tricks that job interviewers use

With more and more job candidates coming to interviews with prepared and rehearsed answers, savvy interviewers are developing ways of getting beneath the surface so that they can find out what you’re really like. Here are 10 tricks that interviewers often use – and which can trip you up if you’re not careful.

1. Silence. Some interviewers will intentionally remain silent when you finish an answer, waiting to see if you’ll start talking again. Most people are so uncomfortable with silence that they’ll rush to fill it, and in doing so, might offer information that’s more candid than the original answer, and maybe more damaging. The best strategy here? If your interviewer is using silence on you, remain silent right back. Chances are good that after about 10 seconds, the interviewer will start speaking again. If not, you can always ask, “Did I answer your question fully enough?”

2. Extreme friendliness. Good interviewers want you to let your guard down. By putting you at ease, they can get a better sense of who you really are (probably good for you) and maybe get you to relax and slip up (not so good for you). You’re more likely to reveal something unflattering if you feel comfortable. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t relax, but do realize that this isn’t a cozy chat with a friend; it’s still an interview.

3. Asking “What do you know about us so far?” Interviewers ask this because they want to know if you did your homework. If you haven’t prepared for the interview by learning all you can about the organization, it will show.

4. Asking why you’re thinking about leaving your current job (or why you left your last job). Interviewers want to know if you’re leaving (or left) on bad terms, or if you’re willing to badmouth an employer.

5. Asking how soon you can start. While you might think that expressing a willingness to start right away will play in your favor, if you indicate that you would leave without giving your current employer at least two weeks notice, interviewers will assume you’ll do that to them someday too. Instead, explain that you can start as soon as you give appropriate notice and fulfill your obligations to your current employer.

6. Asking you to follow up about something. If the interviewer asks you to follow up with some information – or takes you up on your own offer to send, say, a relevant article – make sure that you do it. She might be watching to see how well you remember and follow up on commitments, even small or informal ones.

7. Leaving you with the receptionist. Some candidates will say things to the receptionist that they’d never say to the interviewer – whether it’s revealing candid impressions about the job, mentioning that they’re hung over from last night, or flirting inappropriately. Smart interviewers will always ask the receptionist or others who came in contact with you for their impressions.

8. If you were laid off, asking if others were laid off with you. “How many in your department were laid off as well?” probably isn’t an innocent question; it’s an attempt to figure out if a past employer “laid you off” to avoid having to fire you for performance.

9. Asking what your dream job is. If you start talking about your true desire to work in film when you’re applying for an accountant job or your hope to manage political campaigns when you’re applying to be a teacher, most interviewers will think you’re not especially committed to the position they’re hiring for.

10. Asking what questions you have. Okay, this one isn’t really a trick, but a good interviewer can tell a ton about you by what questions you ask. Do you focus on benefits, pay, and hours, or are you curious about the job itself? Interviewers want to hear thoughtful questions about the work, the culture, and the organization – questions that show that you’re really trying to figure out if this is the right fit for you.

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

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. LeeL*

    I just can’t imagine someone flirting with the receptionist at an interview. Are some people really that crass?

    1. sharon*

      I think an awful lot of people act flirtatious without meaning anything by it or even realizing they’re doing it, because they don’t know any other way to act around the opposite sex.

      1. Anonymous*

        I agree with you Sharon. Although these flirtatious people need to learn how to ‘tone’ some parts of their personality down – especially when being at work.

  2. Anonymous*

    7. At a past job, our receptionist would escort candidates to our part of the building and pump them for info. She would find out stuff like if they had kids, if they were married, etc. We didn’t ask her do this and didn’t even care about most of that kind of info. She was a nosy person in general. However, how they treated her played a huge role in the hiring process.

    When I worked retail I also remember the people at the customer service desk would put Post-it notes on applications with things like “smelled like pot” or “facial piercings”. I’m not saying it’s right but candidates should be aware that this stuff happens, even if you’re just trying to bag groceries. Your first impression starts when you pull into the parking lot.

    1. moe*

      Ouch! Someone should really have put a stop to her prying into personal matters. Dicey area.

  3. Libra*

    My favorite trick is to ask why the candidate is interested in the job and then a few questions later to ask her about her hobbies or any personal interests listed at the end of the resume. This gives me an opportunity to compare the emotional reaction to both subjects and to understand if the candidate is truly passionate about the job.

  4. Piper*

    #8 – asking if others were laid off with you

    This really isn’t fair. I was laid off from a very small, startup, and I was the only one who was since I was the only one in my department. And unfortunately, I work in a field where what I do is seen as “disposable” to a lot of people. The only other person in my department quit just a month before I was laid off and they did decide not to backfill his position, but still, I was the only one laid off. I hate how many employers still assume that a lay off was a firing in disguise.

    1. Piper*

      OMG. I really need an edit function on these posts. A “very small startup” (no comma necessary).

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think most managers know that there are plenty of times where only one position is cut — but it’s a way of getting more context about the situation. A lot of people say they were laid off when they were fired, so it’s a way to probe for more information.

    3. Anonymous*

      This really isn’t fair. I was laid off from a very small, startup, and I was the only one who was since I was the only one in my department

      Then you can truthfully say that your entire department was laid off at the same time.

    4. Natalie*

      In that situation, I think it would be okay to mention how many people work at the company/office. I’ve had to do that recently to contextualize the amount of turnover in my office – it’s three people, but that’s out of an office of seven.

      1. Piper*

        Yeah, this is a good point. At the time I worked there, there were 17 people total and most were developers and programmers. All the other managers had recently quit and I was the last one still there. So they laid me off. Speaking of turnover, I’ve never seen an office with such high turnover rates. Getting laid off was probably a good thing because that place was toxic!

    5. KayDay*

      Also, if a small company wants to eliminate “redundancies” that often means letting go of one person out of a two person department. If you work in the only “department” that has more than one person, you might be SOL no matter how well you do.

  5. ExpatTaxCPA*

    Occasionally, if someone seems overly rehearsed in an interview, I’ll trot out “What’s your biggest weakness?” so they can say that they’re a perfectionist or workaholic. The real question is the followup “And how has that been a problem for you?”

    Not that employers should ask your biggest weakness because it’s usually a dumb question, but if they do, have a genuine response. I’ll say that I’m not not good at public speaking – because that really is my weakness. And it’s not something I have to do much as a tax accountant, unless I am expected to do marketing.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Even better: “How has that been a problem for your manager?” Because that gets away from “oh, I need more work-life balance, need to be better about leaving work at the office, etc.”

      1. Kathryn T.*

        I once swore that the next time I was asked “what’s your greatest weakness as an employee?” I would answer “Kryptonite.” It’s a dumb question, it deserves a dumb answer.

        Of course, that was in a very different job market. These days I’d probably grit my teeth and say, sunnily, “I have problems with focus and distraction. Fortunately, over the years I’ve developed a lot of good behavioral hacks for the problem, and it’s been a long time since it affected my work.”

      2. Pamela G*

        Huh. I really like that “How has that been a problem for your manager”, because I’ve been struggling with this question for a while. I know that perfectionism and workaholism are the two most cliched answers going around, but they both happen to be true in my case!

        I would say that my perfectionism meant that I would often not manage my time well, as I would spend far too long perfecting minor details that weren’t important (like making a worksheet for my students, seeing that there were faint black lines around the edges of the pictures and articles I’d pasted onto the sheet from the photocopier, and taking half an hour to white-out all the lines before photocopying it again!) or wanting to re-design a worksheet another teacher had done because she wasn’t good with tables in Word and I could make it all fit on one sheet much more tidily instead of sprawled across two pages.

        My workaholism lead me to doing 90 hour weeks in my first school term as a new teacher, although that was probably a by-product of my overly-perfectionistic approach and lack of time management skills. I was always very stressed out and on the edge of burn-out, for a number of years.

        My approach is much more relaxed these days! I’ve learned not to stress the small stuff, and to start with the biggest projects rather than doing all the minor stuff first and working up to the big stuff. I got much better at time management and also at checking in with my Head of Dept about what my priorities should be, rather than desperately trying to look like I had it all together.

  6. J*

    You should have called this post “tricks that GOOD job interviewers use.”

    I knew a hiring manager who read way, way, way too much into whether or not a candidate accepted a glass of water. Apparently, this was his ultimate test of cool under pressure. (The correct answer was yes, by the way, because accepting the glass of water meant that you didn’t cave to pressure… not that you were thirsty.)

    There are a lot of other tricks out there that interviewers use, for better or worse.

    1. Lee L*

      Maybe I’m being thick here, but how does accepting the glass of water show that you don’t cave to pressure?

      In some countries it would be rude not to accept but that’s a cultural difference not some far fetched theory regarding the mind of the candidate.

      1. ChristineH*

        “Maybe I’m being thick here, but how does accepting the glass of water show that you don’t cave to pressure?”

        Nope, you’re not thick because I too was wondering about that.

      2. Another Brit*

        To me it says you didn’t come prepared for the interview! You should arrive to interview not needing water*, the bathroom and with your phone off!

        *If you are someone who needs constant fluids then I’d be expecting you to be carrying a bottle of either water, juice or soda.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think it’s about needing water; it’s generally about the thought of having some water sounding appealing, and taking them up on their hospitable offer.

    2. Charles*

      Oh lord, another thing to stress over in an interview?!

      If I do accept the water am I now seen as “irresponsible” if I don’t offer to wash out the cup when done? Am I not “green enough” if I accept something in a styrofoam cup or accept water in a plastic bottle?

      Lord, the tricks some fools play – how on earth do THEY get to be manager?

  7. Ellie H.*

    These are all great tips!

    In my (new) experience interviewing for college admissions, I have to say I definitely practice “extreme friendliness” which I hope isn’t being perceived as a “tactic.” My intent really is to get the kids to relax, though, and not to trick them into saying something overly colloquial or inappropriate. This has never happened – I do really wish they would call me by my first name not “Ms. Heyman” but I absolutely don’t hold it against them that they do! I definitely have underlying social anxiety (though I think I have learned to manage it really well) and as a result I think I kind of operate under the assumption that most other people I talk to do, too, just in case, so I am always conscious of trying to put people at ease in an interaction. (Unless, of course, I’m the subordinate person like I am in an interview or talking to a superior or something.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I definitely don’t think people perceive it as a tactic. I started doing it because I just wanted to put people at ease to be nice, and then I realized that it had the benefit of making people be really candid with me!

  8. Scott M*

    I used to have a manager that would practice the ‘silence’ method. I never knew if it was intentional or not. I finally realized what was happening and found ways to resist blabbering on.

    One method to counteract this, was to always have a drink in my hand (water, soft drink, coffee) so I could take a long sip during the silence. It gave be a few extra seconds to be doing something rather that just sitting there waiting through the silence.

    1. AX*

      The “silence” method is effective in SO MANY contexts… interpersonal relationships, work, car salesmen/women… seriously.

      As an auditor I use this all the time. But being a great talker I have to remind myself. When someone I’m interviewing appears to be done speaking I make eye contact, nod briefly and take a breath before I respond to give them a chance to continue. The more my interviewee talks the better, whether they’re helping me or piling on BS.

      1. Rana*

        Yep. It was one of the first “tricks” I learned as a teacher leading discussion groups. I’m normally a chatty cathy (if you couldn’t tell from my posts) but when the situation calls for it, I can outwait anyone. After you’ve had a room of thirty pairs of eyes staring at you expectantly and fearfully while you sit saying nothing, doing so with just one person looking at you is nothing.

      2. Ellie H.*

        I agree. I once heard a friend’s dad who is a professor say that you can tell the difference between an inexperienced teacher and a great teacher by how long he or she is willing to wait in total silence after asking the class a question nobody answers.

  9. Anonymous*

    I worked with a guy who enjoyed giving commercial mortgage underwriters math problems during their interviews. He would also hold the interviews in a conference room with a window, in hopes that the 10th floor view of the countryside would intimidate them. He left to work for the government.

      1. Anonymous*

        You would be even more scared of the 10 story atrium lobby. We have staff who hug the wall as they walk around the “hallway” outside our office, staying as far as they can from the glass railing and the 100 foot drop to the lobby.

        1. Charles*

          ” . . . staff who hug the wall as they walk . . .”

          That would be me – I hope no one uses that as part of the interviewing!

        2. Liz in a Library*

          Oh goodness…I wouldn’t last a day there. I get horrible vertigo just from riding on escalators or climbing stairs with glass sides.

  10. Charles*

    Not really a trick; but just to add a story about one candidate who did let his guard down.

    I was once in charge of administering a test to candidates that took about an hour; then at the end of the test I would walk the job candidate through our department (a rather large open area with about 50 staff) over to the boss’s office to be interviewed. After dropping the person off with the boss I would grade the test. Usually, the boss would call me after the interview to get the test results, sometimes he would call me during the interview if he was really impressed with the candidate. But, he never offered the job without calling me first to get the test results.

    However, one day, as I was walking this one candidate through the department to the boss’s office this guy, I guess in a effort to be “friendly,” or perhaps in response to my “silence” (not a trick on my part, I was just too busy for too much small chit chat; I usually asked how they liked the test and not much else) said, “man, there sure is a lot of nice looking T&A here, how do you get any work done?” I was stunned into silence!

    Then, I was in a total panic! Should I call the boss and interrupt the interview? What if he picked up and left me on speaker phone? (he was known for using speaker phone a lot)? What if I didn’t call and he offered the job anyway without the test results? After all this raced through my mind, I called him during the interview anyway and asked that I not be on speaker phone (I wasn’t). Luckily, this boss was know for keeping his cool and thanked me later for calling him right away. He did say that it was too bad because the guy looked like a good candidate except for that stupid remark.

    So, I guess it was good for us; but, bad for the candidate.

  11. Suzanne*

    #9 did give me pause. So much depends on the job you are seeking. I had a temp job doing data entry a couple of years ago. No, I was not passionate about it and would question anyone who was. I had an interview a few months ago for an administrative assistant type job. Again, I was enthusiastic about the mission of the organization and really liked the people who interviewed me, but passionate about keeping track of purchase orders and setting up meetings?
    I don’t think employers can really expect people to be passionate about data entry or answering phones for $10 an hour.

    1. Anonymous*

      “I don’t think employers can really expect people to be passionate about data entry or answering phones for $10 an hour.”

      I had a $10/hr data entry job a few years ago… It was mindless work any chimp could do but I was passionate about it. This was a boring job that allowed me to listen to auidobooks while doing, I got a lot “read” while working that year. :)

  12. Pete*

    I think that what goes on in an interview is an act to a certain extent. Some questions will sound silly, some may be irrelevant as far as you are concerned. My daughter went for an interview for a job, and afterwards thought it went very well. A few days later she went to another company for an interview, thought she hadn’t done particularly well at it, but guess which job she got – the second! Unless you do/say something really moronic I think a lot comes down to whether the interviewer takes to you, or not.

    1. tango*

      I agree. We all know how much of the interviewing process is being liked by the person or people interviewing you in regards to thinking you’re compatiable with their work style and company or department culture. Great skills can’t (usually) make up the difference if a hiring manager feels you lack the temperment or personality or work ethic that best suits their needs.

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