring you’ll excel at the job, and having an honest discussion of your fit is a crucial part of that.

8. Answering your cell phone in the middle of the interview. If you forget to turn your phone off and it rings, that’s forgivable, but answering it isn’t. If your phone rings mid-interview, look mortified and apologize profusely – and then turn it off.

9. Sharing inappropriately. Resist the impulse to talk about how much you hated your old company, or the fact that you dated your boss, or your family’s medical problems. Employers want to know that you understand professional boundaries and have a sense of discretion.

10. Lying about anything. However much you might wish that you could change the facts about why you left your last job or say that you finished your degree when you really didn’t, lying in a hiring process is an instant deal-breaker. Employers want to hire candidates with integrity, not people who show they’re willing to lie. And while you might think you won’t get caught, you never know who your employer might know who knows the truth.

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

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    #7. Claiming you have no weaknesses. Why does this question only get asked when interviewing potential new hires? If this blog demonstrates anything at all, it is that companies don’t evaluate their own managers the same way. Interviewers should either give up this question altogether or be prepared to ask it of everyone in the organization. Hey, maybe that’s a good question to ask the interviewer – “What weaknesses does your CEO have and how are you addressing them?”

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It doesn’t only get asked by the interviewer. A smart interviewee will ask something similar — for instance, “what are the challenges and obstacles that people in this role/department typically run into,” “what kinds of people thrive here and what types don’t do as well,” etc. However, it’s completely legitimate to have an honest discussion of someone’s fit for a role (which includes weaker points) before hiring them — and it’s to the candidate’s advantage as well, because you don’t want to end up in a job you’re going to struggle in or get fired from. If you know that you don’t do very well with X, and it turns out that X is really crucial in this role, wouldn’t you want that to come out before you take the job?

      1. Greg

        You raise good points why, in theory, it can be good to get a candidate to discuss his weaknesses. But the discussion below demonstrates why employers should stop asking this question. The goal of an interview should be to get the candidate to reveal something about herself that will allow you to judge whether she can succeed at the job. The problem with the weakness question is that every single job candidate has been coached within an inch of their life to come up with a canned answer to this question. So all you really get by asking it is how well they’ve prepared this answer.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          A good interviewer can get past the canned answers though. For instance, if someone presents a strength disguised as a weakness, I just call them on it.

            1. Greg

              So Joey, you get offended when candidates give a canned answer to your canned question?

              This is a friend-of-a-friend story that is probably apocryphal, but I like to think it happened: After a candidate gave the standard “work too hard” answer to the weakness question, the interviewer said, “That’s the same BS answer everyone gives.” To which the candidate shot back, “That’s the same BS question everyone asks.”

              The fact is, if you ask the weakness question, you’re no longer interviewing the candidate. You’re interviewing their career coach, or parent, or blog, or whoever else helped them prep for the interview. It’s a question that has long outlived its usefulness, and deserves to be put out to pasture.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Totally disagree. It’s a legitimate area to talk about, and the candidate should have as strong of an interest as the employer in making sure that her particular combination of strengths and weaknesses is going to be a good fit with this particular job.

                Just because a question is asked a lot doesn’t mean it’s a bad question. If a candidate gives a canned, meaningless answer, I’m going to push to have a conversation that goes deeper than that.

                1. Anonymous

                  It is a hackneyed question. I understand what you want to know, but you’ll never, never get it by asking this question. Few people are aware of their actual liabilities and do indeed resort to a canned response. “What areas of improvement have your supervisors suggested?” is somewhat better.

          1. Vicki

            I’ve always been amused by some of the examples of “a strength disguised as a weakness”.

            “I’m a perfectionist” is NOT a strength. It’s a red flag.
            “I work too hard” is NOT a strength. It’s a danger sign (if true.) (If not true, see #10. Lying about anything.)
            “I can never say no” is not a strength.

      1. Jamie

        No – it sounds like a 360 review to me.

        I love the idea of a 360 review – but I’ve never worked anywhere that uses them.

        1. Anonymous

          You’re right, a 360 is a good tool for that. I worked at an organization that used it extensively for management development. But it can also be misused in the wrong hands. For example, a manager only picking respondents who will give them positive feedback and deliberately excluding one particular direct report that they didn’t have good rapport with (which was a very ugly situation because excluded direct report found out from an included direct report).

          1. Jamie

            Right – used correctly I think it would be fascinating, if humbling. But selecting one’s own participants would skew the whole thing so it would be worthless.

            1. Suz

              My former employer used 360s. Part of why they did it was because a lot of us worked at remote locations while our managers were located at HQ. I think worked out really well.

              Prior to your review, you’d give your manager a list of 6 – 10 people to do your review. They had to be people you worked closely with. In addition to coworkers and your direct reports, you could include people from outside the company such as customers. Your manager would narrow the list down to 4 or 5 people. He/She also had the option of adding other people to ensure you didn’t just pick your friends to do your review.

    2. ChristineH

      I never know how to respond to questions about weaknesses! I guess you have to relate it to the skills/attributes outlined in the job ad? The only safe answer I can think of is not having experience in a certain software program, but saying that you’re very eager to learn.

      1. NDR

        I tend to answer with 1. things I am not super at but have found a workaround in past positions making sure to tell them how I work to overcome the weakness, 2. (as Jamie mentions below) things that I really don’t like doing and know I will procrastinate, sometimes until it becomes a problem or 3. things that managers haven’t reacted consistently towards in the past. An example of 3: I am a total non-reactor. The more excited/upset you become at me, the less I am going to react and the more I am going to focus on getting out of here and fixing the problem. Some managers I’ve had in the past think that I’m tuning them out or don’t care, even though I reply with “I understand you’re upset and will do everything in my power to fix this now.” I just hate to get all worked up, too, because that’s not going to fix anything.

      2. Vicki

        I loathe the “weaknesses” question. Ask me about my Strengths!

        According to Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, in their book*, “Now, Discover your Strengths”:
        A weakness is anything that gets in the way of excellent performance.

        So, “I hate to speak in public” is not a weakness if you’re an IT guy in the server room and the closest you will ever get to “speaking in public” is your group meeting with 5 co-workers and the manager.

        * Great book. Highly recommended. I blog-reviewed it at http://vlb.typepad.com/commentary/2006/05/discover_your_s.html

    3. Anonymous

      I’ve heard it asked in different ways, rather than using the word “weakness”. For example, “what do you see as your areas of improvement?” I think it’s an important question to ask as none of us are good at everything (re: hard, technical skills) and some of us have soft skills that need to be improved upon.

      It also gives good insight into not only how self-aware the person is, but if this person is doing something about it. It’s one thing to say, “my Excel skills could be stronger” and another to say, “my Excel skills could be stronger, therefore I’m taking advanced Excel courses in the evenings.” It shows that this person has initiative and is willing to learn new things, which can be more important than the actual ‘weakness’ itself.

      1. Jamie

        I don’t mind the word weakness, but I’ve been entrenched in ISO for so long I translate that to “opportunities for improvement.”

        Prior to reading AAM, I would always answer with a couple of valid weaknesses which were irrelevant to the job.

        If I were to do it now I’d highlight a couple of things that come easy for others, but with which I’ve had to consciously improve and share my strategies.

        I would also throw in a couple of things I really hate, even if I’m not working to improve – because I wouldn’t take a job if it was featured heavily anyway, so I might as well put it up front.

        For example there is one piece of software I never want to see again. I don’t want to be it’s admin, I don’t want to cut a PO for it’s purchase, and I have a visceral negative reaction at the mere hint of troubleshooting it. So I mention it as a weakness. In truth, I’m quite competent with it…it’s just a rare instance where my personal agenda to avoid it over-rides my ego so I can let people think I’m not the go-to person for this.

        If you could break up with software, I would have totally filed for divorce.

        1. Vicki

          Aha! Something to add to my list of weaknesses to practice for interviews:
          I can’t use Windows. I just freeze up and my fingers stop working.

  2. Ali Mc

    I just found your blog a week ago, as I am currently trying to jump back into a field that I haven’t work in in over 5 years. Your resume and cover letter tips have been awesome!

    Just wanted to say thanks.

    Also – better not ever visit my running/foodie blog – the grammar and jargon will appall you ;) haha

  3. Anonymous

    I’d also like to add: showing up in smelly clothes.

    I once interviewed a young man (actually, not sure I would call him a ‘man’ as I think he was just barely out of teens) who came to the interview in a wrinkled, smelly suit. We were in a smaller interview room so by the end the whole place smelled like old, musty dirty clothing.

    He was actually very pleasant and seemed like a good fit for the role, but I could not get past his smelly suit. Needless to say, he did not get the job.

    1. Jamie

      I don’t know if this is widespread, or just anecdata – but I’ve known a couple of cases where there was reticence to go further in the interview process because the applicant was too well dressed.

      I’ve seen it where people were passed over because they showed up for low-mid level management positions with $500 + shoes or purses. The logic was that they would be too high maintenance (want too much money down the road) and concern that they would be comfortable working in a factory environment.

      I don’t personally notice brands, so if you show up clean and in something a little nicer than cut-offs then I’m good. I just wonder how much thought people should take in dressing at the income level for the position.

      And the brands I do notice…if you show up for a job with a high range of 35K per year and you’re carrying an LV bag I’m just going to assume it’s a knock-off.

      1. Anonymous

        As crazy as that sounds, it makes sense to me. There is definitely such a thing called “over-dressing”.

        Kinda unrelated to the interviewing stage, but it’s in line with the ‘overdressing’ thing – it’s not a good idea to complain loudly to anyone within earshot that you’re a ‘starving’ student when I’ve personally seen you a) roll into work in a Mercedes, b) carry around a gigantic Hermes purse, and c) strut around in expensive designer shoes. It also doesn’t help your case that your father just happens to be the Senior VP.

        1. Jamie

          This. Also don’t be an 18 year old part time worker and park your 2011 Lexus in my spot.

          The company owner let’s be use her spot when she’s out of town. It’s mine for the next three weeks. Reserved for my four year old Mustang with the snarky IT vanity plates and Hello Kitty window sticker.

          Park your Lexus somewhere else, kiddo. Don’t bother the curmudgeon – and get off my lawn!

      2. Vicki

        Being overdressed (or underdressed) can show that you haven’t done enough prior research on the company. For example, if you interview at a Silicon Valley tech firm, wear an Oxford or “Polo” shirt and nice slacks. If you wear a suit and tie, you are not a fit.

    2. Anonymous

      Maybe he needed the job to get a new suit. If he was a good fit for the role, you should have given him a chance.

  4. Joey

    Ah, the ways to ruin an interview. I could go on and on but some that come to mind:

    1. Bringing your out of control toddlers.
    2. Wearing those cat eye contacts.
    3. Referring to your girlfriend as “shorty.”
    4. Hitting on the receptionist (who has a fat wedding ring).
    5. Bringing a friend who wants a job too.
    6. Asking if we keep background checks confidential because your wife doesn’t know you have a felony for child molestation from a long time ago.

    1. Jamie

      Joey – if your list is from personal experience how do you keep a straight face?

      I’d be looking around to see if I was being punked for a you tube vid.

      1. Joey

        Doesn’t everyone who interviews have wild stories?

        I once had someone stop by and ask if we had any entry level jobs paying at least 50k. When I asked about her experience she handed me a resume and told me all she’s ever done was exotic dancing, but she was trying to get out of that.

        1. JfC

          I actually believe that legal sex work shouldn’t be an aberration on your résumé. It’s a kind of customer service, and it’s an easier way to make ends meet than comparable minimum wage positions. It’s fine if it’s not applicable to the sort of work you do, though. Did you tell her about ways that people gain experience for entry level positions in your field? Training, internships, temp work, volunteering?

          1. Joey

            My problem was she had no qualifications for any professional job that I knew of remotely near 50k. And that was a paycut for her.

          2. Anonymous

            This is true, if you look at it from an alternate perspective. You learn to talk to a variety of different people (valuable interpersonal skills), how to deal with difficult clients, how to meet and even outdo your nightly goals.

            Granted it’s not the most socially acceptable way to learn these skills, but those skills are essentially transferable, with a few tweaks here and there.

  5. Jamie

    All of these ring so true, but why do so many people continue to underestimate the power of #4?

    I will ALWAYS ask the receptionist her opinion. The last thing we need around here is smugness, and if you think you’re superior to any of the current employees I really don’t want to work with you.

    1. A Bug!

      You answered your own question: these people have decided they are superior to your receptionist. And since they don’t think they need anything from her, they see no value in making nice.

      I don’t get it myself, either. Is that feeling of smug superiority really worth the damage you’re doing to yourself professionally? It’s like the Dalai Lama says: a truly selfish person should be very nice to others, in order to reap the benefits of others’ goodwill.

    2. fposte

      This is such a known thing that I’m not only surprised applicants are still rude to receptionists, I’m surprised they haven’t started bringing in gifts for them.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Which actually relates to something else about talking to the receptionist: You can go too far in the other extreme too. I’ve had a couple of candidates who arrived 15 minutes early and spent that whole time talking to the receptionist, who was clearly trying to to work (and who gave sufficient cues that the candidate should have picked up on that). Not showing consideration for that kind of thing says something about work ethic.

      2. Lexy

        When I was receptionist I had job applicants be rude to me WHO WERE INTERVIEWING FOR MY POSITION. Seriously. I was being promoted and they were hiring my replacement and girls would walk in like they owned the place with their nose in the air way too good for everyone but the interviewer.

        Uhmmm… pro-tip, not the way to get a job that requires public contact and customer service skills honey.

      3. ARM2008

        Early in my career one of my mentors filled me in on who at work it was important to be on good terms with: 1. the cleaning staff – they will water your plants if you’re gone, let you into your office if you forget your keys, and they know EVERYTHING that is going on. 2. The admins – they can do almost as much as the cleaning staff, they can get you appointments with their bosses, and they know what forms you need to file to get what you want.

  6. Cruella

    I check with the receptionist too. If she says you are rude/smug/arrogant/ etc…, I don’t care how qualified you are, you are out.

  7. Joey

    I play a game with my receptionist. Who do you think I’ll end up hiring and why? She’s usually pretty accurate.

  8. Erica B

    When I’ve had interviews I get caught up with the questions that ask about certain scenarios, mainly because those scenarios have never happened to me, or I just can’t think on an instance when the spotlight is on.. so I stumble through those, but my last interview was about 8-10 years ago so I am not even sure what types of new scenarios they ask for these days

  9. Anonymous

    I have been ‘Admin support’ a few times for interviews – i.e. administering tests, showing people into the interview room and was always asked for my opinion on the candidates.

    The worst interview I was involved in was for an admin assistant. The interviewer came out complaining that the interviewee had given hardly any answers, chewed gum throughout and only attempted the first question on the test. They were even more shocked when I told them that the interviewee’s friend had spread herself out in the waiting area, demanded a cup of tea and waited there for the hour (it was supposed to be 90mins) that the interview took.

    1. KT

      Me too! When I was an entry- level employee I would sit in on our department interviews and proctor a couple of hiring tests when the interview was over. You wouldn’t believe how many candidates would ask me for answers (guaranteed no second interview) or say inappropriate things about my manager (like she seems strict or she seems old fashioned etc). I guess because they saw me as a peer they could speak freely–they were still being evaluating. The stronger candidates would either keep their heads down and just do the tests or ask me polite questions about my role and strengths of the organization.

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