8 things you should never tell your interviewer — even if they’re true

In an ideal world, an interview is a candid discussion between candidate and interviewer of the job and whether the candidate is the right match. And indeed, candor will usually increase both side’s chances of ending up with the right fit. But there are some things that can hurt your chances if you’re honest about them with your interviewer. Here are eight to watch out for.

1. “That job isn’t on my resume because I was only there for two months.” Your resume isn’t required to be a comprehensive listing of everything you’ve ever done; it’s a marketing document, and it’s fine to pick and choose what you include. But mentioning that you only worked somewhere for two months is likely to make your interviewer wonder what went wrong – did you get fired? Could you not get along with your coworkers? (Exceptions to this are summer jobs, temp jobs, contract work, or other positions obviously designed to be short-term.)

2. “I’m applying to grad school for the fall.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with education, but this is basically like announcing “I’m hoping to leave this job in a year or less.” If you’re clear that you plan to attend school locally or online and it won’t interfere with full-time work hours, this might not be an issue. But some jobs – especially high-pressure, high-workload jobs – will worry that you won’t be able to balance both work and school, and that work will suffer. So tread carefully with this one.

3. “My last job was a nightmare.” Interviewers know that there are terrible bosses and terrible jobs out there; heck, they’ve probably even had some of them themselves. So it’s not that they don’t believe that such a thing is possible. But when a job candidate starts badmouthing a previous job or a previous manager, the interviewer has no way of knowing what the other side of the story is. Maybe you’re a prima donna, or hard to work with, or unreasonable and unrealistic. Since they don’t know you and they probably don’t know your last boss, they’re not able to judge … but what they do know now is that you’re not very discreet, which isn’t a point in your favor.

4. “I don’t really have references.” Not having references isn’t really an option. If you can’t find anyone who can speak about your work – no former managers, coworkers, clients, colleagues from volunteer jobs – most employers are going to assume that it’s because there have been serious problems with your work. You need references, period.

5. “I see this as a foot in the door and hope to move up quickly.” While you might think this shows appealing evidence of ambitions, most managers are going to be concerned that you’re not going to be content spending a reasonable amount of time in the job that they’re hiring for. Managers are looking for stability when they hire; they generally want people who will stay for at least a couple of years, if not longer. They don’t want to hire people who are going to be pushing to move out of the position quickly.

6. “I’m going to wait in your reception area for my ride to pick me up.” If someone else drove you to the interview, keep that to yourself. You don’t want to raise concerns in the manager’s mind about whether you’ll be able to reliably get to work if you’re hired. (This can be a thing even if it shouldn’t be, especially if the employer has previously dealt with employees who had problems in this area.)

7. “What I’d really like to do someday is…” If you’re tempted to share your dream of teaching kindergarten when you’re applying to work as an accountant, or your hope of starting your own catering business when you’re interviewing as a programmer, resist the urge. Interviewers want to hire people who are excited about the work of the job at hand, and they want to hear that the role fits in with your goals for yourself. If you clearly announce that you wish you were doing something else instead – or that you might decide to do something else sometime soon – they’re likely to get concerned about how satisfied you’ll really be if they hire you. Similarly…

8. “I’m interviewing in three different fields.” It’s fine to check out different options. But again, interviewers want to see that you’re confident about the job with them before they hire you for it. If you’re not sure what you field you want to work in, they may want you to figure that out before they consider bringing you on board.

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

{ 141 comments… read them below }

  1. BRR*

    #5 Not only should you not tell your interviewer, you shouldn’t hope to get a job at a specific employer and advance quickly. It’s a plan with a ton of holes in it. I’ve seen multiple times where somebody thinks their natural talent will propel them to the position they actually want.

    Also true story, if your interviewer asks how you are doing, don’t say tired and could use a nap.

      1. Charityb*

        At least they didn’t say something like, “I just flew in from Boise and boy are my arms tired!” or “Feets, don’t fail me now!” or something archaic like that.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    And this (I was there!):

    Q: Why do you want this job?
    A: My boyfriend just got transferred to this area, so, you know….

    No, I don’t know. What I know is I want people who want THIS job.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Yeah, that’s someone confusing “Why do you want this job?” with “Why are you leaving your last job?”

      1. CM*

        This was someone young, who didn’t have any professional experience, but:
        Q: Why do you want this job?
        A: I could use the money.

        1. Spooky*

          I do feel bad for people who get this question for really low-level and retail/food service type positions, though. I never knew what to say to that. (I’m sure you’ve all seen the “Oh I’ve always had a passion for frozen yogurt” meme.)

          1. James M*

            Good retail managers use that question to probe for BS. A straightforward “I’m young and need a job to support X, Y, & Z.” is much better than extolling the sublime wonders of hot greasy food.

            1. Stephanie*

              Yeah, my company has a lot of warm body (i.e., low skill, low paying) jobs where half the battle is showing up regularly. I think most people I work with would roll their eyes at lofty descriptions of why they wanted to work there. Assuring you had reliable transportation and could handle the working conditions would be more than enough.

              1. Charityb*

                On the other hand, I think questions like that are pretty B.S. If you want to know if the person can reliably get to work on time and can handle the working conditions ask questions that address that; asking them why they want to work as a cashier at Walmart is silly.

                Such questions deserve more scorn from applicants than they probably receive and I don’t really get why anyone still asks them for jobs like that.

                1. Turanga Leela*

                  You don’t have to have a passion for the work, but I think it’s reasonable to say why you’re looking at this job. “I need a job to support my kid” might be fine, but nothing stops you from saying, “Shift work is a good fit for my schedule right now, and I’m patient and good with people.”

        2. The Expendable Redshirt*

          Yeah… I also did this in retail.

          Question: Why do you want this job?

          My answer: I need money.

          This was in my youthful, idealistic, and brutally honest point in life. When I applied for another retail job years later, I answered “I want this job so that I can develop my leadership skills.” Much better answer!

          I have also answered this question with “I am passionate about hamburgers and would like to work in an environment where I can assemble hamburgers.”

          1. Blue Anne*

            >I have also answered this question with “I am passionate about hamburgers and would like to work in an environment where I can assemble hamburgers.”

            Well I’d hire you.

    2. Sunshine*

      Q: “What are your goals?”
      A: “Well, I’ve been with my boyfriend for two years now, so I’m trying to get himy to put a ring on it.”

      Uh…. good luck?

  3. Kenny*

    I’m kinda in a weird place with item #1. I left my job to work at a friend’s start-up because he needed help and I wanted a new challenge. I know – never work for friends, but the job seemed awesome. It turns out my friend is a terrible manager who allows one guy to insult and berate everyone. So, I’m looking for a new job and leaving my current job off my resume because I haven’t been here long enough to include it. I don’t mind talking about it, though…I think most people understand start-ups aren’t super stable and working for one temporarily isn’t uncommon. My plan is to say something like, “I joined to help a friend stabilize his start-up and now I’m looking for something more secure,” which is very true. I did help stabilize the place a lot and I do want something more secure. Is this a bad idea?

    1. hayling*

      Could you you make it look like it was intended to be short-term? Like you joined while you were between positions to help your friend get things settled, but just to get them off the ground?

    2. Chriama*

      Eh, it’s a little weak. You left a paying job to help a friend with their personal business, but apparently didn’t do anything while there that you can include it on your resume? If you were getting paid for it then it’s a job that you left too soon and the fact that it was owned by a friend is irrelevant. If not, why would you leave paying employment to do this full-time? It has too many holes in it to ring quite true. I think you could try to leave out the ‘friend as owner’ bit and just explain that you were recruited to work for a start-up but found that [insert generic comment about startups that interviewer will sympathise with] and would like to return to something more stable.

      1. Charityb*

        I agree. I actually think that leaving something off your resume and then coming up with an explanation for it is a little weird. Is that common practice? I always thought that you left stuff off your resume because you didn’t want to talk about it or couldn’t talk about it (either because it’s irrelevant, or because it was a horrible experience, or because you weren’t there enough to do anything/learn anything, etc.)

        If you’re going to discuss a job, you might as well go ahead and put it on your resume (especially if it’s a situation like this when there is a simple, easy explanation that won’t raise red flags.)

  4. Mimmy*

    #6 – If, for whatever reason, you are waiting for your ride in the reception area or lobby and your interviewer or other staff see you sitting there, how should you respond? (This has not happened to me, but just thinking hypothetically since this would likely happen to me).

    1. Kyrielle*

      I have no idea, but also bear in mind that you may not be *able* to wait for your ride in the reception area. At my current job you absolutely could. At my previous job, it was a secure office, and we needed to escort you out (or have someone wait with you, which would be a non-starter) – and in that case you would now be outside the front door, outdoors, in the cold. (At the office before that, same job, it would have been an interior door and you could have gone down and sat in the building’s public lobby, no problem.)

      All of which is to say – figure out whether there is some place nearby that you can wait, instead. At my previous job, you would have had to go a block or two and there were numerous fast food places / restaurants / shopping venues that might have been a better place to wait. (But at the old office, there would have been no other option – and sometimes, there won’t be. It’s just worth checking if there is.)

    2. bassclefchick*

      As someone who doesn’t own a car, I have to wait for a ride – either a cab or the bus. Obviously, for the bus, I’ll just leave and walk to the stop. But a cab? Yeah, I’ll wait in the lobby. Especially this time of year when it’s cold. Unless it’s a secure building like Kyrielle said, I would hope if there’s a spot for me to wait and not freeze to death that a potential employer won’t hold it against me. If they do, well, bullet dodged, I suppose.

      1. Granite*

        I’m thinking this is location dependent. In my rural area, getting around without a car is near impossible. Waiting for a ride in the lobby, barring physical disability, would be very unusual. In a city where folks use cabs and public transport all the time, not so much.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          Yeah, I think it’s both location-dependent and context-dependent. I agree with Alison’s general rule, but every general rule has exceptions. Several times, I’ve had to do cross-country job searches, and my future employers knew I was searching from out of town, so pretending I had my own ride would have been silly.

      2. INTP*

        I just think you risk people wondering why you took a taxi to the interview – if there’s no public transport route between your house and the office and you don’t have a car, then they’ll wonder if you can get to work reliably. I think most of us have had a coworker or friend with a tendency to flake or be late and blame it on transportation issues, so it’s just a red flag for some people.

        If it’s an option I’d also hang out in a vestibule or public area rather than in the actual office, but I assume you’d do that anyways to see the taxi arrive. It’s less burdensome on the receptionist than if you hang out in the office itself.

          1. INTP*

            Yeah, and even people who generally have a plan about how to get to work will do this in special circumstances, like my coworker who biked to work and arrived on time and all but would ask for rides to run errands at lunch. Or the one who was fine when he first started the job while living nearby with a friend, then moved to an affordable neighborhood with a 3 hour bus commute and quit the job, but not before whining about the commute so much that several people told me I should start driving him to work (we lived in the same neighborhood, but at that time I needed the alone time more than a cut of the gas money).

        1. This is She*

          Who’s to say you’ve come straight from your home? Especially if it’s at any other time of day than very very early in the morning. You could be coming from anywhere, really.

    3. INTP*

      Don’t wait for your ride there unless there are no sheltered public spaces nearby and the weather makes it dangerous to wait outside. It just comes across as presumptuous to assume you can hang out in their office, unless it’s the sort of place with a waiting room full of people anyways. If you absolutely have to, I’d ask the receptionist “Is it okay if I sit here for a few minutes while I wait for my ride?” rather than announcing I’m going to stay, and hope the hiring manager doesn’t notice.

    4. V.V.*

      Where I live this wouldn’t be strange at all. Almost everywhere I have worked has encouraged car pooling and some places have even had very limited parking. At a place like this, it is: “We hope you don’t intend to drive here every day, parking is prohibitively expensive.” (I have also worked places where if one has to wait, it *must* be done in the lobby, waiting outside would raise much more suspicion.) I would also venture to say at a place that charges employees $50+ a month for parking and meters everyone else has no leg to stand on if someone gets a ride, uses public transportation etc.

      It is just bad when the person has a disability (as someone else mentioned) and it is just assumed they won’t be reliable. Has happened more than once to someone I know, which *one*, always puts him in the pickle about whether or not to disclose his disability at a stage where frankly, it is no one’s business. *Two* has encouraged people not to hire him for jobs that don’t even require driving (the settlements were hefty I might add.)

      But as this column and this thread shows there are definitely people biased against people having to get a ride, and for better or for worse an assumption that someone who gets one won’t be reliable.

  5. HR Caligula*

    I was interviewing a candidate for a labor spot and asked about a lengthy employment gap.
    He replied he was recovering from a work related injury and “milked” the claim as long as he could.

      1. hbc*

        There’s a lot of people who believe “getting everything you can” out of an entitlement or business or law is entirely noble. I’m sure in his mind, if you’re supposed to get up to 12 months off for this injury, he was right to keep using it even if he was 99.99% recovered.

    1. Blue Anne*

      Nice. I’m reminded of a public sector audit I did recently; a woman very honestly reported that her income had increased slightly and thus her benefit should reduce, but that she could not provide payslips because she was being paid “in cash, under the table”.

  6. Rat Racer*

    One mistake I will never make again is to ask about the ability to leave work at 5:30 pm because I have small children. It’s true that working parents need to have those conversations with employers at some point, but I basically took myself out of the running by asking that question in an interview. When the hiring manager called me to to tell me that she had decided to go with the other finalist candidate, she said to me “this job will be very demanding, and I know you have a young family.”

    Maybe that was a blessing in disguise; maybe the other candidate was more qualified, but I’m never again giving a potential employer to decide whether I will succeed in role based on my family life.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Are they legally allowed to discriminate based on familial status? Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics, but I wouldn’t have mentioned anything about you having a family—just more that the work will often require you to stay later than 5:30pm.

    2. AnonyMoose*

      Blessing in disguise but you could have just asked ‘what is the normal workload/typical day/hours like in this role’ without getting personal. Not to say you shot yourself in the foot, exactly, but it is still good you both were on the same page. It would suck to get all the way to the offer stage to tell them that and they go ‘yaaaa, no’ only for you to have wasted your time.

    3. Ad Astra*

      If the answer was truly “no, you won’t be able to leave by 5:30 p.m.,” then you’re probably better off. It does suck to have someone else make that decision for you, though.

  7. Argh!*

    I once interviewed someone who answered the generic “Why do you want this job” with “It’s a foot in the door” but she cut herself off mid-sentence. Not fast enough. I crossed her off the list. It takes a good 6 months to train someone in that position (maybe 12) so I wanted to hear some commitment.

  8. Anon for obvious reasons*

    I understand not badmouthing your present or former employer, but what if you are leaving your current job because your employer is ordering you to do something illegal? I don’t mean a grey area of the law, but insurance fraud and other corporate malfeasance (mixing owner’s personal taxes and expenses with corporate expenses in a corporation). How do you couch that in terms that don’t torpedo your chances from the start? I don’t think “not a good culture fit” would suffice and might imply that I didn’t get along with people there.

    1. Chriama*

      You can be factually honest about an employer breaking the law, but with something like this (unless you’re an accountant) I would look for another reason – small business, no room to grow, etc.

    2. fposte*

      How long have you worked there, and what’s your career history otherwise? The answers will affect your options. The challenge is not just to avoid badmouthing but also to avoid sharing legally compromising stuff that the authorities haven’t been alerted to. “They’re under investigation by the Attorney General” is fine because it’s out there. “They’re cooking the books” is asking for trouble.

      1. AnonyMoose*

        +1 I agree on how long the person was there. If you’ve been there for ten years knowing they’re totally scamming the system then you’re….not clean and shiny either. I think
        I would just go with the ‘I needed a different type of challenge’ and just keep my mouth shut.

        1. Elysian*

          I agree with “need new challenges” or something in that vein. Bonus points if you can point to some type of work that the new company has that the old company doesn’t. “I’m really just looking for new challenges. For example, I know that you recently expanded into the manufacture of peppermint teapots. I worked on a project with butterscotch teapots recently, and was very interested in the different melt-point temperature issues..” or whatever.

      2. Anon for obvious reasons*

        Been with company 8 years, promoted to a quasi-managerial, non-accounting position a little over a year ago. Learned of the owner’s shenanigans a couple of months ago.

          1. fposte*

            Yup. Perfectly reasonable time to go. It’s the six-monthers who are going to really struggle with something like this.

            1. Turanga Leela*

              I heard about a guy, on his first day as a lawyer at an insurance defense firm, whose employer told him to shred evidence. This is a huge violation of the rules of professional conduct; the guy could have been fined or disbarred for this kind of thing.
              In that position, I would have resigned—but try explaining why you left after one day at your job.

        1. neverjaunty*

          I know I say this a lot, but seriously: you should be talking to a lawyer. The last thing you need is to get some of the splatter on you when the pumpkin hits the fan, and shady employers are happy to dump blame on their employees.

      3. Chriama*

        > The challenge is… to avoid sharing legally compromising stuff that the authorities haven’t been alerted to.

        You’re so good at articulating things!

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      I think there’s a difference between stating facts and saying “my last job was a nightmare.”

      Nightmare is evaluative and subjective and vague.

      I’ve interviewed candidates who have tactfully expressed dissatisfaction with their former jobs, and if they seem to bring their own balance to the situation while sticking to the facts, I don’t hold it against them.

      1. INTP*

        Agree with your last paragraph. There is a difference between someone neutrally and tactfully answering in a way that betrays unspoken dissatisfaction with the employer and straight up saying “My boss is unreasonable” or “my coworkers are toxic”. If someone lacks the restraint to be neutral in an interview I wonder if they are either a bit dramatic and dissatisfied everywhere, or possibly just too burnt out to use a verbal filter (which might not be their fault but doesn’t bode well for a new employee).

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          I’d also add that there’s an element of game-playing in the whole interview/hiring process, but I try, whenever possible, to minimize that game-play.

          Yes, of course, I want to know that you want this position at this organization, but I’m also not going to pretend that I think you are perfectly satisfied at your current job and looking only because you want this position at this organization. I know you’re probably looking because you’re dissatisfied (unless there are obvious other reasons like your spouse getting a tenure-track position forcing you to relocate)… and this probably isn’t the only position you’re looking at.

    4. Helka*

      I think being factual and unemotional is key here.

      Contrast these two statements:
      “I left because I was repeatedly asked to work off the clock due to budget shortfalls.”
      “I left because my jerk of a boss kept ordering me to stay late and keep working! Can you believe it? He can’t make budget so it’s on me to work unpaid!”

      Same basic information, but one of these sounds a heck of a lot more professional than the other.

    5. Mando Diao*

      “I got a lot of really great experience in that position, but I saw the writing on the wall and I could tell that the business was no longer as successful as it once was.”

      I was in a position where my boss was breaking several laws and it actually made the news. I couldn’t give a “re-direct” answer because a cursory google search and calls to my references would reveal what really happened, even though the truth wasn’t entirely tactful either. I decided to heavily hint that I was looking for a new job because I was fairly sure the business was about to close its doors.

      1. Doriana Gray*

        I just said something similar at my interview today (including the “writing on the wall” phrase) in regards to a former job I left, which also happens to be the longest position I’ve held and is in the same industry as the job I was interviewing for. The great thing about it was, the job in question is a firm that’s notorious in my city for being a mess, so the interviewer was the one who pointed out the chaotic nature of it (tactfully) and asked if that’s why I left, and I was able to just say yes and move on.

  9. Felicia*

    6 out of the 10 people we interviewed fairly recently did #7, I had no idea it was such a common thing . They all described goals that had nothing to do with the job and that the job wouldn’t particularly help towards (in fact, some of them, pursuing those goals would make it hard to do the job). So that one’s a common thing.

    1. AnonyMoose*

      Because it’s from the bygone era of actually needing a foot in the door and working your way up. Career trajectories like that are rare these days. It’s who you know, your education, your soft skills, how well you can market yourself. Starting off making copies and wanting to one day be the CEO (of the same company) is just totally out of touch with today’s market.

      1. Felicia*

        If it had been CEO of the same company it would have been bad but not as bad. These people were mostly saying entirely different industries that had nothing to do with us, in job positions that had nothing to do with the position .

        Like let’s say it’s Junior Chocolate Teapot Maker, and they say they want to be a Senior Vanilla Coffeepot polisher…okay not the same but at least it’s related. Instead these people will say I want to be a Brass Dinosaur Whisperer, which has nothing to do with the job they’re interviewing for.

    2. Misgrunteled*

      I’ve always understood the purpose of the question and answered appropriately, but you have to admit, it is a vague question and many people are anxious during interviews. There are better ways of posing the question.

  10. YourUnfriendlyPhlebotomist*

    All very good points, especially the ride one! Now story time.
    A friend mentioned to me that he had an interview (manual labor) scheduled but never gets jobs he interviews for, only job fairs that have the skills tests (think product assembly). I told him that I would happily go over some basic interview questions with him and since they asked to see his resume id take a look at it.
    His resume was a thing oh horrors and in the sprit of staying on topic I’ll just say that he had a “interests” section and it said spending time with his girlfriend and his two young daughters.
    anywho- the interview, of course the first question out of my mouth was “what would you say your greatest weakness is?” he said attendance and went on to say that that what he always says and he tells them about his girlfriends mental health problems and that often times he is late because she is loosing her marbles (I’m writing this so I get to paraphrase). I advised him to pick something less likely to drop the jaw of his interviewer like that you get bored with sedentary work, that you get antsy if your inside all day, that you get distracted when you have to be on a computer for hours at a time.
    I would hope that AAM readers wouldn’t say attendance and I’m no pro but if it were Ask A Phlebotomist I’d add stating that you have poor attendance is something you should never tell your interviewer.

      1. INTP*

        Yeah, no matter what the work is, not showing up when you’re supposed to be there will ALWAYS inconvenience your coworkers, and is not appreciated in any environment. Obviously it’s worse in jobs where your primary function is to be a butt in a chair (or voice on a phone or person at a cash register) but I can’t think of one where it wouldn’t be one of the worst weaknesses to have. Maybe something creative or technical where you work completely alone and your deadlines are loose enough to meet them without showing up reliably, but that might not exist, lol.

    1. Windchime*

      We interviewed a person for a programming job who said they wouldn’t want to stare at a computer all day. I’m not sure that he was really understanding what programmers do.

  11. sarah*

    #6 – totally depends on the context! if you are interviewing in academia and have a day-long cross country (or even out of town) job interview, it’s completely normal to have a spouse/significant other waiting for you with the car, especially if you both came to do house hunting in the new city. i also think of individuals who don’t drive/don’t have a car – and unless the interview is somewhere with very easy access to coffee shops/restaurants/etc. i think it would be equally weird for the interviewer to see the interviewee traipsing down the street or lingering outside to wait for a ride. yes, there are environments where you could not wait – but best case scenario your ride should just wait for you or be back very early to avoid these incidents.

  12. Jessen*

    So how should young people who may not have an employment history handle references? Many retail type jobs may be willing only to provide confirmation that you worked there, and a young person on their first professional job may not have any background other than retail or other similar low-level work.

    1. Artemesia*

      You use what you have. College internship supervisor, manager of the fast food place you worked, professor for whom you did exemplary projects (try to pick a class where the prof can comment on your ability to lead a team, or you did some field based project in the community or service-learning) or a leader of some volunteer organization. In asking people like this, it is very helpful to briefly outline the job you are applying for an why you asked them i.e. feed them what you want them to speak to e.g. your work ethic, your efficiency, your leadership at working with a team, whatever is useful and plausible. And remind them of what you did with them. The professor may think well of you but not remember that you organized the class project on X or did the presentation to the community group etc. Give them the ammo to be specific.

          1. fposte*

            And somebody needs to be telling homeschool students this–that you need to start cultivating a circle of non-family that can speak to your competence.

            1. Nother Name*

              My mother and one of our neighbors always were willing to be references for each others’ kids. (And in my neighborhood, there were definitely kids no one would have been a reference for.) Out of three neighbor kids, my mother only was called for a reference once, for the youngest kid. (This was back in the days when reference checking for teens wasn’t as much of a Thing and a lot of HS students got interviewed and hired when they turned in their applications. We all ran errands and did favors for the other families, so both women could vouch for our work ethic.)

              Anyway, sometimes you have to be creative about who you ask to be a reference.

            2. Ad Astra*

              Yes, and it wouldn’t hurt to make sure people are telling college students this, too. Those who are in “professional” programs like journalism or architecture might be in good shape between faculty mentors and internship managers. Those who are studying something more general like history or philosophy? Well, they’re going to have to make it a point to cultivate some good relationships early on because potential references are less likely to be built into their academic programs. It is entirely possible at many universities to get a humanities degree without ever forming the kind of relationship that could lead to a strong reference.

    2. Mando Diao*

      If you’re just starting out, it’s okay if you have a few retail managers who are only able to confirm that you worked there. If you went to college, a thesis advisor is a good one. I think it’s acceptable for people to list coworkers if they’re in a bind (and especially if the coworker had a higher status than you). It’s not ideal, but if your interviewer actually follows through on calling the references for a “first real” job, they’ll have looser standards and they’ll be glad to talk to anyone who seems like they really worked with you.

    3. Oh no not again*

      Good question. What about not so young people who’ve been at a job for about five years and management refuses to give references other than confirmation that you work there? I’m out of touch with the managers at my previous job (low wage service work). I basically have no references. If I can’t get hired elsewhere (I’ll be looking as soon as I can, I need more money), is an employment agency a good idea and if so, how long will I have to give them wages?

      1. misspiggy*

        Well the confirmation you worked there certainly helps, and I think Alison’s usual advice for this situation is to add a colleague or two who can act as a reference on the type of work you did, the skills you had, and how you were to work with. Employment agency for min. three months wouldn’t hurt either.

  13. Ron Mexico*

    #1 – Is it still a possible screwup if the interviewer asks “Why are you thinking of leaving this job” and your response is along the lines of “I enjoy my current job but it has no opportunities for movement into the field that relates to my graduate degree.” I do love my job, but if I want to be in cybersecurity, I need to look elsewhere, yet I don’t want to make it sound like I’m badmouthing my employer.

    1. Argh!*

      As long as the job you’re interviewing for *is* in line with your graduate work, then it’s not a problem at all.

    2. Just another techie*

      When we say “Don’t badmouth your employer” in comments here, folks usually mean don’t sling personal insults about your boss, and don’t talk about how much you hate the work or the environment. “It’s a decent job but not in line with my long term goals” isn’t badmouthing. “Oh my god, the work is so boring and I hate churning out php scripts all day. Can you believe they don’t even have an infosec team? My boss is so short-sighted” would be badmouthing.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        I generally figure it’s not badmouthing if your current employer wouldn’t be offended to hear it. (That is, assuming your employer is reasonable.) Wanting to move into a different field, wanting more/less structure or flexibility, wanting different kinds of work, even realizing your employer’s philosophy is different from yours—none of that is badmouthing.

  14. AnonyMiss*

    #4 does raise a question for me, mostly for curiosity’s sake anymore… what if you truly have no references?

    When I first started looking for a job after I came to the US, I literally had no references. I worked at a small, seasonal hotel in Hungary before, and I went to college there, but the only people I knew in the US were my immediate family. I was somewhat precluded from even trying to volunteer – I had no driver’s license, no car, nobody to ask for a ride on the regular, and mass transit was just not a thing in my area. Online apps usually didn’t allow foreign phone numbers in the first place, so I was always kind of shot. I’m thankfully no longer in that bind, but it was really rough at that time.

    1. ModernHypatia*

      Two solutions I’ve seen are first to look for some volunteering options where your location doesn’t matter – online projects are great for this one. Open source software is a pretty well known option (and these projects don’t just need coders, but also people who want to write documentation or do other tasks.)

      I volunteered for an online journal service (and it’s still on my resume 12 years later, because I get awesome references from my manager there, who’s also familiar with what I’ve done since then) and I know people who volunteer online for crisis lines and things like that.

      The trick is to have something that’s got either some kind of structure your reference can talk about (training, quality controls) or that produces some kind of outcome an interviewer can see for themselves (and at least something about your role).

      For references where it can be hard to contact them (the one above is one of them, because she keeps a very irregular schedule and doesn’t want random phone calls), I put in whatever the form will take, and then make a note that I’ll provide the necessary contact info somewhere. (How depends on the way the application is set up, but I’ve done a note in my cover letter, a note in the ‘anything else you want to tell us’ field, or just a note in the name/title section. In your case “In Hungrary: can provide email and phone contact details” or whatever is relevant.

    2. Srs Bsns*

      I am curious about this also. I’m in the US with my husband, and I’m not permitted to work as it is. In the future that might change, but what does one do with an employment gap years long and no Anglophone references?

      1. Chinook*

        When I came back from working abroad, I had no recent references in Canada or who spoke English. I ended up attaching a copy of my reference letter on company letterhead which my previous employer supplied to a translation and a note about when the best Canadian time would be to call them so the reference didn’t get woken at midnight. Then, when I was asked for references, I gave them both the letter as well as the 3 year old references that were more local.

      2. Ad Astra*

        In addition to the specific advice Chinook and Case of the Mondays are providing, I might recommend getting involved as a regular volunteer for a charity you care about. That can lead to a good reference in the future and gives you a good answer to “What did you do while you were unemployed?”

        1. Ad Astra*

          (I kind of missed AnonyMiss’ note about not being in a good position to volunteer, but it’s a good option for those who are able to do that, even if it’s helping out with your neighborhood association or your kids’ PTA.)

      3. Artemesia*

        The best bet for a job is networking among acquaintances, colleagues of your husband etc. Get involved in some sort of volunteer things while you can’t get clearance to work and build up a network of people who know what you can do. I know many women who launched professional careers from part time volunteer work they did while their kids were young. Some of them got further certifications or even degrees and some didn’t.

    3. Mando Diao*

      Retail and service jobs usually don’t ask for references. We’re talking the sorts of jobs that are geared toward teens and very young adults.

      Also, consider applying at small businesses. They don’t usually have the HR/infrastructure/general knowledge to bother with references. I’m very much on the record as not being a fan of small businesses that operate this way, but if you can stick it out for a year at one, your manager and coworkers there are your new references.

      Also, would your professors in Hungary be willing to serve as references? If you get to the interview stage, you could request that the interviewer email them instead of call.

  15. Amber Rose*

    My last job was a nightmare. I was actually shocked at the number of people “helpfully” advising I say so in interviews. One reference told a potential employer my job was toxic. I don’t care how bad it was, an interview is not the place to say so!

    Besides I had a legit reason for leaving that had nothing to do with the environment that was easier to explain. Sheesh.

    1. Argh!*

      My last job was also toxic but I found other reasons to justify leaving — they changed my job duties, and I wanted to find work in my original field. And you can always say “I don’t really want to leave but your job looks like such a great opportunity I couldn’t resist”

      1. Chriama*

        > “I don’t really want to leave but your job looks like such a great opportunity I couldn’t resist”

        Don’t say that. If you’ve been at your current position a respectable amount of time and now want to move on to whatever this new job is offering you, just say that. Acting like this company is the only reason you’d ever want to leave your current position is totally disingenious.

      1. Sparkly Librarian*

        Yup, I took the opportunity to do so with the last reference I gave. I trained this person, and although I was not her manager, I was at the same level of the org chart as the manager and I observed the micromanaging on a daily basis. The poor management was the #1 reason this person was looking for a new job. I could speak with a bit more freedom than the applicant, particularly since I had left that company.

    2. Mando Diao*

      It’s very much YMMV, but I’ve gotten good results from saying things like, “I learned a lot in that position, but turnover is so high that the team I started working with is not the team I have now, and I’m looking for something that feels a little more positive.”

  16. Charles McCool*

    re: references. When I need to provide references, I let the interviewer know that I will provide them within 1 business day. That gives me time to contact my references, coach/advise them of things to highlights, and best methods of contact.

  17. Merry and Bright*

    #7 interests me because I’ve actually been asked in at least two interviews what I would do for a living if I could choose anything at all. I trod warily here because I didn’t know if they were testing my commitment to their vacancy or just trying to find out more about me.

    1. INTP*

      I’ve heard of that question, and I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker to say something unrelated to the job – it’s more of a “What fruit are you and why?” question because they’re analyzing your reasoning and trying to get a read on your personality (in a dumb way).

      Not to say that there are no wrong answers, though. I’m sure that “President” would be more appreciated than “Idly wealthy person” or “instagram famous.”

    2. Mando Diao*

      Say something idealistic that’s in line with your degree field. You’d write a novel or open a new kind of school or something.

  18. anonanonanon*

    Re #7: Most of the interviews I’ve gone on have actually asked me what my dream job would be in an ideal world, and I’ve never known how to respond. Realistically, none of the jobs I’ve interviewed for have been my dream job and to me a dream job is something like being a travel journalist or writing television screenplays or opening a dog daycare (cause I want to spend my day hanging with dogs). Jobs that I would probably never actually get hired for.

    I can never tell if these questions are aimed at trying to figure out a candidate’s personality (sort of like the “what’s your favorite book”/”what are your hobbies” questions) or if they’re trick questions asking you to say that the job you’re interviewing for is your ideal dream job.

    1. Helka*

      … I’m not sure if this is constructive or not, but I’d be tempted to answer a question like that with something obviously sassy and then segue back to the real world.

      “Well, in a perfectly ideal world, I’d be responsible for tenderly gathering the harvest of the million-dollar-bill trees!” Wink, grin, “but sadly, the ontological argument doesn’t work so well and the world we have is not the most perfect world conceivable. That said, I really enjoy reconciling accounting spreadsheets! It’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.”

      1. Chriama*

        I like that response! I also don’t like the dream job question because it implies that you must have one. There are things I like to do and things I don’t like to do, and a whole lot of stuff that I only like to do when I’m getting paid for it. I don’t need to be ‘passionate’ about my work to be a good employee, and my career plan is basically to retire as early as I can.

    2. Gabriela*

      Is there one thing you love about your job (or at least find pleasant) that you wish you could replace all other aspects with? Because sure, if I’m being totally uninhibited, I’d say my dream job is to be paid to drink wine and shop all day. However, working in a university, I do love the parts of my job where I get to talk to students and learn/research. If I could give up some of the administrative work in favor of opening a practice where all I did was advise/chat with college students AND this was enough to fund research (on whatever I wanted) and conference trips (to wherever I wanted)- that would be my dream job.

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      Yeah, I hate that question. One time, I had an interview for a Development Associate position, and the Development Director asked me what my dream job was. Uh, is anyone’s dream job to be a Development Associate? I certainly didn’t want to be like “Your job!” It’s a loaded and useless question. If the candidate answers the job she’s applying for, that seems like insincere pandering, and if the candidate answers something else, it sounds as if this isn’t the job she wants.

    4. Ad Astra*

      I like to answer with both my true dream job (dinosaur wrangler) and then a more realistic dream job (editor-in-chief of Gawker). Sometimes they’re asking because they want to know what you’re into and what you care about; other times they’re asking because they want to know how you see your career path going. A lot of times, they’re asking because they saw it on a list of Top 50 Job Interview Questions.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        That’s the problem with this question — you don’t know for sure why they’re asking, so you are likely to stumble on a hidden land mine.

    5. Turanga Leela*

      I talk about aspects of my dream job, rather than naming a title. “I like writing and I also like working with people, so ideally I want to do both of those things at work. I like feeling good about the impact of my work and having smart, interesting colleagues to bounce ideas off of. I’m happy in any job where all of that is true.”

    6. Felicia*

      I hate that question! We ask a variation of that question but we ask how the job they’re interviewing for fits into their 5 year plan, or how it fits into the career path they see for themselves or something. We understand that people won’t stay forever, but want people who wouldn’t be looking for something entirely different ASAP and for whom the job was a logical step in what they’re hoping to do

    7. MissDisplaced*

      I guess I’m lucky there because I always say “something creative or artistic such as making art or telling stories” and this is actually related to my field albeit a much less commercial side of it.

  19. Biff*

    This might be a little off-track, but I’m curious how you should respond if they bring up something that is a deal breaker. I mean, obviously the knee-jerk response is something you’d never want to say to an interviewer. But, really…. what do you say when something horrible comes up? E.g. “We’re really excited to debut our open-office plan. You’ll be on-boarding just a week after the remodel is finished!” Or, “We have one week of paid vacation, and you can’t get it as one chunk.” Or “10 months out of the year you’ll be working in cushy office, but two months out of the year, you’ll be knee deep in manure and mosquito on the site — which has no running water.”

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I think it’s appropriate to say you appreciated talking to them, but you don’t think it will be a good fit, and you wish them the best in finding a suitable candidate for the position.

      1. Biff*

        I ask because I feel like some deal breakers CAN be mitigated, and it’s not worth it to shut off the whole conversation if they can be.

        1. Chameleon*

          “That’s not ideal for me. Is that aspect of the job firm, or is there room for movement on that?”

  20. Ms Anne Thrope*

    How about something like “The job has changed significantly, multiple times in the last few years. The company has been thru a series of sales/acquisitions, and I’m looking for some stability.”

    Read: They fired the majority of the dept in 4 different ‘layoffs’ 2012-2015, until it was so understaffed they had to hire new (cheaper) people, and I’ve Had. It.

    1. Biff*

      I’d certainly mention that there has been significant staff upheaval, myself. You didn’t get culled, which is important.

    2. Mando Diao*

      I think it’s fine to say some of that plainly, as long as you aren’t too negative about it. “I took the job because I was excited to work with a certain manager/team or work on certain projects, but that person is no longer with the company, and the projects were cut during the mergers.”

    1. INTP*

      You pretend you really want that job. Have a line about why it’s the industry you want to go into. If you’re asked about ambitions, describe something that’s a logical trajectory from that job.

    2. Chriama*

      You make something up. An interviewer doesn’t necessarily need to hear that this is your Dream Job ™ that you would totally do for free if you didn’t have those pesky bill things. They want to hear that you’re decently hard working and committed to doing a good job for a reasonable length of time.

    3. Biff*

      It’s worked for me before to use humor. “Well, as you know, every applicant is just rolling in offers….” *everyone politely giggles* “This particular position stood out to me because I felt that my experience with teapot spouts spoke to several of your bullet points about finese in design.” or ” this position seemed the most desirable as I have two years of experience in Teapot sales, and wanted to step up to a more challenging position instead of stepping back down into an entry-level role.”

      In reality, there is some reason that the job stood out to you — you had your choice of lame jobs to apply for but you picked this one. Then you just need to rephrase it in business terms.

      1. Blue Anne*

        I like this kind of thing. Being humorous and realistic about the situation brings the interview back to the level of “look, we’re all just humans here”. If you can do that while staying professional about it, you’re golden.

  21. CW*

    #1 – People these days are pretty understanding of the perma-temp economy, they get that you have to pay the bills at home. I’ve been asked about why I was laid-off from a month long call center job, and left a commission-only sales job without any issues.

  22. Blurgle*

    I didn’t have a single professional reference who could be queried when I was hired for my current job. I had always worked for sole proprietors and, by a quirk of fate, by the time I could find a position that accommodated my medical issues my former bosses were all dead. Luckily I had letters from them and more recent volunteer references.

    1. Biff*

      Due to my department basically being plucked up from one company and dropped into another company, I also have a lack of references unless I want to advertise that I’m looking. My solution has been to reach out to people for whom I’ve done volunteer work over the years to ’round out the roster.’ Other tactics would include asking for references from friends for whom you’ve done either some serious favors that somehow showcase your abilities or ethics. (E.g. coordinated major repairs to their home, or set up the website for their small business for free, or perhaps shuttled everyone in their wedding from airport to hotel after the planned vanpool vanished.)

  23. Brisvegan*

    I had a former student who went to an interview with firm and told them that she was really interested in working in another area of the industry all together and that if they hired her as a recent grad, they could eventually open a section catering to the wildly different area of law, so that she could work in her area of interest. (Think family law and commercial law level of divergence.)

    She then went to a different firm, that worked in the area she had said she wanted to move into for Firm A, and told them exactly the opposite. She had changed her mind about her area of interest.

    She did not get either job.

  24. Jin*

    Regarding #2. “I’m applying to grad school for the fall.” What if you know for sure that you will have to leave for education in less than a year’s time? When would it be appropriate to tell the interviewer/employer?

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