things that will make you look unprofessional in your job search

If you’re job-searching, you probably (hopefully!) know the basic professionalism mistakes to avoid, like using an unprofessional moniker in your email address, having a silly outgoing voicemail message, or flooding social media with photos of yourself doing keg stands. But here are some less obvious ways that you can inadvertently come across as unprofessional in your job search.

1. Over-sharing. There are certain things your interviewer just doesn’t need to know, like that you almost slept through your alarm this morning, or that your marriage troubles killed your sales numbers last quarter, or that you suspect your current manager has a drinking problem. People over-share all sorts of things that they didn’t set out to share when they get nervous in interviews – or conversely, when they start feeling so comfortable that they let down their guard too much.

2. Trying to hide it when you don’t know something. If you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, the worst thing you can do is to try to bluff your way through it. Your interviewer is likely to see through the bluff, and it will reflect more poorly on you than being up-front that you don’t know the answer. Being comfortable acknowledging when you don’t know something is a sign of professional maturity and confidence … and giving potentially wrong information just to cover up a lack of knowledge can be downright dangerous if you do it after you’re hired.

3. Not polishing your application materials. An occasional typo probably won’t be a big deal once you’re on the job, but employers assume that your job application materials reflect you at your absolute best. If you have links on your resume that don’t work, inconsistent spacing, or other sloppiness, employers will read that as evidence of overall careless in your approach to work.

4. Not doing your research. Asking your interviewer basic questions about the company that can be answered on the employer’s website will make you look unprepared and even lazy. If you ask “so what exactly does the organization do?” or other questions that you could answer for yourself with five minutes of research, I’m going to assume that on the job you’ll be that employee who doesn’t bother to try to find answers on your own before asking others to help you.

5. Interrupting. Once again, interviewers assume that the you they see during interviews is the best, most polished, most polite version of you. So if you interrupt or talk over your interviewer, they’re going to assume that you’ll be the type of employee who thinks you know better than your colleagues, dominates conversations, and is generally rude.

6. Swearing. I’m extremely comfortable with profanity – maybe too comfortable – but it’s jarring to hear a job candidate use profanity in an interview. It’s just an environment where you don’t expect to hear it and it can come across as having poor judgment, even if you’re interviewing in an office that won’t mind a few swear words once you’re on the job.

7. Being too informal when you’re emailing. If the emails you send from your phone tend to be littered with typos, wait to respond to employers until you’re back at home and at your computer. That “sent from my phone” disclaimer at the bottom of your message won’t make typos or messy writing look any better in a high-stakes context like interview correspondence, where you’re expected to be polished.

8. Openly griping about your last boss. Interviewers don’t live in a bubble; we know that bad bosses are out there, and that it’s very possible that you’ve worked for a truly terrible manager or two. But you’re expected to show discretion in an interview, which means no badmouthing previous employers. Plus, there are two sides to most stories, and you don’t want your interviewer wondering if your boss was really as bad as say or whether you’re just difficult to get along with.

9. Putting your interviewer on the spot with “hard sell” questions. You might have read that you should end your interview with questions like “Is there any reason you don’t think I’m a great fit for the job?” or “Is there anything standing in the way of me getting an offer?” But an interview shouldn’t be a high-pressure sales environment, and these tactics will turn off most interviewers. Your interviewer probably won’t feel inclined to give you a detailed explanation of the ways in which you’re weaker than other candidates, and making your interviewer feel awkward isn’t a good last impression.

10. Getting so concerned with being professional that you become stiff and don’t give the interviewer any sense of who you really are. If your desire to be professional leads you to become so stiff and reserved that your interviewer can’t get a sense of what you’d be like to work with day-to-day, that’s a negative. It’s okay – and even desirable – to let some personality show. Don’t act like you’re meeting the queen; the tone you want is the one you would have in a meeting with a colleague who you don’t know well but who you have a generally warm relationship with.

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

{ 152 comments… read them below }

  1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    I had somebody drop an S-bomb in a job interview. It just landed with a thud, and we were all silent for a moment. I think the guy would have gladly committed seppuku if there’d been a katana handy.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author


      I see that US News edited my original wording on that one, where I said that I’m extremely comfortable with profanity – maybe too comfortable – but even when you are, and even when you’re in an office that’s fine with profanity, it’s still jarring to hear a job candidate do it in an interview. It’s like screaming the F word in the library; you just don’t do it.

      1. Cath in Canada*

        One of my roommates in grad school had an interview swearing horror story. She worked in the vet school stables to earn extra cash and had been up all night assisting with a foal delivery the night before her grad school entry interview. The guy who met her when she arrived told her that Professor Whatever wasn’t available until later so he’d show her around in the mean time. He didn’t introduce himself, and in her sleep-deprived state she a) didn’t think to ask who he was and b) assumed from his age, clothes, and general demeanor that he was a grad student. When he dropped an f-bomb at one point (this was in Glasgow; people swear a lot more there), she figured it was OK to do the same, and did so several times. She also gave some VERY forthright opinions on various published papers (I believe one of the f-bombs was in this context), and fell asleep on his shoulder during the lunchtime seminar they went to together.

        She found our when he finally walked her over to Professor Whatever’s office that he was the deputy head of department, dressed very scruffily because his good clothes had been ruined earlier that day (occupational hazard of large animal medicine).

        Amazingly enough, she got in and went on to get her PhD there :D

        1. Wendy Darling*

          I leaned back in my chair to think about the answer to a question during a phone interview… and bashed my head on the wall behind me and said “Ow, shit!” without thinking.

          Then I had to apologize. And explain I just hit my head because I’m really, really bad at coming up with fibs on the spot. I got the job though!

          1. Mephyle*

            Well done on getting the job. But I’m perplexed as to why this would call for a fib. Is there anything other than the truth that would have painted you in a better light? I can’t think of anything.

        2. Miaw*

          She fell asleep on a young-looking deputy head’s shoulder?! Sounds like the start of a romantic comedy.

    2. New Bee*

      I had someone drop the F-word in response to a perceived mistake during her interview (“What the F….; I can’t believe I just said that!”) She repeatedly referenced it throughout the rest of the interview and ended up crying and asking for a redo.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I’d have given her one. And brought a warm tub of popcorn to enjoy the show.

  2. Michele*

    Good list, but I would like to add “not having anything nice to say about other people.” This isn’t just the advice about not trashing your boss. Don’t trash your coworkers. Give me examples of how you work well with people, not all of the drama you will bring with you. One question I like to ask when I am interviewing people is “tell me about someone who had a positive impact on your career.” It is a nice get-to-know-you thing. It gives people a chance to say something positive and tell a story about their interaction with someone. Some people talk about parents or teachers or mentors or spouses. But I have also had people say that no one has ever helped them do anything. That doesn’t make them sound independent, or whatever they are going for. It makes them sound like an ungrateful jerk.

    1. fposte*

      Oh, I have never heard this put this way and it’s absolutely true. If you don’t sound like you’ve ever liked anybody, I figure you’re not going to like us much, either.

      1. sstabeler*

        or, to put it another way: if you don’t sound like you like anybody, it increasingly looks like you’re the problem, not them. ( it’s not always the case- sometimes they have just had really shitty luck in who they hang out with- but even then, it brings your judgement inot question, which can also be a red flag.)

        1. Michele*

          Exactly. Sometimes people end up in bad situations, but when you can’t get along with anyone, that doesn’t reflect well. At least have the discretion to not say anything.

        2. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

          During an interview, I was asked if there was a time when didn’t get along with a co-worker. Honestly, I’ve never had any issues with my co-workers. When I told the interviewer this, she looked at me in disbelief. What else should I have said? I didn’t want to lie.

          1. Michele*

            I had someone look at me in disbelief when I said that by working together we learned how much each other brought to the team and learned to respect each other. She really seemed to think that people couldn’t solve their problems without going to a boss or HR.
            But I would probably have a hard time believing someone if they said that they never had any problems with anyone they worked with.

            1. BPT*

              I think there’s a difference in “not getting along with a coworker” and “working perfectly with everyone.” Like, sure, there have been coworkers I didn’t particularly like or coworkers I’ve had difficulties working with because of different styles or they were lazy or something. But I wouldn’t actually say I didn’t “get along” with those coworkers, because I just did my work, kept my head down, and didn’t let my personal dislikes get in the way of working with them.

              A lot of people probably have coworkers who are impossible to “get along” with, but not everyone.

              1. Michele*

                Don’t tell stories about someone who is impossible to get along with. Tell stories about someone you disagreed with and how the conflict was peacefully resolved without drama.

                1. Charlotte Collins*

                  Even if there was drama. (I once used an example of one of the most unpleasant people that I ever worked with, but focused on her poor communication skills. In addition to just being an all-around nasty person, she had been losing her memory, so I discussed how that affected the team and how we came up with solutions to help her.)

                  I also did not bring up that this was a workplace that did not understand that the ADA didn’t mean she just got to do whatever job she wanted (badly), not the one that she had been hired for and never learned to do. (I am a strong believer in the ADA – I think it’s a wonderful law, but I’ve seen it misapplied by poor management in many ways…)

          2. k*

            I’m the same way! Sure, I’m not best friends with every person I’ve ever worked with. But I’ve never had something raise to a level of conflict that I would consider noteworthy. When I’ve had that question in interviews I went with something very generic about adjusting my communication with different people. I hate resorting to vague answer like that, but there really isn’t any one situation I would be able to point to.

          3. BPT*

            In those questions before, I’ve said, “well I’ve never personally had issues with coworkers, but I’ve worked with people where we had different takes on a project/ways of working/different strategies than I wanted to use, and I was able to work with them by…X.”

            So you’re making it clear that you’re not just a “yes man” or are pretending that there are never any differences, but you don’t personally bring drama (for lack of a better word) to the team.

      1. Michele*

        Really? I could tell you about my second grade teacher who got me interested in science or my sixth grade teacher who convinced my parents that I could be the first person in my family to go to college, or my parents for believing that could happen, or my undergraduate advisor…..

        1. Bad Candidate*

          Hmm. My dad insisted I take Keyboarding in HS so I could learn how to type. Probably not what people are hoping to hear.

        1. Bad Candidate*

          Not sure. Maybe I need examples others have used? Maybe I’m just not thinking of it in the right way.

          1. Michele*

            You can’t come up with any on your own, and I gave you a long personal list. If I were interviewing you, I would see you as someone who doesn’t give credit where credit is due and is self-centered.
            Are you honestly saying that no one has ever believed in you, no one has ever inspired you, your partner has never taken on extra responsibilities at home because you worked late or took night classes, your parents didn’t make sure to have some money saved up so you could go to college, you never read a book or a paper or saw someone speak who made a difference? How the heck did you choose your career? That is an amazing island to live on.

            1. Bad Candidate*

              Wow, assumptions much? Thanks. But come to think of it, yes, my husband did support me when I was going back to school. I hadn’t thought of that since my degree is meaningless and was a gigantic waste of money, so I don’t really think of that in the career sense. But I am eternally grateful for his help and support and for not making me feel worse about the worst mistake of my life.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Do you really not see how cripplingly negative you are?

            2. fposte*

              Yeah, that’s a little hard, and there are plenty of people for whom the answers to many of those questions would be “No,” which isn’t the happiest of situations. But I think the key to people who’ve had limited support and fortune is the “inspired you” part, because you can even expand that outside of people you know.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Ah, I think I understand. Usually this question isn’t limited to “what was the specific thing someone did to advance your career?” It’s more a question of who supported you or helped you develop as a person/colleague, which can happen in the form of emotional/financial support or encouragement, identifying professional opportunities for you (like conferences you should attend or training you could obtain) and encouraging you to pursue them, reading over your work and offering feedback when it’s not that person’s “job” to do so, listening to you describe problems and helping you troubleshoot, etc.

            Examples of folks who’ve provided that support to me include: a coworker who helped me navigate a weird dynamic around sexist communication norms at our workplace, a student group advisor who encouraged me to apply to college (and to broaden the scope of colleges I applied to), and a teacher who encouraged me to continue to develop my interests in writing—even though I never wanted to be an author and ddn’t become one, the advice to invest in skills I liked was important and helped me identify work opportunities that came later in life.

            Oftentimes folks who can’t answer this question can be very beat down/isolated/gloomy (think Eeyore); i.e., they’ve had a life where people gave them low/no expectations, or they don’t have very many close and healthy relationships/friendships, or they’ve been knocked back so many times that they’re having a hard time looking up from the gutter toward the stars. The other group that has this problem are egomaniacal narcissists. Both are often difficult to work with, difficult to manage, and really bring down morale. Cultivating the skill to identify and practice gratitude is really important for Eeyores and egomanics (and good for everyone, generally): for the former, it’s an important way to bring energy back into your life/job, and for the latter, it’s essential to keep from becoming insufferable.

      2. DeadQuoteOlympics*

        “having a positive impact on my career” could include colleagues that consistently modeled professional behavior that you emulated, or where you learned how to handle specific tricky situations by watching them (how to defuse hostile feedback or criticism during a presentation or meeting, how to manage a disorganized boss, etc.). If someone can’t think of anything, it implies that they don’t think they can learn anything from other people, either.

        Perhaps you are thinking of it as only specific, explicit offers of help? Because I think a lot of “help” and encouragement can be very indirect and ambient, if you know what I mean. I’ve had great mentors over my careers and a lot of what I learned from them was by watching them, analyzing how and why they were successful in specific situations, and trying to put those principles, or scripts, or solutions into practice.

        1. Bad Candidate*

          Perhaps you are thinking of it as only specific, explicit offers of help?

          Yes, I was thinking in more specifics. Thanks, that has helped me think of a few things.

        2. TheLazyB*

          Errm. Would ‘alison of the ask a manager website’ be a good answer?! I’ve grown a lot workwise since I started reading here!!

      3. hbc*

        It doesn’t have to be big. I’ve never had any mentors or anything like that, but there are certainly people who have skills that I’ve tried to emulate. Heck, the person who described me as “assertive” when introducing me to a new colleague shook my self-perception, and he probably forgot the comment five minutes later. And of course, anyone who posts here can cite Alison.

        If these aren’t sufficient because the hiring manager is looking for some Hallmark story of my grandfather’s deathbed wish causing me to change majors or some bigwig who took me under her wing, we probably wouldn’t be a good fit.

        1. Bad Candidate*

          Ha. Yes. I had a manager who once called me Sardonic. I had to look up what it meant. It definitely caught me off guard and taught me something.

        2. Michele*

          Exactly. On your first day at a job, did someone take the time to make you feel welcome when you were nervous? Did anyone take extra time with you while you were learning the ropes? Have you ever had a boss that was very diplomatic when addressing problems and whose style you want to emulate? I don’t think most people are aware of the positive influence they have on people. It doesn’t have to be a huge, life-altering event, but I don’t want to work with people who aren’t appreciative of those around them.

      4. LQ*

        +My favorite example would be when my boss at my first post college job said, “Come over here and listen in to this phone call, you’ll do it next.” She would show me how to do something, and then hand it over to me and help me along the way.
        Other good examples:
        +A coworker said that she thought I was an amazing sales person. I’d never thought of myself as selling things, I was always just trying to help people do what was best for them and so I’d talk about the tools and products that worked for them. She pointed out that’s good sales and I shouldn’t be afraid of that.
        +A very senior to me person pointed out that sometimes work is like “you can’t have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat” sometimes work is boring or is just stuff you need to get done so you can get to the dessert part of the job, the really cool fun things, and that all jobs have meat to them. Work that just needs to get done every single day. So I should try to be more efficient and productive with that so I have more time for the dessert part of the job.
        +I had a board member take me on a walking tour of the neighborhood I was working in, he knew many of the residents, and a huge amount of the history. We stopped by people’s houses and they made us coffee. We talked about the history, their love for the community. It showed me that the most important part of the work I do every day is about how it matters to a person. Sometimes I don’t know who that person is, I can’t walk out and shake their hand, but having had that experience is what makes me incredibly, deeply happy to work in public service every day. I know that what I do matters to someone. It helps keep them in their home, it helps put food on their table, it helps them keep their business afloat.

        (I hope some of those helped.)

        1. Michele*

          You know, I kind of like that people have started listing these positive influences. Hearing people recognize the good that others have done for them, as well as reflecting on it myself, makes me happy.

              1. Michele*

                I will second that. Someone else may have to get it started, though. I am usually late to open threads.

    2. hayling*

      We interviewed this young woman (mid-20s) who spent the whole conversation trashing her current company and complaining about her incompetent older coworkers who couldn’t keep up with new technology. I mean, I get it, I have also worked with people who had been in their jobs for a long time and were stuck in their ways, but this interviewee was such a snot about it. She acted like she was God’s gift to our industry. My boss and I just rolled our eyes after the interview, but for some reason we had our CEO interview her too. He totally called her out on her crappy attitude! I heard from a friend who knows her that she was mortified–but hopefully she learned her lesson.

    3. Collarbone High*

      Oh yes. I once interviewed someone who launched into a rant about how everyone in his current job was incompetent except him. I thought, excellent, I can’t wait to bring this guy on board so he can turn his attention to badmouthing *my* staff.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      I’ve got one I use a lot, from once upon a time at the materials testing lab where I used to work. My predecessor Hermione left before they hired anyone, as she was moving out of state. Before she did, she made a folder full of SOP documents for every part of her job. You can’t imagine how grateful I was for this–the tasks were incredibly persnickety due to the nature of the work and how samples had to be handled (i.e. chain of custody especially).

      My boss McGonagall told me it would take six months to become proficient in the job because so many things had to be done a certain way, but Hermione’s instructions were a godsend. She dropped by once while visiting friends in the area, and I thanked her profusely for it. I also adopted her idea and discovered that making an SOP when I’m learning something helps me learn it faster and with less questions later. It might take a bit more time during training, but if I make notes as I go, BAM–I rarely have to go back and bother anyone later unless something weird happens. Not only that, but if I get hit by a bus, anyone covering me can step in and follow my instructions. It doesn’t just help me; it helps the company.

      And what good practice for technical writing, too. :)

  3. Anonymous for This*

    First, I agree on the oversharing. I just passed on a candidate, and that was one of the reasons. It came off as very unprofessional and far too casual for our industry.

    Second, we had a candidate we really liked who really, really badmouthed her previous boss. The reason was, I believe, to explain why she had quit without having another job lined up. The hiring manager (I was just assisting in the interview) seemed to be fine with it, but is it something we should be concerned about?

    1. Jesmlet*

      There’s nothing wrong with not liking your boss. There is something wrong with not having the good judgment to not badmouth them during an interview. Even if that was the reason, there are diplomatic ways of putting things. With that said, if she gave her reason in a vague way and then you inquired even more and that was her response, I might give her a bit of a pass as long as it wasn’t too over the line.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Is she young? And how was her professionalism otherwise? I’d take it as part of the picture, not the absolute final word on it (unless the way she was talking was insulting or otherwise egregious).

      1. Anonymous for This*

        She’s not young (and has a lot of experience). Her professionalism was otherwise good, and it seems like it was a true one off type of thing. (Also, we have several great candidates, so I’m looking closely at everything. I may be overreacting.)

        1. Jeanne*

          For me, the reason she quit would matter. There are real reasons to quit on the spot and for those reasons someone looks bad.

        2. Sas*

          I mean I am always here it seems for giving people another chance or seeing it slightly differently. To the point, in an interview, you force the topic, that’s what happens. If someone otherwise wouldn’t have mentioned it, you don’t know. To be judged harshly based on that is rough, don’t you think. As someone else said, to rephrase a manager that basically shi- on you, well, could the best of us do that? Would you? Would it be difficult? Some people might go into a ten minute long speech on it. I had a horrible horrible one at one point, you make me talk about that, and there is NOTHING good to say, but then I would hope that the person interviewing would be human enough to get the struggle.

    3. Barney Barnaby*

      My feeling is that there are the true “once in a career” situations that justify just simply leaving your job without another one lined up. In that situation, the person doing it needs to be able to explain, concisely and without drama, what happened; explain the timing on their departure (“after this important project wrapped up” is good, if true); and then be genuine when expressing joy at working with the vast majority of people he or she has encountered in his professional career.

      Sometimes, good judgement means that you leave, rather than stay.

    4. J*

      I actually tried very hard *not* to badmouth a previous boss while sharing an anecdote in an interview, and ended up giving up on the effort half-way through the tale. I figured they were either going to decide I was an a** or that I would be a good fit for the team.

      Later, after I got the job, my new boss credited that insane story with why I got the job over candidates with better resumes. I was a very good fit.

      1. Barney Barnaby*

        “Insane story” being the clincher.

        I’m of the mind that most issues can be addressed in an interview in a softened, diplomatic manner. For example, “Every time I had a performance review, my boss would trash me, make up things that weren’t true, and ignore my accomplishments,” could be phrased as “I am looking for other opportunities because I feel like my contributions to the office are not recognised by my immediate supervisor.”

        The only way to say, “My boss looked at a framed family photo on my desk and said he wanted to strangle my children” is “My boss looked at a framed family photo on my desk and said he wanted to strangle my children.”

  4. Audiophile*

    I actually asked a softer version of the hard sell question once in an interview. I got a very candid answer that they were concerned that I’d be unhappy in the position, because it didn’t involve much interaction with people. It was a development role and was very heavy on the data entry side. The interview hadn’t been going well to begin with, but the answer was what made me rethink whether I really wanted the job. I ultimately withdrew my application the following day.

    1. JM in England*

      I use another version of the soft-sell question, usually at the end of the interview. It’s along the lines of “I believe that I’ve illustrated how my skills and experience match the job’s requirements. However, if you’ve any concerns about my fit for the role, I will address them now.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Hmmm, so I don’t love that wording — in part because you want to do more that just demonstrate you meet the requirements (probably everyone they’re interviewing meets the requirements) — you want to demonstrate that you’d excel at the job. I also don’t love the “I will address them now,” since you’re sort of announcing that they’re going to share feedback with you, which they may not intend to do.

        1. Emi.*

          Can you say something like “Do you have any concerns about my candidacy you’d like me to address?”? “Candidacy” sounds weird to me but I can’t think of anything better.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes. (“Fit for the role” or “qualifications” work too.) The key is to ask it the way you have it here, with the “which you’d like me to address” part. If you leave that off and just say “do you have any concerns about my qualifications?” then it’s too hard of a sell. Because they may, but they may not be willing to address them with you on the spot.

            1. StevieIsWondering*

              That’s nearly how I phrased the question in my phone interview (the first time I had ever tried it) but without the “which you’d like me to address” part — oops! The interviewer did not seem offended or irked by it and did share their reservations, which I found incredibly useful. In the future though I would carefully evaluate posing that question based on how other parts of the interview were going; it seems like many hiring managers would feel irked by it.

            2. Lablizard*

              It has never occurred to me to ask a question like this, I guess because I think of interviewing being like dating. It seems a bit off putting to make people express why you might not be a good fit because so much of hiring is the professional equivalent of “no chemistry”. I would be hard pressed to explain why I have withdrawn applications, beyond “not feeling it”. I would hate to put an interviewer in the same spot

          2. Kai*

            That’s almost exactly the way I phrased this question in the interview for my current job, and I think it went over well.

          3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            I’d be a little put off if I got this question., with or without “which you’d like me to address.” Just seems pushy.

    2. Stone Satellite*

      Urgh, as a technical interviewer I’ve occasionally had candidates ask how they did at the end. I hate it! Absolutely hate it. I literally just finished an hourlong conversation with you about a technical question, oftentimes I haven’t even decided how I think you did yet, much less come up with appropriate words to convey useful feedback to you. And even if I had something ready to go, you have about 30 seconds before your next technical interview, so you probably don’t have time to process and incorporate feedback anyway; at best you push it to the back of your mind to think about later but at worst it throws you off your game for your next interview. Yet people ask, and I end up saying vague, unhelpful, sometimes untrue things like “You did fine.”

  5. Grrr Argh!*

    I once had to ask an interviewer “what dies thid company actually do”. I knew it had something to do with software, but that was it. Their website had their address and phone number and a short company history. Nothing else. The guy’s answer was “anything”. Okay then. Thanks for clearing that up

  6. Cube Ninja*

    On the subject of oversharing, I once asked a candidate to “tell me about a challenge you’ve had to overcome recently”.

    Apparently, I needed to specify that it should be a professional challenge, as she launched into the story of how her fiance was on deployment overseas, had cheated on her, how they talked through it and are now in couples therapy.

    To this day, I still can’t fathom why anyone would even remotely consider telling that story to a stranger, let alone an interviewer.

    1. Michele*

      Sheesh. She really should have gotten that off her chest in couples therapy instead of the interview.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I hate to generalize, but my observation is that a lot of military spouses, especially younger ones, tend not to have a great deal of work or professional experience, and so might be less likely to understand professional norms. Weird, though.

      1. Cube Ninja*

        @ Not Mad:

        That was definitely the case here – both younger and recent grad and was actually a referral from either one of our managers or a client contact if I’m remembering correctly.

        It was probably the most awkward/uncomfortable moment I’ve ever had as an interviewer because I was too gobsmacked to say anything to stop her, so she just kept on until she was done. The worst part of it all is that she wasn’t a strong candidate to begin with and even though we didn’t especially hold the slip against her, we had folks who were much better qualified, so she over shared *and* didn’t get an offer.

        I can’t imagine how awful she must have felt afterward. :(

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I feel like those open-ended questions just tempt people to jump off a cliff. Whatever’s most prominent in their minds at the time just comes tumbling out.

          1. fposte*

            Only the truly unprepared, though, and you really don’t want an interview of only closed-ended questions. I ask “Tell me about a time” a lot and I’ve never heard about anybody’s marital counseling as a result.

            1. Michele*

              I did have someone start yelling at me and shoving his finger in my face while he was acting out a scenario after I asked him to tell me about a conflict he had with a boss and how he resolved it. That was exciting.

                1. Jersey's Mom*

                  I prefer Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes music, as it makes me laugh.

                  The Star Trek music would tempt me to try the Vulcan shoulder pinch.

          2. Lablizard*

            I find it helpful to have a “go to” for that question. The time I built a negative pressure hood (well room) out of PVC pipe, duct tape, and tarps when a sample we were not supposed to get arrived makes for a good story (especially because no one died)

    3. Rincat*

      I was in the grocery store the other day wearing my alma mater sweatshirt and a nice elderly man stopped me to tell me the story of how his son got laid off and went back to that school; it was a very long story complete with commentary about the state of Iowa. I was just trying to get my soda. Some people just love to share!

    4. Rusty Shackelford*

      I can see how someone without a lot of professional experience might choose to answer that question based on personal issues, especially if they’ve already used up their “good” work stories for other questions. I mean, if you had to organize a cross-country move at the last minute, or you sat on a board with a challenging member, those are relevant IMHO.

      (But never your love life. Never ever.)

    5. Generation Catalano*

      A friend of mine asked someone this question and got a rambling story about the time they accidentally ran over someone’s cat.

    6. KAZ2Y5*

      I had that happen to me once. I was interviewing for a new job because I had been laid off, so it was a little stressful anyway. It was a group interview (which I didn’t expect and was stressed out about) and they asked about a challenge I had overcome. My mind immediately jumped to the previous year when my husband died suddenly and I started crying. Not boo-hooing but the tears were rolling down. Well, in for a penny in for a pound as they say. So I explained, and apologized for crying and they were really nice about it all. They talked about a coworker who had died suddenly a few months previously and how hard it was for everyone. I did talk about the challenges at work because of it and we moved on to other things. I laugh about it now and am pretty sure they were really scared to ask that question for a while! But I’m sure that was the first thing that popped in her mind and just wiped everything else out.

      1. Emmie*

        I am so sorry about your husband. What a completely normal reaction. I am sure they were careful when they asked the question again.

      2. Cube Ninja*

        Yikes! I can picture that and how intensely awkward that must have been, especially in a group interview (Why do people do these? They’re weird). I’ve had a few conversations at work where I’ve talked about the death of my mother and I’ve really struggled to keep it together a couple times.

        I know in my case, when I ask that question nowadays, I always phrase as “tell me about a challenge you’ve had to overcome in your professional life” or something similar. :)

        1. KAZ2Y5*

          That was the first time I had been in a group interview. I am used to them now and expect them but at the time I had only had interviews with the boss/manager for places I had worked with. I figure I will never have an interview as bad as that!

    7. Artemesia*

      I used to read applications for an advanced professional program and an incredible number of people when asked to discuss a challenge they had overcome would choose incredibly personal things like marriage problems, mental or physical health problems or family issues. The whole context was the professional context and it just used to stun me that they would talk about such intimate and entirely inappropriate things for the context.

  7. pinyata*

    I have a really hard time not interrupting. I think it all started when I had a boyfriend who constantly interrupted me and so I started talking over him or interrupting him back otherwise I’d never get to finish my point. (I was young and not emotionally intelligent enough to just directly address the issue). I also often find that if I wait to make my point, I’ve forgotten it by the time others aren’t talking, so I feel this anxious need to get it out right then. I know that sometimes I start answering a question before someone’s finished asking it. And of course it seems like the times that I try to be super aware of it are also the times when someone is either talking non-stop or other people are constantly jumping in or doing their own interrupting! Does anyone have any good tactics to help stop my own interrupting? (Feel free to tell me to wait for an open thread if it’s more appropriate there, Alison.)

    1. Parenthetically*

      Google “active listening techniques”! So many helpful strategies to slow down your brain and really engage with what the other person is saying, and THEN formulate a response.

      1. pinyata*

        Thank you! It’s funny; I am often told that I am a great listener when people come to me with problems or for advice, so I’m sure I must be putting these techniques into practice in those situations, but in the fast-paced workplace or when I get excited about something I want to say, it all disappears.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I have this problem, pinyata (see: grew up with rambunctious interrupters), and I do two things. The first is that I use a post-it to write the bullet points for whatever point I wanted to make—this works best in the group meeting setting where folks are sitting together. It doesn’t really work if you’re talking one-on-one or in a huddle. The other thing I do is that I count to 3-5 seconds after someone takes a breath/break to ensure they’re actually done speaking, as opposed to taking an Obama-like pause to organize their thoughts (or you could follow the Jeopardy! rule—you can’t buzz in to answer the question until the person finishes stating the question).

      I also quickly apologize and cede the floor back to the original speaker if I interrupt them, and I’ll often let people know, in a more one-on-one context, that I realize I’m an interrupter and am actively working on managing it. I find that pairing that with the other tools makes people more willing to cut me some slack (but I also have gotten way better at not interrupting—if I said these things without making progress, I think it would make things much worse.).

    3. Temperance*

      I have a similar problem (grew up in a sexist family where the males felt entitled to speak over the females, so I developed the habit of re-interrupting to assert myself). What I do is count to four. It’s not long enough to seem strange, and unless they’re a slow talker, you’ll be fine.

    4. pinyata*

      Thank you for the ideas! I always bring a pen and paper with me to meetings, so I cannot believe it never occurred to me to write down the thing I was waiting impatiently to say!

  8. Murphy*

    In terms of oversharing, I had an interviewer tell me once “You’re not supposed to share anything personal in an interview.” Is it really to that extreme?

    For reference, he wasn’t criticizing me, I don’t think. He was giving me a tour and someone congratulated him. He told me that he’d gotten a promotion, but he hadn’t realized that it had been announced. I said “Oh, congratulations!” because that seemed like a normal response, and he said, not angrily, “You’re not supposed to share anything personal in an interview!” and quickly changed the subject. I wasn’t looking to ask him for more details, but I don’t know how else I should have responded.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Uh… but you literally were not sharing anything personal in that interview, you were congratulating him on a promotion? What a bizarre thing for him to say.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s just weird, because you weren’t even the one to share something — he was. He was just a weirdo and you don’t need to worry about it.

      And it’s fine to share the occasional personal thing in an interview if it comes up organically (within reason — obviously not the cheating story from above).

    3. fposte*

      Is it possible he meant that in an “Oops, I wasn’t supposed to say that” way about his own statement? Because that’s still weird but it at least makes slightly more sense than saying it to you for congratulating him.

      1. Michele*

        That is the only way I can find that makes sense. No matter what, it sounds like the interviewer must be lacking in social skills.

      2. Rusty Shackelford*

        That’s what I was wondering… like, is that why he didn’t introduce himself using his new title?

      3. Murphy*

        Probably, yeah. At the time, I was young and inexperienced, so I wasn’t sure if I was being criticized, but I figured probably not. In general, the comment about never saying anything personal has just always stuck out to me as odd.

    4. hayling*

      One, this guy was weird.

      Two, I think it’s good to share some light personal details. I usually ask candidates about what they do in their personal time. I don’t care about the actual answer per se, I just want to know that you’re a human being with interests and activities outside of work.

    5. Artemesia*

      I am assuming he was referring to himself i.e. as an interviewer he was not supposed to share something personal – like his promotion.

  9. Trout 'Waver*

    Ugh, #7. I had a pretty good interview with a guy to fill a role on my team. His resume was highly polished and immaculately formatted. His skills were pretty good. I was interviewing other candidates but thought he could do the job so I kept him on the short list.

    Then I received a long, stream of consciousness unformatted thank-you note. I started to think about which example of his communication skills was more representative of the kinds of communication I would receive if I hired him. Ultimately, I still would have offered the job to a stronger candidate (who took the job), but it took him from #3 on the short list to ‘No thanks, I’ll pass’

  10. Temperance*

    #10 is my biggest hurdle. I grew up in a blue collar environment, so white collar professional norms are sort of like navigating a different culture in many ways. I also immediately become intimidated because of the perceived power differential, which is also a holdover from blue collar culture, where there’s The Boss and the peons.

    What I do now is try and channel Elle Woods. Cheesy, but it works very well.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      In my 20s, #10 was mine as well. I knew I was good and also young, and wanted SO badly to be seen as Professional and Smart. I would take like a full minute to think about my answer to any interview question, and that never went well. Literally in my job search when I was 25, I got an interview from every resume I sent out, but it took like nine months to actually get a job.

      The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve relaxed and the better interviews have gone. It has definitely helped that I’ve not been panicked about getting a new job, and have really internalized the idea that the interview process goes both ways.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      When I meet someone high up and feel intimidated, I use a variant of that old stage technique where you visualize the audience in their underpants. I picture them sitting on the toilet. Everybody poops! :D

      You may think it’s weird, but it works. And it also makes me want to laugh, so my smile of greeting becomes genuine, and they think I’m really happy to meet them, which people like. Good for meeting sorta famous people, too. It keeps you from going “OMG IT’S YOUUUUUUU!”

  11. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

    If you have to explain why you left previous job and it was because of your former boss’s egregious behavior, I’ve found the best way is to briefly, factually, and calmly mention the specifics: “Unfortunately, I had to leave because I wasn’t being paid.” “Unfortunately, the owner of my previous company was tried for assaulting my coworker and I was subpoenaed as a witness, so I doubt he’ll be able to serve as a reference.” I’ve been in both of those situations and explained them basically in those words, and my interviewers were understanding about the unusual circumstances. I got one of my best jobs shortly after these two incidents.

  12. WellRed*

    I am in the process of roommate hunting and it’s funny how much of what applies to a job hunt also applies. Not following directions (please email or text, no phone calls); no oversharing (I learned last week the actual dollar amount of a woman’s divorce settlement); typos (not a huge deal, but the email that was one long run-on sentence with NO punctuation was super painful to read); not checking your online presence (not quite the strict parameters as for a job, but if you have an unusual name and I immediately pull up your arrest records for drug trafficking…or too many duckface selfies with friends telling you you look hot sober…or you tell me you have a maltese puppy but forget to mention your ill newborn)!

    1. Wendy Darling*

      I was once looking for an apartment and found a condo being rented by the owner. It was extremely dated but the location was great and the rent was really cheap.

      You know how apartment viewings usually last 15 minutes? This one lasted an hour because the lady who owned the condo told me all about her last tenant (an international student from Japan) and his personal life, bad tenants she had had in the past (they wore shoes on the carpets!), and her uterine fibroids and the miracle baby she had at 40. She also told me that she liked to check on her tenants a lot.

      So basically if I rented this place I was legally binding myself to a year of having my space invaded by Captain Overshare.

      I did not rent the apartment.

      1. Mephyle*

        Not to mention that she would have shared anything and everything about you to her next tenant, and probably to anyone else.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      No, you want people to do that. It’s like a magic sorting hat for muggles.

      1. Hellanon*

        Exactly so. When I was renting my spare room (and when I’ve been on an interviewing team) I *always* tried to give people room to tell their story. For one thing, it puts them at ease (and if it doesn’t, that’s a data point) and for another, I am likely to get enough information to make a good decision, whereas if I do all the talking the opposite is true.

  13. Wendy Darling*

    I had an in-house recruiter, while prepping me for an interview with the hiring manager, tell me that at the end of the interview I should ask, “Is there anything standing in the way of me getting an offer?” She told me she advised everyone to do that and that it really impressed the hiring managers.

    I promised her I’d do it and then vowed not to do it because I couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t feel gross. Hard-sell tactics make me feel icky.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        Me either, I’d be the worst salesperson ever! I’d be like, “Do you want it? No? Okay, have a good day then!” and leave the person alone. Everyone would have a lovely time, but I would not sell things.

        1. Carrie*

          Oddly enough, that was essentially my husband’s strategy when he did sales (in a retail environment, as someone who never in his life thought he would be any good at sales)… and his sales numbers were consistently in the top 3 in the store.

          Basically, *everybody* runs screaming from high-pressure sales tactics. But when someone genuinely thinks the product is worthwhile, gives a good brief explanation of it, and is also clearly willing to take no for an answer with no further hassle? Turns out that gains people’s trust, and they are more likely to buy the thing after all.

          The application to job interviewing is left as an exercise for the reader, as math textbooks always say.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        Me either. I don’t give a rat’s patootie if you buy something and I hate it when people do it to me. My brother, however, is a whiz at sales–he is very likeable and convincing without being hard sell. I think it’s something people are born with.

    1. esra (also a Canadian)*

      I had a recruiter try that on me during my last job hunt. She was really put out afterward when I didn’t use it (still got an offer, tho).

      The thing is, this firm was putting forth three people for the same job. Can you imagine if we all used her (bad) question at the end?

  14. Lia*

    We recently interviewed about a dozen people for an opening at my university. Now, like most universities, we have a pretty substantial online presence, from the web to social media, and even our office has a page with lots of information about the projects we do, our staff, and the like.

    ONE candidate was able to coherently answer the question “So, what do you know about the Office of Teapot Research”? ONE. More than half of the candidates already work at the university, and none of them could answer the question, although we’ve worked on joint projects with all of them in the past. Even the two candidates who had prior experience working in Offices of Teapot Research at other universities couldn’t answer the question without a ton of prompting!

    I’ve been on a number of hiring committees over my tenure here and the preparation of candidates has steadily declined.Not sure what we’re doing wrong, but we just keep getting clueless people.

    1. hayling*

      I ask a slightly different version of the question–I ask what about the job posting and our company made them apply for the job.

      1. Rincat*

        I think that’s a good question to ask. I just landed a job in a newly formed department, in our IT organization that’s undergoing extensive reorganization…so I honestly could not answer the question “what do you know about us?” Especially since the job posting was posted under the wrong department name!

      2. Michele*

        That gives me horrible flashbacks to all of those applications that I filled out for wage-earning jobs to get through school. Everytime I saw those “why do you want to work here?” questions for a job bussing tables or cleaning, I was so tempted to answer that I didn’t have the stomach for prostitution or I was too much of a chicken to deal drugs.

    2. Michele*

      We have that same problem, and I work in industry. I figure that should be a pretty easy question to answer. We are huge international corporation. If I said the name, >95% of the people on AAM would probably recognize it. But we still get people who don’t know anything about us. “Um, I think you have something to do with teapots?”

    3. Angela*

      You know, I once interviewed for a somewhat internal position (very large umbrella, but very similar departments and duties) and really stumbled over this question- twice! I’m not sure why I struggled so much- maybe because I didn’t just want to sound canned? It was very weird and probably cost me the job, because the rest of the interview went very well, but I could not for the life of me answer this very, very basic question.

    4. NaoNao*

      I think part of this may be the way it’s being asked. It’s a very broad, almost vague question I think many would struggle to answer. “What do you know?” could be:

      What does this place physically do day to day
      What is the mission/vision for this place
      What “inside dirt” or prior knowledge do you have for this place
      What do you know about the job posting or duties
      What is your general impression of this place
      Who are the staff and what are their job titles

      Also, what are you trying to determine with this question? I’m an instructional designer and one key technique that we stress for quality training is “what *actual operation* must the learner perform at the end of the training?” Not “what must they be “aware of” or “informed of”. What must they DO?

      So, if you’re trying to determine “fit”:

      “So can you tell me a little about why you feel you’d be a good fit for us?”

      If you’re trying to determine they’ve done their research:

      “So, can you tell me what attracted you to this job posting and department?”

      Also, not to be harsh, but how much research someone did and what facts about the org they can remember and rattle off in a high pressure situation is not a super great indicator of career accomplishments, work ethic, or fit for the org.

      If I had a nickel for every job interview that began with a verbal “slide show” of “Company’s Greatest Hits and How We Are So Awesome and Everything About Us” I’d be in Florida with an umbrella drink right now. Most interviewees expect a 20 minute speech allllllll about the company: what it does, when it started, it’s biggest accomplishments and products, and on and on. A company that asks *me* “So, what do you know about us?” is still 100% likely to nod, then launch into a canned “Greatest Hits” speech anyway. (Not saying you’re doing that!)

  15. Generation Catalano*

    I think you can use a softer version of the questions in 9. I tend to ask if there’s anything they don’t feel I’ve addressed in my answers (rather than something as absolute as asking what would stop me getting the job). In my interview for my current job they said actually we are wondering about the fact you used to do x – wasn’t it a huge change to go from that to y? And it enabled me to explain something they turned out to have misunderstood.

  16. Brogrammer*

    Here’s an oddly specific question (asking for a friend, I swear). How would you explain leaving a job if you were fired for a reason that’s illegal where you are now, but was legal where your previous job was? Say, you lived in Texas and got fired from your job for being gay. Then you moved to California, where it’s illegal to fire someone for being gay – how do you disclose that previous firing when applying for jobs without sharing too much information but also without looking like you’re trying to hide something?

    If this would be better suited for the Friday open thread, that’s fine too!

    1. Michele*

      That would be a good question for the open thread. My opinion is to just be honest about it, but that is probably too idealistic.

  17. Engineer Manager*

    Kind of the flip side to #2, if you list something as an accomplishment or skill on your resume, don’t say “I don’t know” or “I’d have to look that up” to every question about it. We recently had a graduating student interview who used phrases like that way to often on topics related to their thesis, internship and basic coursework, things that they should be able to give some answers to. I don’t expect them to be able to remember every detail, but on something like your thesis that you just finished, be prepared to talk about it at some level.

    1. Artemesia*

      Oh I’ve had those. Often it was someone who puffed their resume and listed research projects and then couldn’t discuss them. They obviously didn’t play a major role in the work. They would say something like ‘well of course I can’t remember the statistical details’ when you just wanted them to talk about what questions they were pursuing, what they did and what they found. No one who has done the research cannot do that. I can do that for work I did over 40 years ago.

  18. Jenbug*

    I wish everyone knew that they should have a professional email address and outgoing voicemail greeting! Also, that they should make sure their voicemail is actually set up and they shouldn’t include phone numbers on job applications that are out of service.

  19. bohtie*

    the swearing one made me laugh only because I’m pretty sure it’s how I GOT my current job (which is at a company that at least on the surface is extremely conservative).

    In my second interview, the big-boss head of my department pointed out that they’d have to pay to relocate me if I got the job, etc. and asked me if I considered myself a serious candidate (basically, sort of indirectly asking if I would take the job if they offered it – I now know that the position had been empty for WAY too long, that I was probably the favorite candidate but I was also the non-local one). He was unexpectedly very Southern, as am I, and that tends to make me feel a lot more relaxed, so before I could stop myself I drawled, “You’re damned right I’m serious about this job. Honey, I wouldn’t BE here otherwise, it would be a waste of your time.” Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to burst into flames as soon as I said it, but he burst out laughing and I think that is the exact moment I got the job. Being in NYC and around people who are extremely formal most of the time, there is definitely a time and place for my specific brand of informality – you wouldn’t ask me to give a press release for the company or work on legal matters, but I’m a champ at making people feel at ease by being funny and direct, I’m really good at getting things done while doing my best to avoid the Endless Dance of Bureaucracy, and it’s made my clients and my boss pretty happy.

    Please note that I do not typically recommend swearing in job interviews ;)

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