how to scare away your job interviewer

Most job seekers worry about making mistakes in interviews, but most interviewers understand that no one gives a perfect interview and will overlook the occasional flubbed answer. However, it’s still possible to scare off your interviewer with a single statement or action. Here are 10 of the most likely ways to spook your interviewer.

1. Not offering any past managers as a reference. If your reference list is stocked with peers, employers are going to wonder why you don’t want them talking to the people who supervised your work and whether you having something hide – and many will call your past managers anyway.

2. Mentioning that lawyers are working out your split from your last job. No matter how warranted your lawsuit might be, most employers are spooked if they learn you’re suing (or sued) a past employer. Fair or not, most want to avoid hiring anyone who they fear might be litigious.

3. Dismissing concerns about your experience. If an interviewer notes that you haven’t had experience with a key part of the job, don’t dismiss it with a breezy claim that you can learn anything. Savvy interviewers will be much more appreciative of a realistic view of the job’s challenges and an honest conversation about how you’ll approach them..

4. Being overly salesy in your pitch. Sales tactics are more likely to turn off your interviewer than to secure you the job. If you seem more interested in pushing your way into the job than making sure that the fit is right on both sides, you’ll annoy your interview and often kill your chances.

5. Constantly checking in and asking for updates. It’s easy to feel antsy when you’re waiting to hear about a job, but following up repeatedly with an employer is more likely to annoy your contact than to get you the outcome you want. If an employer wants to interview you or make you an offer, they’ll let you know; checking in weekly won’t speed that up.

6. Lying, about anything. You might think it’s minor to change your last job title or misrepresent your salary history, but to most employers, this will be an instant deal-breaker. Employers will assume that if you don’t show integrity in the hiring process, you won’t show it on the job either.

7. Explaining you’ve left more than one previous job because of the hours or workload. Interviewers understand that that these are understandable reasons for leaving a job – once. But if it’s a pattern, they’ll start to wonder whether you’re a prima donna who bristles at ever being asked to stay past 5:00 and who won’t help out with extra work when needed.

8. Being overly cocky. If you appear to have an inflated sense of your own abilities and value, any sensible interviewer is going to worry about what you’ll be like to work with. Will you take input and feedback, or insist you know best? Will you dominate meetings and alienate coworkers? Will you demand raises far beyond your value to the company?

9. Not having any questions about the job. If you don’t have any questions about the job you’re considering spending eight or more hours a day at, you’ll come across as cavalier or disengaged. Interviewers want to hear that you’re thinking critically about whether or not the role is the right fit, and that you understand what you’d be signing up for.

10. Sounding angry or bitter – about anything. Whether it’s anger at a previous employer or bitterness over your trouble finding a job, there’s no faster way to scare off an interviewer. Interviewers want to hire people who are upbeat and pleasant; if you sound like you have a sour outlook on life or work, they’ll likely steer clear.

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

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. KarenT*

    Mentioning that lawyers are working out your split from your last job.

    I’ve never been told this by a job candidate, but I did have a freelancer do something similar. I contacted a freelancer I use quite regularly to ask him if he’d be interested in working on a project, and he wrote back saying he couldn’t because his old assistant was suing him for sexual harassment and he needed to devote his time to that case.
    Talk about an overshare!

  2. Victoria*

    #8 – that’s so very true. Recently my branch manager interviewed a young lady who was extremely confident. She actually said, “I plan to have your job in 6 months!” Considering that my branch manager was 1 month into her new position, that was extremely unlikely. That gal did not get the job, mostly because of her attitude.

    1. Jane Doe*

      I think the “I see myself in your job” answer to “where do you see yourself in X years” is one of those things that people heard worked once (not for anyone they know, of course) and now they’re using it themselves because they think it’s a slick answer.

  3. Sara*

    Regarding #2, let’s say someone is involved in a lawsuit with their previous employer. Once they are hired, does thier current company have to know about it? Is it the kind of thing that would show up on a background check and cost them a job offer?

    1. Anonymous*

      Not usually. This doesn’t usually come up in conversation during a job interview, and it most cases would not be relevant. This also wouldn’t show up on a lot of background checks unless you were charged with something (example, my company only pulls criminal records). Some companies do not even conduct background checks.

      It may scare some employers away if they do in fact find out, though, depending on what you are suing over. So if it is something you think would make your prospective employer raise their eyebrows/be scared you may sue them over the same thing if you are hired, then it may be worth bringing up and explaining.

    2. KarenT*

      It wouldn’t come out during a criminal background check if this is a civil lawsuit. However, it may come out if they contact former employers of yours. It also may not, as people can be hesitant to talk about legal matters, particularly when they are ongoing.

  4. Mary*

    #1 – I do put that they can contact previous employers and list their names. However..of the 4 direct supervisors in the last 15 years 3 have passed away including the last employer. Even though they passed months after I left, that’s a hard one to explain. I do not put that on an application, I do not mention it in interviews. Should I change the way I avoid that subject?

    1. Cathy*

      I had a similar situation a few years ago (one deceased mgr, one living overseas and English is not his native language). When my references were requested, I offered an explanation for the lack of direct supervisors in the list before they asked and said I’d be happy to provide references from among my past managers’ peers. The references I used did know me and were happy to speak about me, but they couldn’t provide great detail about the specific work I had done. The company ended up using one of those and two of my own peers, and they did offer me the job.

    2. nyxalinth*

      I have this, too. I only have one previous supervisor who is really useful. One fell off the face of the earth, and the other passed away last March.

  5. ChristineH*

    #1 – I always get confused with this. When filling out job applications, there’s usually a space to provide the name and contact info of your direct supervisor. So when asked for references, can that include these same supervisors, or must it only be other individuals, e.g. your supervisor’s manager or a coworker?

    #4 – Ugh! I still sometimes see advice to “ask for the job”! It’s just not in my nature, and some of the sales tactics I see suggested just make me bristle.

    1. Jane Doe*

      A lot of sales tactics are just plain awkward in real life, especially when what you’re “selling” is YOU.

      Or they don’t work for the type of personality that people envision in a certain position. A lot of people equate sales tactics with being disingenuous or with “spinning,” which isn’t a desirable trait for every job.

  6. Not So NewReader*

    Adding one more: Do not say you are a high risk pregnancy and the doctor does not want you to work.
    Solution: Don’t apply for jobs.
    (Yes, actually happened.)

    1. Sasha*

      So…what did she think was going to happen? That they would hire her and let her work from home or something?

      1. Jamie*

        This reminds me of that story on the Daily WTF (I know some other AAM readers haunt there as well…) where the woman was interviewed and for a job for which she was completely unqualified:

        “My manager asked her just what it is she expected this job to be about. Her reply has been forever burned into my memory.

        “I get paid. If you expect me to deal with all that computer shit, I’ll go off on stress leave and sue you.”,-and-More.aspx?pg=3

        Cracks me up whenever I think about it.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Then she goes to the unemployment office and says “Yep, I applied for all these jobs and no one will hire me. I have no clue why. ” (head shaking…)

  7. Lanya*

    Being out of shape is another way to scare off your job interviewer!
    I arrived for an interview wherein I was guided up four flights of stairs by my interviewer with my heavy portfolio in tow. I was huffing and puffing, sweaty, and red in the face by the time we got to her office. Immediately after showing me my seat, she started asking her interview questions before I had a chance to compose myself. I was having trouble answering her and actually had to ask her to give me a second before we continued. It did not make for a great first impression, and needless to say, I did not get that job, despite being very qualified for it.

    1. Jamie*

      That sucks – I’m sorry your interviewer didn’t have the grace to give you a moment or two.

      And four flights, seriously? I’m thinking of all my interview shoes and four flights would be an issue in any of them. One flight, okay…more than that I want a warning to wear flats.

    2. Esra*

      That’s just mean. I get a little hot just from nerves before an interview, nevermind dragging my portfolio up four flights of stairs in heels.

    3. nyxalinth*

      I’ve applied a few places where heavy stair usage was involved. I have a bad knee, and more than a few stairs are murder on it! I either ended up not getting the job, or having to turn it down.

      Also, I used to be guilty of asking for the job. I’ve since learned to just say “I’m very interested in the position and I think we’re a good fit for each other” instead.

      Also, I have an interview tomorrow, so this was very timely!

      1. Job seeker*

        Nyxalinth, I really do hope you get the job from your interview tomorrow. Please do not feel bad about stairs especially if you have a bad knee. I do five miles every day and am in good shape, but I would never think badly of anyone that had a hard time with stairs. Having a physical reason is a good one. Good luck tomorrow. I am rooting for you tomorrow.

    4. Lanya*

      I have no idea why we couldn’t have taken an elevator, but I didn’t think to ask at the time. I guess I will have to start doing my morning walk carrying my 10-lb portfolio so that I’m prepared next time!

      1. Sasha*

        Yep, not sure of anyone, even fit people, who can handle a four-flight climb with heavy stuff in tow. In business clothes.

    5. Job seeker*

      I think going up four flight of stairs carrying something heavy is reason enough to be out of breath. I am sorry this interviewer was so insensitive to you.

    6. Sara*

      Take it as a blessing in disguise, if they’re that insensitive to 1. make you climb 4 flights in business clothes + carrying something heavy and 2. not even wait for you to catch your breath, chances are they would be just as difficult to work for…

    7. frequent commenter*

      I have to say I was guilty of judging someone based on appearances (I approved her getting hired). She was pretty young and had a dainty phone voice but was very chubby when she came in, I was surprised to see her, because I pictured a skinny little stylish thing all dolled up, being in a posh cosmopolitan area. It’s not that I cared about the weight either way, but the whole interview I was thinking “what happened that you got so big?” And don’t post judgmental comments to this – we all have had thoughts like this. I was wondering purely out of curiosity.

  8. Job seeker*

    I read this article and like many other times wish I had read this when I started looking for a job. I have made one of the mistakes mentioned. Checking for updates more often than I should have. I cringe to think what those people must think of me. I am sure they laughed at me or thought worse. It is really only one place I have done this but that is enough. I wish I could undo this but I hope someone else won’t make this mistake.

    1. anon o*

      Don’t beat yourself up about it – that’s annoying but it’s coming from a good place – you’re eager and interested in the job. (And yes, I’ve had people do this to me and I hate it too but it’s also not even on the top 10 worst things that have happened to me this morning.)

  9. Elizabeth West*

    #1 – past managers
    I keep running into applications that say “Please list at least three references, that are NOT past supervisors.” I do have one I can list, but she was a peer before that. Does that still count that when she left she was my supervisor?

    #6 – lying

    A relative who used to be a recruiter told me to change up a job title or two. She also said “Oh, just bluff your way in and learn on the job!” I was left thinking, yeah, I really want to trash my reputation before it even starts, and as a recruiter, didn’t you know they will call to verify my employment, including title? Maybe she was one of the bad recruiters!

    1. Jamie*

      When people reinvent their titles they are rolling those dice that no one will check references.

      I’ve done employment verification for former employees. I’ve never worked with them, I’m verifying based on information from the personnel files – period. So if your personnel files says you were a Chocolate Tea Pot Commander, but you have Chocolate Tea Pot High Inquisitor on your resume that’s not going to match. And you could very well have someone on the other end of that verification who doesn’t know you and is just reading out of files.

      1. jesicka309*

        I recently came across a former coworker on Linked In, who listed her time at Company X as ‘publicist’.
        I’m sorry, love, but I was a marketing assistant, and so were you. You weren’t a publicist, unless you got promoted in the month between me quitting and you quitting. At best, you were publicity assistant, but in reality, when you and I were job sharing, we had the same title.
        She’s now working at Company Y as a publicist, and I can’t help but wonder whether she got the job based on her assertation that she was in fact a publicist, and totally wasn’t driving the promo jeep on weekends. Also makes me question Company Y’s interviewing policy. Maybe I should apply there, saying I am a Marketing Executive, as clearly they don’t reference check that closely.
        And I am judging her so hard right now…wouldn’t want to work with her again, that’s for sure.

        1. Jamie*

          You hear about this all the time and it always astounds me. Given the transparency of Linkedin it seems like it would at least keep people honest – because you never know who’s looking and knows you’re full of crap.

          I have worked at more than one place that didn’t check references, though, so maybe that’s why it keeps happening.

          1. jesicka309*

            Perhaps…I just don’t understand why you’d lie. 4 months as an assistant at Company X while you’re at uni is reasonable. Wanting to move up into the next role for Company Y is reasonable. Why would you lie about 4 months of work? Was your title really what got you the job at Y then? Or did you change it retroactively because it made your track record look better?
            She was the reason I left X anyway, sneaky bitch, so I’m not surprised she did this.
            I can understand lying on your resume, as that’s sort of private, but on Linked In? It would be like me changing my Facebook picture to a picture of Miranda Kerr. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t look like that, and would think I’m kind of dumb for trying to slip it past them!

  10. Sasha*

    #6 – My well-meaning father always tried to get me to list myself as bilingual in French on my resume. I minored in it in college…and can’t construct a single sentence in French to save my life. Definitely not bilingual. And since I have started working, I have encountered many, many people in my jobs who speak French, so it would have been very apparent that I was lying.

    1. Anon in the UK*

      I had a former assistant who claimed to speak German fluently. It wasn’t a requirement of the job, more a useful thing to have, because we do deal with international business issues, so nobody tested him.
      I do speak it with near fluency, since I did a degree in it and then lived there for a while, and unfortunately when I tried to delegate him something it became apparent that his level was more along the lines of asking where the railway station was and ordering coffee. Which was awkward.

  11. jesicka309*

    RE. References – I thought we weren’t supposed to have them on our CVs? I have plenty of people who would be a reference (managers, supervisors, peers etc.) but I’m not listing them on my CV as I DO NOT want them contacted without my consent, and being in the media industry, with only five TV stations in my city, that could very well happen if I even listed their names. Whatever job I apply for will affect who I use as a reference anyway.
    Am I doing myself a disservice by not including these on my CV? I did use to have their names and “numbers supplied upon request” but even their names could be enough to alert an employer that I’m looking to move. And I took it off because AAM’s book says not to include that as it’s irrelevant. Will employers assume that I DO have references, but that they have to ask for them? Do you keep a special little saved document you email them should they ask for references? Also, work phone vs. mobile phone for references. I like to give out mobile, so that they can leave the room when they get the call, as there’s nothing more awkward than your current manager recieving a call and taking it while you and 10 coworkers sit in the same office.
    References are hard, and I hope it’s not a red flag I’m sending!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, they absolutely shouldn’t be on your resume. I’m talking about when an employer requests a list of references later in the process — the list you provide should include managers (although generally not your current manager, in most cases).

  12. Susan Ruderman*

    Very helpful summary of the many things that can make this difference between continuing in the hiring process and becoming the topic of a “Would you believe she said/did….” anecdote! And these are all mistakes that no interviewer will ever give specific feedback on. So thank you once again, Alison, for your wisdom. Can we look forward to a companion piece: “How to Scare Away Your Job Candidates?” I can think of some examples….;-)

  13. Mimi*

    As a hiring manager (or recruiter), what would be a diplomatic way of letting an applicant know he/she is asking for status updates way too frequently? This happens to me a lot. I feel like I should say something, but I’m not sure how to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t be rude.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Be more direct. Say, “I realize this is taking a while, but I will get back to you when we have a decision about next steps; please don’t feel you need to continue to check in.” If the person continues even after that, then say, “As I mentioned before, I will get back to you when we have a decision. It’s actually easier on our end if you wait for us to contact you. Thank you for understanding.” Or, “You’re welcome to check back after ___.” (Fill in with a more reasonable timeframe.)

      If the person is really out of control and ignoring all of the above, I wouldn’t have any qualms about telling them directly to stop — although at that point I can’t imagine hiring them and would probably just reject them.

    2. Job seeker*

      I agree with Alison, be more direct. I am an applicant that followed up too much with one place and wish I hadn’t. Believe it or not, some people like me have no idea how they are coming across. They just would like to have this job so much. I wish someone would have just told me “Look if we don’t get back to y0u, you are not being considered.” I would have felt bad, but it would have been better. I have since learned the hard way. Please let this person know you will help her not keep shooting herself in the foot.

  14. Jane*

    Oh #1. For me, right now: #1!
    Particularly for online application processes which specifically request name and contact information for all past managers, and whether or not each can be contacted. i.e. not my References list… although my question certainly applies there too…
    Should/can the caliber and communications skills (and potentially, creepiness or disrepute) of past managers affect your decision to offer them as “okay for contact”? Out of my 4 past managers:

    One is my current. Not okay to contact.

    The next, let’s call him Jack, was not a good communicator (weird, awkward little man, and English is not his first language…NO judgment here, just a concern) as well as potential disrepute. He was serially creepy at my office with the youngest, prettiest women (not me, thank goodness, but a couple of them were friends of mine, one a trusted, dear friend), and yes he’s married with kids. He was reprimanded repeatedly, but not fired (eventually laid off). And if he’s behaving this way in his new job…hm. He’s likely to say quite good things about my performance, but (a) who knows how he will communicate them and (b) frankly I’ve tried to steer clear of him and hate the idea of linking myself with him.

    And the next, let’s call him Bill, was a big thinker “mad man” CEO, a trainer who is well known in his industry, to varying repute…a family friend in the industry warned me when I was considering the job that it would be a good opportunity, but “watch out for him.” He started a franchise of a huge corporation and was ultimately removed from his position (and eventually the company) because of his enormous mis-management of the whole enterprise. He, too, is likely to say great things about me, but its possible his reputation is known, and he’s just a bit of a mad man… He was, in his way, terribly supportive of me when I was there, and told me he’d give me a great reference when I left, but he’s incredibly flaky and unpredictable. I’m not in touch with him now, and I’d really rather not be. (I could find him if needed.)

    The fourth, “Mark,” I am still in touch with and he would be a fantastic reference, but it was a part time job in college, and not terribly related to my current aspirations.

    So out of my 4, I have my current (no), Jack (maybe, but he just makes me feel creepy), Bill (oh heck no), and Mark (part time job). To list only one out of 4 (Mark)? Makes me nervous. Am I micromanaging this? overthinking? I’m thinking I should include Jack. Big sigh.
    I do have other references to “replace” the direct supervisors Jack & Bill, people who were managers but not my direct manager.

    1. Jane*

      Man, this was a long comment. Perhaps I should have written AAM directly. Any advice is appreciated!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Jack: Doesn’t seem to be any reason here to worry he won’t give you a good reference. Lots of people are weird/awkward/creepy but still give strong references. And reference-checkers know the people they’re talking to have personalities, sometimes offbeat.

      Bill: I don’t see a huge problem with using him as a reference.

      Mark: Same here.

      1. Jane*

        Thank you, Alison. Big relief. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the job market, so I feel brand new. AAM has been a godsend!

  15. Jane*

    And to make my set of questions even longer, I’m jumping in for a second, very related question, to help me in the future. Thank you again, dear commenters and potentially AAM…any advice is appreciated.
    I have concerns about my current manager too. (I know. I swear I’ve just had terrible luck. ?) She is very passive aggressive, with this infuriating alternately patronizing/bullying way of dealing with people. For years I thought it was “just me” and I was being too sensitive about her manner but I’ve been assured that it isn’t “just me,” or the fact that “we just don’t click” by many recent conversations with co-workers and even a couple with her peers(ish), who have confided in me their similar frustrations with her. She also isn’t in my office and frankly she tends to have a very shaky hold on all of my tasks and skills. My reviews are glowing but after them I realize she only speaks to certain areas of my work, ignoring others where I do excel (with no comments for improvement, though). She has put me in a box of “Jane’s only good at these things.” She does that with everyone…this has also been supported by conversations with others…not just me. She repeatedly forgets the software I’m *quite* experienced in, saying “Now, Jane, I know you don’t know ___ very well…” …things like this. I read in another recent letter to AAM: “I am concerned that she might write positive but qualified things (i.e., ‘She tries really hard’).” This!
    So: how does one handle this kind of past manager, in regards to references?
    (I *do* understand these issues could/should be dealt with while I’m here, but they are long-standing issues that I haven’t been able to work through with her. And I’m hoping not to be here for much longer. And yes, I do need to learn how to constructively stand up for myself.) :)

  16. Katie the Fed*

    I was part of an interview panel recently, in which we interviewed a candidate who managed to get the entire room to strongly dislike him within a half hour. We found him smug, arrogant, and couldn’t wait for him to leave the room.

    His sin? Every example he provided about his work described how he’d had an idea that his boss didn’t really support, but he did it anyway, and it worked out so well, so he felt “vindicated” (he kept using that word) and wanted to show how smart his instincts were and how much initiative he had. It was awful. All we could think was that this guy would never take any direction, think he’s smarter than everyone he works with, and generally be a pain in the ass.

  17. June*

    I would like some advice regarding a question i was asked in an interview this week. Everything went well during the interview and i felt sure i was going to get the job but at the last minute before the end of the interview, the hiring manager asked if i had applied for any other jobs.

    I was stumped as i thought surely he would know that a job applicant rarely applies for just one job? I had also recently interviewed for another position and was waiting to hear back from them. However, if i had to choose between the two, i would’ve picked this one.

    I was so shocked that i could only mumble something like: “Well, i haven’t applied for many jobs (which was true), but i am looking for a job. i am an honest person and don’t tell lies so …… ”

    I honestly cannot remember what i said exactly, but did manage to say that i would be really happy if i got the job . Anyway, the hiring manager said to let him know if anything turns up at the end of the week. Earlier on, he had told me that they would let me know of their decision at the end of the week.

    Where does this leave me? Although I did send them a thank-you email reiterating my desire for the position, I don’t think i will get the job now. And thinking about it, may be i should have said something like: “Well I haven’t applied for many jobs but I would be lying if I told you that this was the only job I applied for. I promise not to apply for another job until I’ve heard from you as I am really, really keen on this one.”

    Please help!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, it would have been unwise to say that you’d promise not to apply for any other jobs until you hear from them — it would make you look desperate, and it’s not a reasonable thing for an employer to ask or expect.

      It’s fine to say that you’re talking to other employers. It’s normal, and strong candidates will often have interest from other employers.

      1. June*

        Thank you so much for your advice. I got invited to a second interview! What should i say if they asked me if i have heard from the other company? I didn’t get the other job which i interviewed for and am actually glad, because i much prefer this one. I’ve been thinking and thinking but just can’t seem to come up with something suitable. Please help!

  18. June*

    It has been a very stressful time for me, since the last time i looked for a job was about 5 years ago. But i got the job! I start work on Monday and would like to thank you for your very helpful and reassuring advice. I am definitely following your blog for more tips regarding the workplace. Thanks a million Alison!

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