Job interview blunders to avoid at all costs

From failure to do one’s homework to neglecting to brush one’s teeth, these blunders are as appalling as they are amusing. How many have you seen or—God forbid—committed?

Some of you might remember the quote from the movie “Top Gun” in which Goose says to Maverick, “We regret to inform you that your sons are dead, because they were stupid.” I couldn’t help but think about that line as I was writing this article:

“We regret to inform you that you are not hired—because you are stupid.”

The genesis of this article came from a piece I wrote on “Stupid (but common) résumé mistakes.” As a follow-up, let’s focus less on the résumé itself and more on the other reasons people don’t get hired.

I tapped my super-savvy professional network for anecdotes and advice. Some of these reasons are specific to digital, some are common-sense faux pas you should avoid, and some are just plain stupid. Almost all are really entertaining.

Common-sense faux pas

The list of common-sense faux pas is long. You might be surprised by what people do and how the smallest things can derail an interview or even the chance at an interview.

A former colleague, Andrew Goldberg, listed his top job applicant offenses as showing up late, smelling like cigarettes, having typos on a résumé, and sending sloppy emails (including ones with all lowercase letters or using “u” to mean “you”). Other really basic courtesies that should have been taught at home seem to be easily overlooked when one is nervous.

I recommend always including a “hello” and a “thank you” wrapped in a smile. On the other hand, using inappropriate language, as Sal Tofano mentioned, is not very smart. Chewing gum in an interview is another “duh” offense, and it was listed by no fewer than three people in my networks.

In addition to the gum faux pas, David Greenwald cited these other interviewee pet peeves:

  • Not looking at the interviewer directly when speaking
  • Reading your slides or résumé to the hiring manager
  • Not taking notes or not even having a note pad and pen
  • Staring out the window when the interviewer is speaking
  • Clicking or twirling a pen
  • Unpolished shoes
  • Dirty chewed-up finger nails

And finally, the three most offensive common-sense blunders were offered by the following folks:

  • Jim Holbrook: mistreating the receptionist
  • Leo Pieri: using a referral you don’t even know
  • Andrew Goldberg: checking a phone during an interview

To these, I say: Come on people—really?!

Do you want this jobor just any job?

The overriding theme here is simple: Do your homework. At least pretend that you want the job you are interviewing for and that you’re not just wasting the interviewer’s time.

Understandably, not every job you interview for is your dream job, but in my experience, at least 30 percent of every job is what you make of it. There will always be barriers and limitations, but there are probably far fewer than you imagine once you get in. Thus, the biggest disservice you can do to yourself and to the employer is to be short-sighted.

Wes Nichols made the point well when he said, “I dislike when people talk about their career as a series of ‘gigs’—that telegraphs a short-term, putting-food-on-the-table orientation rather than passion about their career or employer.”

Here are a few more anecdotes regarding the need to do your homework:

Tad Smith said his biggest reason for not giving people a job is that they make it obvious that they don’t understand the business for which they’re interviewing, let alone the job itself.

Dan Gershenson emphasizes this point in noting his frustration with cover letters that begin, “Dear Sir or Madam, I am applying for…” Gershenson said, “Really? Thanks for showing me you didn’t research me at all and I am one of 200 people you’re sending the same letter to. So, why should I treat you with any more respect than what you’ve shown me? Do your homework on the decision-maker(s), the company, etc., and craft a customized cover letter. If the person isn’t worth your time to do that, frankly, you shouldn’t be worth their time, either.”

Look in the mirror

Want a mint? No? Mind if I stick one up my nose?

OK, that’s a little crude, but you get the point. The idea that people would go into interviews without having brushed their teeth recently, had a breath mint, brushed the dog hair off their suits, or—God forbid—not bothered to actually brush their hair is beyond understanding. As usual, I never cease to be amazed.

In my network outreach, both Randy Simonian and Andrew Goldberg noted that a candidate’s bad breath stays with them a lot longer than what the person says. And Sal Tofano suggested that people should not “show up for the interview as if they were going to a garage sale.” Good idea.

Don’t be a digital idiot

In this day and age, it is important to know that there are no secrets. What you put in the digital world is accessible by anyone nearly anywhere. So, this old mantra applies: Don’t write it if it is not something you wouldn’t want to see splashed across the front page of The New York Times. Sal Tofano agreed and noted that he has reconsidered the employment of people who have spoken negatively about past employers and colleagues on social media sites.

That said, there are far worse digital behaviors. Eileen Campbell said that she “just got a LinkedIn request from a guy who uses a framed picture of himself on a museum wall complete with adoring visitors gazing lovingly at him as his profile pic. Who knew egos had legs?” Although this is clearly tacky, the worse offense—digital or otherwise—is confusing genders. In this case, Campbell’s egomaniac also addressed her as “Dear Mr. Campbell.”

Did I mention that there are worse digital behaviors? The worst I read came from my former agency pro, Dede Solley, who said that she interviewed a candidate for a social position and regretfully accepted his LinkedIn request.

“To this date, he is still stalking me online,” she said. “I even changed companies. Week to week, he’s always on the list of people that viewed my profile.” Yuck!

Remember: Your digital shadow is huge, and even if you don’t make direct contact, there are plenty of tracking systems to alert people when you are tracking—or stalking—them. Learn when enough is enough.

You have two ears and one mouth

I was reminded about this bit of interview advice once, as I tend to be a “talker.” I was told to listen twice as much as I spoke, as that is the ratio of my ears to my mouth. It has worked like a charm, every time. My friend Pat Ruta agreed. He noted that people who don’t listen consequently don’t know what questions to ask.

I’m a big girl (or boy) now

Jim Holbrook’s anecdote about immaturity is almost unbelievable. After an interview, a candidate’s mom—yep, mom—called HR to follow up. Similarly, Dede Solley told this story: “Last week, a colleague of mine interviewed someone who brought his dad to the interview with him and requested a lounge where his dad could hang out during the interview. Nuts!”

You can’t make this stuff up. Although I don’t think it should have to be stated, I will go ahead and do so anyway: Leave your parents at home during the interview process.

Don’t be a cliché

Be yourself instead. This means that you have done your homework (per the earlier discussion) but that you also know yourself and are hopefully interviewing for jobs that are well suited to you, your strengths, and your personality.

My friend Ted Wright has run a successful company for several years and interviews people regularly. He is a bit edgy, but his larger point is a good one. He says the biggest reason not to hire someone is because the interview candidates are not being themselves.

“Some jobs call for flip-flops, a deep knowledge of Zydeco, and the ability to use the word ‘f*ck’ in all possible variations,” he said. “Some require you to know how horribly tacky it is to wear a button-down shirt with a suit. And in some, you have to be able to play basketball very well. ‘Stop thinking, let things happen, be the ball.'”

I believe that being yourself means leaving out the clichés. David Greenwald’s favorite cliché is when an interviewee says he or she would be good in a sales role because that person “gets along really well with people” or is a “team player.” Furthermore, Greenwald advised, if an interviewer inquires about your greatest weakness, don’t tell them that it’s “working too hard” or “caring too much.” Gag.

Don’t get ahead of yourself

Interviewing 101 and Negotiations 101 have a lot in common. Both teach that it is best to hear points of views fully from all sides and to decisively make your case before making demands. Unfortunately, too many people seem to forget this when they are interviewing and jump the gun by making requests or demands in the very first interview.

Karyn Saunders, a friend and professional recruiter, provided me with a list of don’ts along these lines. “Asking about compensation in the first interview—a big no-no,” she said. Her other questions to avoid during interviews include:

  • If hired, can I have a week off at Christmas? It is tradition to spend it with my family overseas.
  • What are the hours like?

Karen Koerner Arnold also said that asking detailed questions about benefits too early in the interview process feels pushy and can give the interviewer the impression that you do not have a true interest in the company and position. “I want to hire a candidate who wants this job, not just ajob,” she said.

Perhaps the most off-putting comments you can make are those that reveal your inner diva. Mark Wildman sarcastically noted that he loves immediate discussions during interviews about a person’s need for an office and its size requirements.

Foot-in-mouth disease

Is the unemployment rate 8.1 percent or 1.8 percent? I ask because, after hearing from my social network, job interviewees are making it sound like there is an abundance of jobs and they simply have their pick. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the scenario these days. Kieran Jason Hackett, a senior executive, recalled an interview in which the interviewee said, “I really see this position as a great way to set me up for my real dream.” Umm—so, you’re really interested in this job and company, huh?

But the award for the most “oh no he di’in’t” (insert finger wag) story came from Adina Smith. She recalled that, in the middle of an interview, a male candidate said: “I’m not good at reporting to women. Am I going to have to report to you?” To which Smith replied, “You would have, but no, you don’t need to worry about that anymore.” You go, girl!

Don’t be a creep

Always remember that you are not invisible. People do the most amazing things in public and while entertaining—great fodder for YouTube, but it can be the kiss of death in an interview.

Two examples emerged from my social networks that exemplify this point. First, Floyd Hayes tells of an interview in which a young man came in looking for an internship at Hayes’ company. “The thing is, there was a large mirror behind me, and this young man was so vain he kept checking himself out in the mirror,” Hayes said. This gets a five out of 10 on the “ick” scale. But this next story gets a solid nine-plus.

Josh Kavanaugh tells of a time when his firm did a panel interview with a male candidate who “brazenly and inappropriately stared at one of the female interviewers the entire time—no eye contact was made with anyone including her the entire time.” Eww.

The topic of why people don’t get hired is one that gives and gives. And though at least most anecdotes are somewhat humorous, they can be also highly disturbing. Truthfully, none of the tips in this article is revolutionary or new, but these basics of decorum still seem to be violated with great frequency.

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