10 things your interviewer won’t tell you

Wondering what your interviewer is really thinking? Here are 10 things your interview might be thinking – but probably won’t tell you.

1. You showed up too early for the interview. Many interviewers are annoyed when candidates show up more than five or ten minutes early, since they may feel obligated to interrupt what they’re doing and go out to greet the person, and some feel guilty leaving someone sitting in their reception area that long. Aim to walk in five minutes early, but no more than that.

2. We’re judging how you’re dressed and groomed. In most industries, a professional appearance still matters. You don’t need to wear expensive clothes, but showing up in a casual outfit or clothes that don’t fit properly or having unkempt hair or inappropriately flashy makeup can harm your chances.

3. We don’t want you to try to sell us. It’s a turn-off when a candidate seems overly focused on closing the deal, rather than on figuring out if the job is the right fit. No hiring manager wants to think she’s being aggressively sold to; we want the best person for the job, not the most pushiest spiel.

4. Little things count. Candidates often act as if only “official” contacts, like interviews and formal writing samples, count, but hiring managers are watching everything, including things like how quickly you respond to requests for writing samples and references, whether your email confirming the time of the interview is sloppily written, and how you treat the receptionist.

5. We might act like we don’t mind you badmouthing a former employer, but we do. We’ll let you talk on once you start, but internally we’re noting that you’re willing to trash-talk people who have employed you in the past and are wondering if you’ll do that to us too. What’s more, we’re wondering about the other side of the story – whether you’re hard to get along with, or a troublemaker, or impossible to please.

6. You might be talking too much. Your answers to your interviewer’s questions should be direct and to-the-point. Rambling and unnecessary tangents raise doubts about your ability to organize your thoughts and convey needed information quickly. If you’re tempted to go on longer than two minutes, instead ask, “Does that give you what you’re looking for, or would you like me to go more in depth about this?” If the interviewer wants more, she’ll say so.

7. Fit really, really matters, so we think a lot about your personality. You might have all the qualifications an employer is looking for, but still not get hired because your working style would clash with the people you’d be working with. Remember, it’s not just a question of whether you have the skills to do the job, it’s also a question of fit for this particular position, with this particular boss, in this particular culture, in this particular company.

8. We want you to talk about salary first for exactly the reason you fear. Salary conversations are nerve-wracking for job-seekers because they know that they risk low-balling themselves by naming a number first. And that’s exactly why interviewers push candidates to throw out a number first. In an ideal world, employers would simply let candidates know the range they intend to pay, but in reality, plenty take advantage of the power disparity by making candidates talk about money first.

9. We’re going to ask other people what they think of you. We’re going to ask anyone who came in contact with you for their impressions – from the receptionist to the guy who you met for two minutes in the hallway.

10. We like thank-you notes, but not for the reason you think. Post-interview thank-you notes aren’t just about thanking the interviewer for her time; the ones that are done well build on the conversation and reiterate your enthusiasm for the job.

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

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. The Other Dawn*

    3. We don’t want you to try to sell us.

    This. It’s so annoying to have someone come in who is off-the-wall enthusiastic and is pushing really hard to be hired. There’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic and trying to sell yourself, but don’t be so pushy and overbearing about it. Tell me about your skills and why they’re a good fit.

    I find the ones who are really pushy tend to not have the skills they say they do. We ended up hiring someone who was pushing really hard to “close the deal.” She was in-your-face enthusiastic and couldn’t talk enough about her “awesome Office skills.” Guess what? She ended up being a dud and we had to let her go.

    1. Ry*

      Oh man, I do too. My husband says I say everything like I’m making a formal argument: thesis, evidence, restate thesis to close.

      How can I stop? Someone please help me make my points once instead of twice! It’s a conversation, not a formal oration!

  2. AD*

    I think it can be tricky to balance #2 and #7 if you know you are interviewing at a more casual workplace. Personally, I always err on the side of being too formal, but I know that in some industries, I’d come off as a total stiff.

    1. jmkenrick*

      I’m hardly an expert, but I find that it’s best to dress & groom conservatively than the people interviewing you and then let your demenour / questions reflect what you’re like on a day to day basis.

      When I interviewed for my current job, I was dressed much more formally than anyone interviewing me, but I think I managed to convey that I’m a more casual person through my answers, as well as the questions I asked about the office culture.

    2. KellyK*

      The trick for that might be to focus on “put together” as totally separate from “dressed up.” Things fitting well, not being worn, faded, or dirty, neat hair, etc. applies whether you’re in jeans or a suit.

      1. AD*

        Right, I just think it’s tricky to decide what to wear to an interview for, say, Google. You want to look like you “fit”, but I still wouldn’t think jeans are appropriate.

        1. Vicki*

          Jeans might not be appropriate. On the other hand, a suit will make you look naive (Google, Yahoo!, Apple, pretty much anywhere in Silicon Valley) and may make your interviewer _very_ uncomfortable (seriously).

          1. jmkenrick*

            I don’t know that I agree with this. I agree that a suit probably isn’t necessary, but people know that it’s expected in some industries, so I doubt it would make anyone uncomfortable.

            1. Jamie*

              I don’t think it would make anyone uncomfortable either. It’s default interview-wear, so I would doubt anyone would judge you especially at a first interview.

              If you get a second interview, I would dress in a manner in keeping with the interviewer(s) – unless they were off puttingly casual, in which case I would still stick with business casual.

              1. jmkenrick*

                I like the idea of using the first interview as a way to gauge how to dress for the second.

            2. Rana*

              Plus, if you walk in wearing your suit, and realize it’s too formal, there’s nothing to keep you from taking off the jacket, which can make you seem a bit more approachable.

        2. jmkenrick*

          I’m a Palo Alto native and know lots of people in the HR department at Google (two of whom I actually live with. :) )

          My understanding is that the standard advice (dress a fews rungs up from what they’re wearing, no jeans, err on the formal side) definitely applies – especially if you’re not an engineer.

  3. Tax Nerd*

    (Wow. They really don’t believe in anonymous commenting over there at US News, do they? I’m not setting up a dummy account just to comment on their site. And they fail at limiting spam that way.)

    #7. If you have the technical skills, but we foresee lots of problems soothing over ruffled feathers because of a personality clash, we’ll want to keep looking for an equally qualified person who will fit in. Sometimes, we’ll take good fit/attitude and an intelligent person who needs training over someone who doesn’t need training, but whose personality reminds us of heavy construction equipment (wrecking ball, steamroller, etc.).

    1. Catherine*

      9 times out of 10 I go for the person who lacks in experience or training but has the better personality. Soft skills are really important in my job.

      1. Jamie*

        For me hard skills are important, but I agree that the personality fit trumps an exact match for hard skills.

        If someone’s track record shows an aptitude to learn new technology/software on a reasonable learning curve and they are a great fit culture wise that person will be infinitely more valuable in six months than the person who may have had all the software boxes checked off on my list, but perhaps didn’t show the adaptability and fit.

        There is an old saying – hire more for that which you can’t teach. I can teach you how to maintain a database. I can’t teach you how to be logical, detail oriented, and I certainly can’t teach work ethic or integrity.

        Unfortunately the important stuff you can’t teach is harder to screen for than the hard skills.

        1. Catherine*

          Absolutely. And the most sociopathic people tend to do really well in interviews…

        2. mh_76*

          LIKE! And to the previous employers who made us sit through a 2 hour MS Outlook training: It’s not rocket science! I can teach all of that in 20 minutes! So…if you hear in the news about a bad reaction to a 2-hour Outlook training… Granted, some hard skills (including hand-coding/scripting) take longer to learn than is feasible to teach/learn OTJ but an Excel macro is really truly easy to build using the record-macro tool. And if you find out that I know how to do that (and that can teach myself a lot of what I don’t already know), please don’t ask me why your computer doesn’t work when you talk to your mouse!

  4. Ms. O*

    Number 5 is difficult. I know I’m not supposed to talk bad about my current company, but how can I explain why I’m leaving my current place, and how can I find out if the place I am interviewing at is just as bad? Yes, I could make up something diplomatic, like looking for new opportunities and expand in my portfolio, etc., but that would only be 10% of the truth. The other 90% is that I am leaving my current company because it’s a really poorly run company.

    1. jmkenrick*

      I think you might be able to figure out tactful ways to step around the issue. For example, you could say that you’re looking for a more structured enviornment – or something more fast-paced.

      (It might depend on the specific issues with your company, of course.)

    2. Jamie*

      If you do it gracefully you can talk about the fit in a way that isn’t bashing the former (current) company.

      “The company is run by howler monkeys and I got sick of dodging flung poo in every staff meeting” is bad.

      “I’ve succeeded at XYZ company in compiling detailed metrics for the chocolate teapot division…I am really excited about the opportunity to do this for you since from my research you seem to be a company which really utilizes KPIS to make operational decisions and it would be great to put my skills to use in such a well organized and structured environment.”

      The second would still let them know the company was run by howler monkeys, but also tells them you’re savvy and smart enough not to mention it.

      1. Ellen M.*

        ^I like this. Well done, Jamie!

        (And I have worked at a couple of places run by poo-flinging howler monkeys. No offense to actual howler monkeys, of course.)

        1. Jamie*

          No offense on my part, either. Real howler monkeys are adorable, and flinging is part of their culture.

          It’s their human counterparts that are the problem.

          1. Ry*

            Okay, can I just say that I <3 Jamie? You contribute worthwhile ideas to threads, often with a previously-unconsidered perspective or new information… but you're also way too entertaining. Poo-flinging howler monkeys? Love it. Not wanting to offend any poo-flinging howler monkeys who may have become literate and able to read Alison's posts? Even more adorable. The next time somebody annoys me, I'm going to remember "flinging is part of their culture" and hopefully be unable to stay annoyed.

      2. Anonymous*

        What if you left the monkeys without having another job (but with freelance and part-time on tap) and are now looking for another full-time position? It’s been over a year since I left my poo-filled workplace but was asked about it in a recent interview. The “explore new opportunities” lines are okay, but I can sense interviewers are still concerned that I left a full-time job without having another and might suspect I was fired. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’d say that you had enough freelance work queued up that you felt confident you could make it as a freelancer, but after a year of working for yourself, you’ve realized that you vastly prefer a more traditional job.

    3. fposte*

      I think you may be overfocusing on the truth-percentage idea. People don’t ask about your availability because they want to know your biography in detail and will polygraph you but because your answer will tell them things about you. One of those things is whether you trash people behind their backs. Unless your company is currently headline news for its investigation by federal authorities, if you do badmouth, there’s nothing to indicate that your opinion isn’t just you being picky and negative. Therefore you go for professional and tactful: “I learned a lot in that position, but I’m not able to advance in that company in the way that I’d like to” covers “those people are nuts” pretty nicely.

      You can also ask questions about management styles, employee retention, etc. of the company in your interview, to get a picture of your prospective workplace.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        “I learned a lot in that position, but I’m not able to advance in that company in the way that I’d like to” covers “those people are nuts” pretty nicely.

        Ooh, I like that much better. I’ve been saying a more rambly, regretful version of this. May I borrow? :)

  5. Risa*

    I hire in San Francisco, and get a lot of students/recent graduates for an entry level call center position. The majority of my interviewees show up in jeans. If I discriminate against jeans, I would lose some really great applicants. However, I do look at how put together they are overall. If they also wear a sweatshirt, I really have to question how seriously they are taking the interview. But nice, clean jeans paired with a blouse or dress shirt wouldn’t bother me.

    However, the worst interview outfit I ever saw was worn by a woman who was overweight. She showed up in white stretch pants – which ended up looking see-thru – and a yellow tube top.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      “However, the worst interview outfit I ever saw was worn by a woman who was overweight. She showed up in white stretch pants – which ended up looking see-thru – and a yellow tube top.”

      …and your point is?

      1. mh_76*

        Imagine if a guy showed up for an interview (or to work in general) wearing spandex short that showed everything and no shirt. If he were remotely decently built, I’d be very distracted and would probably walk into or trip over almost everything and everyone…based on your comment, you’d probably be the one saying “Ew” and trying to not lose your lunch.

  6. Seal*

    Regarding #1 – I once had a candidate show up 20 minutes before her interview. Rather than wait outside in her car, she came in and sat in our public area, which is 10 feet away from and within sight/earshot of my desk. Since I wasn’t expecting her that early I had planned to do a few quick tasks before her interview that required me to walk past her a couple of times, which was hugely uncomfortable for both of us. Needless to say, by the time her interview rolled around I’d all but decided not to hire her.

    1. bob*

      Sorry but I have to say that was a crappy thing to do. Did you cancel her interview or waste her time with a job she had no shot at?

      It wouldn’t have been hard to simply say “I have a few things to do but we’re on time for our X o’clock interview.” I’m certain the interviewee knew she was early and didn’t expect you to drop everything to start her interview early.

      1. Danielle*

        “I’m certain the interviewee knew she was early and didn’t expect you to drop everything to start her interview early.”


        When I was interviewing for office type jobs as a college sophomore, I didn’t have a car. There’s no way I would be standing outside in the cold, heat or rain just so I don’t violate this interview “rule”. I really hate this rule.

        Personally, I like to make a stop in the restroom to make sure I’m presentable. I’d hang out in there for a few minutes, if that’s possible.

    2. mh_76*

      Why not greet her, finish your tasks, and talk to her when the interview was scheduled to begin. Was she showing signs of being annoyed / impatient?

      I rely on public transit and in my city, it is quite unreliable (I don’t own a car…and driving in-town in my city is no picnic). The subway schedules are merely suggestions at best and the buses, though sometimes on-schedule, get stuck in traffic. I always allow more time than I need for transit but if there aren’t any hiccups in the…um…”system”, then I’ll be early. I have no problem waiting until the scheduled interview time because it gives me time to review any pre-interview notes that I may have made and/or read the magazines/newspapers in your public area and maybe “freshen up” if needed. It’s nice when the receptionist/assistant offers water or coffee but that isn’t necessary.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s what I wrote in my article — the interviewer ends up feeling obligated to interrupt what they’re doing and go out to greet the person, and some interviewers feel guilty leaving someone sitting in their reception area that long and will pressured to start early. Or the person talks to the receptionist the whole time, who has work she needs to be doing. I don’t recommending showing up more than 5 minutes early — if you get there before that, wait in your car, go to a coffeeshop, whatever.

        I’ve had candidates show up half an hour early. It’s annoying. I always say to them, “We’re going to start on time, so why don’t you go get a coffee downstairs and come back in 30 minutes.” In other words, “go away and come back at the correct time.”

        1. KellyK*

          If someone comes in early and there’s really no place for them to be (no nearby coffee shop, no car to wait in), is there a way for them to mitigate the annoyance? Like, if they said to the receptionist, “Hi, I’m Jane Doe, and I have an eleven o’clock interview. I know I’m early–the buses were running on time for once. Is it all right if I wait here?” would that help?

            1. mh_76*

              I can’t speak for others but I usually acknowledge that I’m early and don’t mind waiting. If the appointment is at a staffing agency (vs. a company), it’s nice to be a bit early to fill out the paperwork that they inevitably give you even if you spend an ungodly amount of time filling out the same stuff online (some places just have you verify the info…but still…). Few companies have you fill out an actual paper application anymore (well, maybe retail but that’s before they’ve even decided to sched. an interview).

      2. another anon*

        not sure if this is applicable to where you live, but why not instead of waiting in the public area, you wait at the nearest cafe, park, bookstore, or even just outside the office (if it’s in a building to houses many companies and has space outside to sit and hang out)

  7. Anon2*

    For #1 – I get it, but I guess I don’t really feel those kinds of obligations. If I had tme to go early, great. If I don’t and I’m close by, then I just go say hi and let them know I’m finishing up a few things and will be with them at the interview time. If I’m not close by, then I ask the front desk person. Anyone too early should know it will go either way, no reason for awkwardness. I’d rather someone show up 10-30 min early than late. Earlier than that though and I’m going to wonder if they’d be a good fit.

  8. another anon*

    I definitely do #9.

    If only I had a penny each time the receptionist tells me that the candidate asked “Do I really have to fill this out?” or something similar in reference to filling out an application form. To me, this just shows that you are lazy and are looking to get out of doing work if at all possible.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d reconsider that, especially for senior positions. It’s been years since I’ve been asked to fill out an application, but I’d really balk at being asked to at this point in my career.

      1. another anon*

        I might agree with you re: even having an application in the first place. ( I can’t authorize this policy change for my company though) but, is it the applicant’s place to be asking if they really need to fill it out?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’d certainly ask. I don’t have a problem with someone asking if they need to do something that on its face seems like a waste of time and kind of an indignity.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          And again, I think it depends on the level of the position. Entry-level? Yeah, they’re not in a position to balk at jumping through hoops. Good senior people with options? Entitled to balk.

          1. Jamie*

            This. If given an application pre-interview I would ask, because frankly I’d assume it was given to me in error and the receptionist didn’t know for which position I was interviewing.

            Upon acceptance of the offer I would just fill it out, though. Most places I’ve worked require it for all positions, because it’s required by their policy (it gets your signature stipulating to the background info being true.)

            But yes, I would balk at having to fill out an application pre-interview that wasn’t online.

  9. RandNotAyn*

    “Salary conversations are nerve-wracking for job seekers because they know that they risk low-balling themselves by naming a number first.”

    With the exception of entry-level positions, why not state on your resume “Industry average + 10% + Commensurate Benefits” or whatever language you think expresses that you deserve more the norm. (And if you really know that number then put it a number that’s 10% more … $75,000 per year + Commensurate Benefits.)

    Then they can ask me what I earned on my last job, which I will state as my salary + value of benefits (because isn’t that frankly what many employers do…try to cast the cost of benefits as salary?).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t do that. First, you don’t want to discuss salary on your resume; it’s just not something that’s done. Second, there’s wide variation on what “industry average” means, so it doesn’t really tell the employer anything and will come across as a little naive. Third, asking for an automatic 10% over market rate (even if market rate were a well defined thing, which it’s generally not) is going to look like unwarranted arrogance (and naivete) to an employer because you haven’t proven yourself by that point.

      On benefits, if you cite it as part of your salary, you need to be clear that that’s what you’re doing, because some employers verify salary — to the point of asking for your last W2.

      1. RandNotAyn*

        Should one put salary requirements in a cover letter?

        I do understand the point about industry average but not about arrogance.

        Isn’t the premise of them hiring me over others is that I’m better? Why wait for their nod before deciding what you think is fair?

        It would indeed seem arrogant to claim 100% better but not 10%. To me it’s being willing to say your reasonably better than the group and deserve to be compensated as such.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          By definition, most people aren’t better than average. You need to really be able to make that case before you ask for more than average. Plus, you don’t to be negotiating salary before they’ve even talked to you; you want to wait until they’ve decided they want you before you get into that. But more importantly, read the “salary” section of the archives — you’ll find a lot on all these issues.

          1. RandNotAyn*

            What is the relevance that most people aren’t better than average.

            I looked in the salary archive as directed and, at the top – did I just low-ball my salary for the rest of my career, you say the following, which is exactly my point…

            “Of course, this is a perfect illustration of why it’s frustrating for candidates that companies make them name a number first. Job seekers are rarely in as strong of a position as an employer is to have a solid idea of what a position should pay, and plenty of employers take advantage of that.”

            And my point is that people SHOULD know what the position pays beforehand and not be taken advantage of. It’s the same due-diligence that they should do about the company.

            And there’s even another topic that seems to speak to this… ‘when a candidate won’t share salary expectations’

            “I have always asked candidates what their compensation requirements are, either before they come in to meet with me or after they have come in.”

            and .. “I know compensation is a touchy subject for a lot of candidates, but it concerns me that he wasn’t straightforward with expectations from the get go.”

            They want to know, they need to know, why not tell them. I’m sorry but it seems very awkward to not tackle this upfront.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              The relevance is that you can’t ask for more than average when you can’t justify it by being better than average, which most people aren’t, by definition.

              1. RandNotAyn*

                No one could possibly know if they can justify it or not until judgement is passed. Until that time should they not conduct themselves as they not just passable but the best choice?

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  You should not be negotiating salary in your resume or before an employer has even talked with you.

                  Look, the phrasing you put will turn employers off. It’s a bad idea. I don’t know what else you want me to say.

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