5 unforced errors that could cost you a job offer

Job seekers often agonize and stress about every step in their job search: Am I networking enough? Does my resume show that I’d excel at the job? Am I coming across well in interviews? But often job seekers will put together flawless resumes and cover letters and spend hours prepping for interviews, and then blow their chances of the job through an unforced error at the last minute.

Here are five mistakes that can kill your chances of an offer, but which you can easily avoid.

1. Indicating that you’re more interested in another job. It can be tough to juggle multiple employers when you’re in the finalist stages with each, especially when one employer signals that they’re close to making an offer while you prefer a different employer who’s taking longer. Employers assume that candidates are talking to other companies, of course, but few interviewers like to hear that they’re the second choice. So the key if you face this is to navigate it with tact and diplomacy. “I’ll acceptif another offer doesn’t come through” is likely to prompt that employer to move on to more enthusiastic candidate. But it’s usually considered reasonable to say something like, “I’ve been talking with another company as well, and while your job is the one that interests me the most, I feel I need to see both offers before giving you an absolute yes.”

2. Misrepresenting your work. If you thought that you could get away with padding your job history and making your past work sound more impressive than it really was, the end stages of the hiring process are where it’s most likely to come out. That’s because employers usually contact references at this stage, and they’re likely to try to verify key details of what you told them on your resume and in your interview. Significant discrepancies about things like job responsibilities or the reason you left the job (like saying that you resigned when in fact you were fired) can kill your chances.

3. Lying about your salary history. Job seekers sometimes think they can get a higher salary offer if they lie about what they’ve been earning previously. But employers that base salary offers on past earnings will often verify the salary information you give them, either by checking with your previous employer or by asking you for documentation like a W-2 form. If they find out you lied, they’ll nearly always yank the offer, since a lie raises so many issues about integrity and trustworthiness.

To be clear, basing salary offers on a candidate’s past earnings is a poor and unfair practice that tends to reinforce racial and gender pay inequality, and ideally employers should stop doing it. But the answer for candidates isn’t to lie; it’s to keep the focus on what salary you’re seeking now and why the market supports that.

4. Flubbing the salary negotiation in other ways. Most people hate negotiating salary and, as a result, they often don’t prepare enough to do it – instead just winging it when the topic comes up. This can backfire in two different ways. Most obviously, it can mean that you undersell yourself and leave money on the table. But it can also harm you if you ask for a salary that’s wildly above the market rate for the work you’d be doing. Asking for an over-the-top salary can make you look out of touch or simply unaffordable. That’s why it’s crucial to do salary research well before the time that the conversation is likely to come up, no matter how uncomfortable negotiating makes you.

5. Starting to negotiate for special treatment late in the game.If you wouldn’t take the job without a significant modification from the employer, like telecommuting from across the country or getting every Friday off, most employers are going to be annoyed that you didn’t make that clear before they invested time in interviewing you. Generally employers want the opportunity to say “yes, that could work” or “no, that’s a deal-breaker” before they’ve passed over other applicants and spent real time considering your candidacy. That said, it’s also true that once you have an actual job offer, you can sometimes negotiate for perks – but if they’re must-have’s for you, the time to mention them is much earlier in the process.

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

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Jack the treacle eater*

    The salary negotiation one is interesting. I was recently rejected for a job that was offering about 20 – 25% under the market rate (and having looked at a lot of posts in this field recently, I’m pretty sure I’m right about the market rate).

    In an otherwise very positive interview, the interviewer asked in interview what I thought of the T&Cs, and I said that I felt they were below the market, but also that I was interested in the opportunity, money was not the be-all and end-all for me, and that other compensations – such as the training and mentoring they offered – made up for that. Interviewer appeared to take all that on board and agree, but only noted down the assessment of the market rate he’d pressed me for. I was later rejected for ‘nothing negative, just felt the fit wasn’t right’.

    Can’t help feeling they were trying to lowball and were worried that I’d be too expensive, despite everything I’d said (and meant) about the reasons I was happy with their stated range. I’m not quite sure whether I could have handled it differently or not – or whether I dodged a bullet!

    1. Rat in the Sugar*

      Probably dodged a bullet. Sounds like the company knew they couldn’t afford what you needed to be happy.

    2. animaniactoo*

      Is the training and mentoring they offer something that other companies are also offering? If not, perhaps a better way to phrase it would have been “Without the training and mentoring that you do, and which I am very interested in, I think it’s about 20 to 25% below market rate, but with those factors I think it is probably on target.”

      In the end though, I think the real answer is dodged a bullet – because training and mentoring only lasts for so long and then they’re left with somebody who they’re paying a below average wage, and they know that person knows it and is likely to be looking around pretty quickly.

      However, it is also possible that the “not the right fit” has absolutely nothing to do with your answer, but really is about an overall vibe where they wish you came off a little more laidback or energetic, etc.

    3. Nico m*

      Dodged. They wont admit to themselves they are stingy: what other self-delusions might they have?

    4. Kimberlee, Esq*

      Eh, I wouldn’t be as quick as the others here to jump to bullet dodged. Some people pay below market because they can; which is to say, they’re not really below market because, as you said, they offer something that candidates want more than that extra pay. In general, I think employers are always going to be reluctant to say the real reasons they reject any given candidate (because the last thing in the world they want is to argue with a candidate we’re rejecting about whether or not they were right in their assessment or get sued because of it), and in the spirit of attributing as little as possible to malice, I’d take them at their word, which is that they rejected you because they found someone they liked better or just didn’t feel like you were the home run they were looking for.

  2. animaniactoo*

    I regret to say that for at least 3 attempts, my brain kept seeing that as 5 unenforced errors*. And I really couldn’t figure out why you want to enforce an error.

    *This might be due to the fact that I’ve been working with software that gives you the option to enforce certain things and we’ve been playing with when/where we want to use it. But I admit that the real reason is probably Monday.

  3. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    Tangental, but Jeffrey A. Krames’ “The Unforced Error” is one of the best business books ever recommended to me.

    1. hayling*

      I had never heard the term “unforced error” and thought it was a typo until I looked it up!

      1. Brightwanderer*

        I looked it up and I still don’t understand what it means in this context. The results I got were all about tennis. :/

          1. SirTechSpec*

            I also looked up the tennis results and I think in this context it’s specifically about “a mistake you made on your own, that you didn’t have to make”, as opposed to “a mistake you made when somebody really pressed you.” Failing to recover in an ideal way from a difficult situation – like if someone asks you a bewilderingly obscure technical question and you stumble, or if they reveal something surprising about the working conditions at the last minute (travel, say), and you react ungraciously, those would arguably be mistakes but at the same time not really your fault. Whereas if you totally fail to research the market rate for your position – hey, you could have avoided that.

            It’s probably not terminology I’d use because I’m on the side of trying to build a culture that’s more relaxed about mistakes in general, of either kind, but I can see why you’d want to draw a distinction. In this case I think it fits in with Alison’s general job-search mantra of “stop worrying about things you can’t control and worry about the things you can.”

            1. Ellie H.*

              Right, it’s a technical sports term, that is being used here euphemistically/descriptively to convey the meaning you described. I didn’t know it was commonly used in this way when discussing concepts in business but from reading above it’s the title of a business book I see that this is in fact the case.

              1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

                I had a very sports minded boss, so a lot of his recommendations for business books were all sports-related :)

      2. Vicki*

        I also had to look it up. (I assumed it wasn’t a typo or it would have been fixed quickly. ;-)

        The definition I saw is:
        “a mistake made on an easy shot by a competitor in a nonpressure situation.”

        (I really love Google)

  4. NYanon*

    #5 is timely for me. I just got an email from a recruiter about a job for which I am very qualified and for an organization that could be a good fit for me. I had submitted my resume not knowing what organization it was for, and he’s just told me my resume is a good match and let me know what the organization is. He wants to know if he can submit my resume to them. However, it’s in the same neighborhood where I am working now and one of my main goals in my job search is to reduce my commute. The only way I’d take another job in this neighborhood is if I can work a significant amount of the time from home. Do I really need to mention this to the recruiter now? I ask because my first instinct was to let him submit my resume, then see if the organization calls me for an interview, then bring it up in the interview if the conversation is going well and it seems to be a good fit for me. I feel like the recruiter might just write me off now whereas the interviewer might keep the conversation going if she likes what I bring to the table.

    I’ve done this before in the past and it resulted in 2 job offers with agreements to work part of the time from home (both of which I had to turn down because of a personal issue that came up that prevented me from leaving my job).

    FYI, it’s not unlikely that other jobs that come up for me in my field will also be in this same neighborhood–so it’s not like there are a million other jobs closer to my home & I can just write this good one off based on its location alone.

    Thoughts from Alison or commenters would be helpful.

    1. Observer*

      Well, is this a deal breaker or not? How common is telecommuting in your industry? If it’s common, then you don’t need to write off companies in this neighborhood. Otherwise, you do have an issue.

      I don’t think you need to tell the recruiter. But, I do think you should bring it up at the phone screen phase.

      1. NYanon*

        It really varies. My current org isn’t really into telecommuting but I know it’s more common at other places.

        1. Annalee*

          I’d bring it up now. If the recruiter is good at their job, they’ll probably have a decent idea of how likely the company is to be amenable to telecommuting–or they’ll be able to talk to the hiring manager and find out. They don’t want to waste time pitching you for a job you won’t accept, so it’s in their interest to get an answer for you before you proceed.

          If you were directly applying rather than working with a recruiter, it might be harder to bring it up at this stage. But telling a recruiter this is a deal-breaker for you is going to help them figure out where to pitch you.

  5. Jen*

    Here’s a story: I was hiring for a role that I had budgeted 85-95k for, though I had a few other hires in the works so if I found a super-qualified candidate, I could go a bit higher than 95.

    HR screened all the candidates in advance, and I was told that one woman was making 100 as a 100% travel consultant but was still very interested in the role after hearing the salary range. I interviewed her and like her, but she was totally inexperienced for the role I was hiring–she’d be more or less starting from scratch. Not entry level, but breaking into a new field and a new type of role–far from the “super qualified/experienced” hire for which I’d stretch m budget. I told HR as much and HR made the offer at something like 93k figuring she’d negotiate a bit higher and we’d land at 95 which is the absolute max I was prepare to pay her based on her skill set.

    So…I get a call from HR telling me the candidate wants to talk to me. We talk and she basically says she needs 107k. I give her the benefit of the doubt and say essentially, “ok, convince me.” Dead air. Then I prompt her again, saying “this role pays less than that, but I’d be willing to be flexible for an extremely qualified candidate. Can you tell me how you’d bring extra skills to the table?” Her answer was more dead air, and then simply, “Well I make 100 now, so I do’nt want to move for less than 107.” I explained that she’s in a different industry and a different role (100% travel consulting pays people for their misery! We are a 9-5 shop.) I held firm, she didn’t take the job, and I ended up hiring a candidate that was WAY more qualified and experienced for 95k, who was incredibly happy with it.

    I was SO annoyned after that process because we spent $1200 to fly the first candidate out to meet everyone, and she did all that knowing the salary range AND knowing that she was over 10k off on her lowest possible salary. AND she couldn’t even / didn’t even try to explain why she was worth the bigger bucks.

    1. Jen*

      oh! And my company offers unlimited PTO, and the role was VERY market-rate. I have several others in this role (existing and recent hires) and they are very happy salary-wise for their experience level.

      1. Jerry Vandesic*

        You probably shouldn’t assume that unlimited PTO will be considered a benefit. In most cases it’s simply a way to keep vacation liability off the books, and employees take less vacation than they did when it wasn’t unlimited (check out Kickstarter’s cancellation of their unlimited PTO policy last year). Unless you pay out any unused vacation, up to some maximum, it’s probably not something that benefits employees.

        1. BRR*

          All reasons why I would be skeptical of moving to an employer with unlimited PTO. Now, nothing is saying that employee’s Jen’s company don’t get to take advantage of it. But I have now been with two employers in a row with very generous PTO policies (towards the max of what I have heard of people getting in the US) so I would be nervous. Plus they pay out for unused. Between my last job and this one, I was able to use the pay out to take extra time before starting.

        2. Jen*

          I agree (I don’t view it that way), but some candidates do see it as a huge perk. At minimum it’s equal to whatever incoming candidates get now.

          And in practice, people in my dept take about 3 weeks a year, maybe a bit more.

          1. Jack the treacle eater*

            Jen, it’s an aside, but I’m not very clear why you were making an offer to a candidate who didn’t have experience when there were other people in the mix – or am I misunderstanding?

        3. Honeybee*

          Yeah, my kneejerk reaction was the same. I actually was kind of suspicious about the companies I interviewed with that had unlimited PTO, and when I asked about work-life balance they typically didn’t have answers that satisfied me. I like having a set but generous amount of PTO because now I have a baseline for how much time I should take off in a year.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      “Well I make 100 now, so I do’nt want to move for less than 107.”

      Unfortunately, this mentality is all too common for both job-seeker and hiring manager.

      Too many candidates think “I’m making ____ now, so I must make ____ plus $XX at my next job” (instead of “This is the market rate for the position I’m applying for, and this is what I can bring to the role”) and too many hiring managers think “I need to know your previous salary so I can just bump it up a little” (instead of “This is the market rate for the position or what’s within our budget, and it doesn’t matter what the applicant made at her last job”).

      Now I get where that mentality’s coming from.

      If you have bills to pay and rent/mortgage, you have a very particular budget in mind. A lot of times it’s not practical to take a pay cut. That said, this candidate knew your range ahead of time and $107,000 was not even remotely close to that range.

      1. CMT*

        I don’t think it’s wrong for people to want to always continue to increase their salaries. That’s fine, and it wasn’t really the problem here. The problem here was the candidate knew that and knew the salary range didn’t fit, but continued with the process anyway.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          No, it’s definitely not wrong to want to increase your salary. But that isn’t a sufficient rationale for demanding a higher one from an employer. Yes, in this case, it was the candidate unjustifiably demanding much higher than the higher end of the range that she knew about. I’m just saying it’s also a general problem that whole mentality of “Just because it’s higher than before.”

  6. Rachel*

    So, regarding #5. I had always thought that the proper time to discuss telecommuting, flex time, etc was at the offer stage unless the prospective employer brought it up first. So how can a candidate find out whether, say, a flexible schedule (such as working 7-3:30 rather than 8-5) or occasional telecommuting is reasonable prior to the offer stage?

    I’m in the final stages for a prospective job. I have a lot of flexibility currently, and how much I’m willing to give up depends on what salary I’m offered. For $20k over my current salary, sure, I’d give up telecommuting and a flex schedule, but not for $5k.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      I find that asking about culture (especially if you have the chance to speak with colleagues) can be very helpful in determining that.

      1. Rachel*

        I’ve definitely done that and found that they’re a fairly social bunch, people are helpful when asked but not necessarily outgoing, etc, but nothing about flexibility.

        The only real hint I’ve been able to gather is that when I left at 4:30 on a Friday after an interview the department was pretty much deserted.

        1. Honeybee*

          I asked about work-life balance and that’s when I got a sense of that. At one place, when I asked about work-life balance I got stories of flexible schedules, working from home, back-up daycare and the works. At another place, I heard an almost-rehearsed “We work really hard. We have unlimited PTO! But yeah, this isn’t your standard 9-5 job. We work hard because we love what we do and we believe in it!” which sounded like startup code for “You will never leave here!”

          Or, if you’re in the kind of field for it, why not just ask directly? Especially if you already have a job and don’t desperately need a new one? In my field flextime and WFH are fairly common things, so a candidate wouldn’t look bad if they asked about it, especially if they had other thoughtful questions.

    2. Not Karen*

      #5 is talking about a situation where “you wouldn’t take the job” unless these special arrangements were made. If you’re not going to accept a job no matter what if it doesn’t offer telecommuting and a flex schedule, tell them up front. If you’re willing to negotiate those things as part of the whole offer package, wait until the offer.

  7. anon this time*

    I’m at a loss as to why candidates think they can get away with misrepresenting their work.

    I recently candidate list their internships as full teapot design positions, with the most recent listed as a senior position that’s usually supervisory in our field. Do people think that lying like this will help them get their foot in the door?

    1. ReanaZ*

      I had a candidate recently tell me she had 6 years of experience with a particular technology, which is about “could walk into a complicated consulting job and work independently” level. Turns out 6 years ago she was tangentially involved in a failed implementation (not a deal-breaker–there’s a lot to be learned from overseeing a failed implementation if you’re thoughtful about it), didn’t touch the system for about 3-4 years, then was on a project team of the eventual successful implementation (but not doing any of the technical work) which went live a couple of months ago. So less than 6 months of her ‘6 years’ of experience was actually in a hands-on technical role with the technology.

      I was trying to hire someone with 2-3 years in a heavy hands-on role, but might have considered at least bringing her in for a technical assessment (it’s a very tight market) if she’d just been honest. But that left such a bad taste in my mouth that I pretty much wrote off her candidacy entirely.

  8. Rob Lowe can't read*

    #1 threw me for a loop in my last job search. I’d had a very successful first interview for a job that I was lukewarm about when I got a verbal offer for what I thought was my dream job. (Spoiler alert, I took it and it’s mostly really good, but not actually my dream job!) Problem was that verbal offers are very nearly meaningless with that employer, as there are several layers of bureaucracy involved in hiring, so I was not about to take myself out of the running for the less appealing position. Things moved very quickly with the less appealing job (I have reason to suspect I was the only candidate who got a second interview), and it was really awkward when they called and offered me the position and gave the impression that I was expected to accept on the spot. I said I needed a day to think about it (because that’s reasonable), and after hanging up I wondered if I should have used the language Alison suggested…but that position wasn’t my #1 choice, the slower-moving one was, and I’d have felt wrong saying that. I was able to use that offer to light a fire under the slower-moving employer, though. So everything worked out for me, but I felt really awkward for about 24 hours!

  9. steeped in anonymtea*

    Is it just conservative me, or is the shirt the woman is wearing in the picture not appropriate for work cleavage- wise? I’m not being snarky, just don’t know if I am totally out of touch.

    1. simonthegrey*

      Maybe it depends on the work? I mean, it is a stock photo, so sometimes those are flat out weird so a little cleavage isn’t a big issue. Personally, I wouldn’t wear something quite like that in an office setting, but I’m short and very curvy, so even shirts that look decent and aren’t low cut can look much more revealing than anticipated when I sit down to tutor.

    2. Honeybee*

      I think it’s exaggerated by the fact that she’s bending over in front of the computer. If she were sitting upright, it probably wouldn’t show that much cleavage.

      Personally I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing that much, but if I saw it on someone else I wouldn’t necessarily think it’s inappropriate.

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