In my 25 years as a corporate human resources leader I saw my share of not-ready-for-prime-time job candidates. Here are eight of the most memorable "oh dear God" interview stories from my vault—with a cautionary note in each story, to make sure your interview behavior doesn't veer anywhere near the border of WhyOnEarthDidIDoThat?land ….
The Younger Man
Tim was a job seeker of 22 right out of college. I was an old hag of about 30. I called Tim and phone-screened him, then invited him for a face-to-face interview the following day. When our receptionist called to tell me Tim had arrived, I met him in the lobby. "Hi Tim, I'm Liz," I said, and with a shocked look he said, "Miss Ryan? You sounded so much younger on the phone." Tim was the most qualified candidate for the job, so we hired him anyway (and joked for years afterward about his slip of the tongue).
Cautionary note: A simple "Nice to meet you" wins out over any comment on the interviewer's appearance.
The Tie Guy
A man came into the job interview wearing normal business attire, except for his tie, which had a huge image of Taz, the Tasmanian devil, printed on it. I'm not talking about a small repeating print, but one massive Taz in the middle of the tie. I asked the guy, who was interviewing for a sales management job, if the Tasmanian devil had special significance for him. He said, "No." I spent half the interview wondering what the story was with this guy and the huge Taz on his tie. Where else might he exercise not-100-percent-standard good judgment on the job? I've got nothing against Taz, of course; it's just that in a business-to-business, corporate sales job, we wouldn't typically go to a first meeting with strangers wearing in-your-face licensed Looney Toons character apparel. We decided to cancel him.
Cautionary note: We don't have to show up as stamp-em-out corporate stiffs for a job interview, but we also don't want to raise burning questions via our apparel.
The Wannabe Buddy
It is normal and a great thing for a job interview to involve a certain amount of rapport-building. When the conversation is flowing, an overly eager job seeker might let it spill into purely social (or even only-between-friends) conversational terrain. One time, a job seeker asked me what breeds of dogs I have (after inquiring whether I had any pets; I don't have photos of my dogs on my desk). When I told the candidate we have a Havanese and a Coton de Tulear, she said, "Oh. I love those kinds of dogs. You tell me when, and I'll pick them up for you and take them to my groomer for you—she's the best." Well, in our eyes, it was the human equivalent of panting and begging.
Cautionary note: It's fine to cover a small amount of social common ground on a job interview, but we don't want to promote or ask for other kinds of social contact (e.g. "How about we have coffee next week?") until at a minimum, the question of the job opening is put to bed.
The "Suburbs Aren't My Thing" Gal
I worked with Tammy, a young woman who always struck me as on the ball and spunky. When I changed jobs, I let Tammy know about the job openings in my new firm. She didn't have a ton of experience, but I persuaded the hiring manager to meet her anyway, and on the strength of my endorsement, he agreed. On the day of the interview, Tammy arrived 55 minutes late for the interview and didn't call to report her whereabouts. Stony-faced, I met her at the entrance to the building nearly an hour past the scheduled time. She said, "I guess finding places in the suburbs is not my thing." We commuted her résumé to the circular file, and it was five years before I made another employee referral.
Cautionary note: Before your interview, make a test drive or bus or subway run to gauge travel time and make sure you know where you're headed.
The Spontaneous Horticulturist
I can't remember the fellow's name, but a job candidate once came into my office holding the cup of water that he'd poured himself in the lobby. He drank it all, then leaned over and spit it into the potted plant. This was the closest I've ever come to saying, "The interview is actually over now; thanks so much for your time." I didn't do that. I tried to talk to the guy and carried on for about 45 minutes, trying to get the image of him spitting into my plant out of my mind. But alas, his chances of employment with us had withered on the vine.
Cautionary note: We don't expel water or any other liquid, food, or substance from our mouths on a job interview.
She Who Wondered, "How Much Do I Have to Care?"
A woman of about 35 came to a job interview with me and asked, "Is this the kind of job where you have to think about the job when you're not actually at work?"
"That is a great question," I said. "For sure, this is a knowledge-worker sort of job. It's a role that works closely with our sales staff and our customers, and the person who was last in this job said she always had ideas running through her head, on the drive home and so on."
"Oh, forget it," said the applicant. "I don't want to think about my job when I go home. Hell, I don't want to think about the job even when I'm there, working, but I haven't found a job where I could avoid that."
I thanked her for her time and her candor. A month later she sent me an e-mail to ask, "Can I change my answer? I can take a job where I have to care when I'm there—but not at home." We respected her right to change her mind. But our mind was made up about her: No, thanks.
Cautionary note: Use recruiting channels that suit the people you want to reach. If you're the job seeker, assume that every hiring manager expects you to do your best and, yes, to care about your work.
The Background-Noise Fool
My friend Chet, an engineering manager, phone-screened a guy and was in mid-conversation when he heard the unmistakable sound of a toilet flushing. "Dude," said Chet, "maybe we should have this conversation another time."
"Oh, dude," said the dude, "um, no way, I flushed a fly down the toilet."
"Er, whatever," said Chet. As far as that applicant's job interview, everything did not "come out O.K."
Cautionary note: Keep ambient noise in mind during any job-search-related telephone conversation. Your roommate's responses to the characters on TV aren't a big step above toilet-flushing.
The Goodbye Girl
A woman came into a marketing director interview seeming rushed and harried. I asked her how much time she had, and she harrumphed, "As long as it takes," as though she were preparing for a root canal or a wait at the DMV. We started chatting, and she kept looking out the window. "Do you have somewhere you need to be, or should we meet at another time?" I asked her.
"I just don't know if I really want a job right now," she said, and I said, "Oh. That's a good question to answer. Do you want to let me know after you've had some time to think about it?"
She glared at me and said, "What, do you hold that against me, the fact that I'm not begging for the job?" and I responded, "Not in the slightest, but one of the things we are clear about when we hire someone is that the person must want to have a job." She said, "Miss Resolute, I hope you never face indecision," and got up and flounced out the door, harrumphing all the way. I made myself a pot of tea.
Cautionary note: I'm not sure what sort of advice to provide here. Maybe, don't be psycho on the job interview?