7 deadly interview sins

Having trouble getting job offers? You might be making one of these seven deadly interview sins.

1. Being late. While occasional lateness can often be excused in other situations, it’s often a deal-breaker in a job interview. Hiring managers assume that you’re on your best behavior while interviewing, so if you aren’t on time for the interview, they’ll assume you’ll be unreliable if they hire you. 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. Badmouthing a former employer. As tempting as it might be to explain that you left your last job because your boss was crazy or that your previous company was mismanaged and corrupt, sharing these feelings will reflect badly on you. Rightly or wrongly, the interviewing convention is that you don’t badmouth a previous employer, and hiring managers are looking for evidence that you know what is and isn’t appropriate to say in business situations.

3. Not being prepared with examples that illustrate why you’d excel at the job. If you claim that you excel at strategy or that you’re an innovative genius and then you aren’t able to give specific examples of how you’ve used these skills, interviewers aren’t going to give much credence to your claims. Make sure to come to the interview prepared with specific examples from your past that show how you’ve turned your skills into real accomplishments at work.

4. Telling an off-color joke. Interviewers are scrutinizing you for evidence of what kind of judgment you have. No matter how friendly your interviewer might seem, inappropriate jokes or off-color language have no place in a job interview. You’ll call our judgment into question, and will make your interviewer wonder what you’ll be like when your guard is down after you have the job.

5. Not asking any questions. You might be spending eight hours a day 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 in which you’ll be working, the supervisor’s management style, and the culture of the organization. Otherwise, you’re signaling that you’re either not that interested or that you just haven’t thought much about it. So come prepared with thoughtful, intelligent questions about the work you’d be doing.

6. Sounding bitter. Job-searching is tough, and it’s easy to feel discouraged. But if you sound even the tiniest bit bitter or negative about your job search or a previous employer, you’ll turn off potential employers and almost guarantee that you won’t get offers. No one wants to hire someone who seems angry or resentful.

7. Not being likeable. Interviewers are human and want to work with people who are pleasant to be around. If you’re unfriendly, arrogant, or rude, it won’t matter how qualified you are; interviewers won’t want to hire you. So be friendly and open, and show genuine interest in the people you’re talking with.  Don’t feel you have to hide your personality, or be so formal that you become stiff or impersonal.

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

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Elizabeth West*

    Great advice. I’m sure I’ve made all of these mistakes at one time or another. I’m more likely to if I’m not well-rested before I have an interview. So get enough sleep before the big day, people.

      1. AD*

        It was on-campus interviewing, so back-to-back-to-back all morning. I let my 10am interview go, and then had to use the ladies’ room, which took me past where my 11am was waiting. I said something like “Good morning, I’ll be with you in just a minute”, and he looked at his watch and said “It’s already after eleven”. I repeated that I’d be with him in a minute.

        Now, I know that college kids say/do stupid stuff, but then my entire impression of him in the interview was that he was cocky. It’s possible that, had it begun differently, I would have seen him as confident instead.

  2. Anon*

    #7 is a bit challenging for me as a new grad. I don’t have a “professional self” to be yet. Maybe I come off as stiff.

    1. AD*

      Interviewers know that new grads don’t have a ton of experience with this stuff. A good interviewer will try her best to see through nerves and get an impression of what you are really like. Also, believe me, if you are a little on the stiff or overly formal side, you are way ahead of the candidates who think it’s okay to drop an f-bomb in the interview.

  3. HL*

    Great reminders! It’s easy to stumble into any one of these “sins” as an employment search drags on. In avoiding #3, is there any way to keep from falling into part of #7? In other words, what is the best way to keep a balance on the dividing line between confidence and arrogance?

    1. Henning Makholm*

      Faked confidence may risk coming off as arrogance, but I think real confidence (rooted in actual competence) is clearly distinguishable from it.

      Most importantly, real confidence comes with an awareness that there are limits to your skills and knowledge , a willingness to contemplate that you might have have reached those limits, and confidence that it’s not the end of the world if that happens.

      For example, if you have said that in a certain situation he would do A and the employer asks why not B, if you are trying to fake confidence you would grasp for an argument that A is definitely superior to B, and if you don’t have a strong one ready, attempting to present a weak or nonsensical argument as a strong one can easily veer into arrogance.

      On the other hand, if you’re really competent and confident, you can afford to have a flexible opinion about what the right answer, and just say:

      “Oh, B is also a good solution. I tend to do A when all things are equal, but that is more of a personal preference”.

      “My experience is that B is a risky choice because of X, Y and Z. Of course, A itself risks W, but I’ve found that to be more manageable.”

      “I’ve never tried B myself, because it sounds like it could easily lead to X, Y, and Z. If A is impossible, I’d want to combine B with C and D to mitigate those problems.”

      “Hm, yes, that’s a better idea than A. It would give you P and Q for free. You’d need to prevent R, but that doesn’t sound difficult in comparison.”

      1. HL*

        Thank you for your input! In fact, your first two sentences help alleviate my anxiety a bit. In addition, I agree it’s important to recognize your own limits (even before submitting a resume) and to be teachable throughout your career (even during an interview).

        1. Henning Makholm*

          Well, don’t wallow in your limits. Ostentatious humility can be as tedious as arrogance. Just be aware that a successful interview is one that gives the interviewer an idea where your limits are and how you handle encountering them. (If the interviewer isn’t able to find any limits, he’ll have to wonder whether in fact everything he asked were beyond your limits and you’re just really good at bluster). So being asked a question you don’t know a perfect answer to is a good thing, not something to be covered up and explained away.

          1. HL*

            I agree. In fact, your first reply to my comment helped to confirm I’ve been on the right track as far as keeping the “balance” needed to be successful as possible during an interview. It’s important to know that aside from your strengths, you just can’t do everything or fit in every job culture (and forcing a fit is not a great idea).

    2. AD*

      A big part of #7 is your behavior before and after the “actual” interview, too. When you are being asked the real questions and getting into the nitty gritty, you should sell yourself as best you can (but don’t be dishonest, the interviewer can tell). However, you make an impression when you talk to the receptionist, when you walk with the manager from the front room where she’s greeted you back to her office, when you send the thank-you note, etc. You want to be friendly and polite in all of these situations.

      If you have two minutes in the elevator with a manager, for example, you don’t want to stare awkwardly off into space or something like that, so you introduce some kind of neutral conversation topic that somehow shows an interest (i.e. “how long has BigCorp been at this location? Do you like being in downtown Boston?”

      1. HL*

        This is very true. Having served as the front desk person greeting visitors and also the assistant meeting visitors in the lobby to escort them through the building, I would include my observations in the case of an interview candidate when the hiring manager asked for any impressions.

  4. Dan*

    How do you best handle explaining a position where you had major issues with the management? In some interviews it hasn’t come up, but in others they’ve contacted an old manager and asked a specific question about it.

    How do you field that without either sounding wishy washy or self-doubting, “Well yeah, she’s right I suck” or badmouthing them, “She couldn’t manage herself out of a paper bag, of course nothing got done”? The “there were differences in managerial styles” seems insufficient, even if you get more specific.

      1. Malissa*

        I’ll give an example. I had a manager that when we were alone would pick my brain and ask me tons of questions. She came off like she valued my opinion and knowledge. When with others all of my ideas became her ideas and I was just the lowly clerk she hired that knew nothing.
        I honesty left that job because I couldn’t stand the manager for obvious reasons. I know that she would never give me a good review.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you left for another job and you were at the first job for at least two years, you can always fall back on “looking for new challenges”/”ready for something new”/etc. People won’t question that. If you left without another job, or if you left after, say, six months, they’re going to assume there’s a story there. In that case, you could say something like, “I really wanted an opportunity to contribute in areas like X, but what they needed was more along the lines of Y.”

      2. Dan*

        Things I did she wouldn’t admit I did (stepping into a supervisory role for 6 months during an emergency), for example. If they ask about them when they call her, she will say they didn’t happen. But I need to put those things into my resume because they are my big achievements.

        That’s the most egregious example, but there’s a common thread with others. Because of several factors (her being a terrible manager and my need for different managing from the little she did), she doesn’t like me and has the perception I can’t do some of the major duties from that job. I have other previous positions that would suggest otherwise but she is the longest and most recent. I can point to specific examples from her that contradict her own belief (i.e. I was asked back after leaving to help them with a procedure), but I don’t know if that’s appropriate to bring up.

        Given the option, I would not mention any of it. But sometimes it does come up if they call her for references.

  5. TK*

    How do you explain in a decent light being fired. It seems as though I cannot get past this incident even though it has been seven years.

  6. Suz*

    I’m not sure where else to put this but I am looking for Kelly in Houston. You might be interested. (KellyO?)

    Client seeking HR Generalist to 60k, solid growth company; wonderful place to work 3 to 5 years of full range of HR, Degreed, PHR or SPHR….appreciate your interest and referrals!

    Check out Marcus Personnel, Inc.

    1. Kelly O*

      Thanks Suz! I’m nowhere near qualified for that one, but I do appreciate your thinking of me. (I just need to finish that degree and get certified… at the rate I’m going, my toddler and I will be graduating together.)

  7. Mathew*

    I can’t agree with you more about the necessity to “be friendly and open, and show genuine interest in the people with whom you’re talking.”

    The interviewers often consider the applicant with regard to the company’s culture. If you don’t sound positive or interested in the position and company, you’re likely not going to land the job.

    It’s always important to check out the company’s website, history, and recent events and to make a point of referencing them in the interview (but not to the point where it looks like you just looked at their website for the first time the night before).

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