Companies & Industries

Ten Ways to Tank a Job Interview


The call to come in means you're close, but you don't have that offer yet. Bolster your chances by avoiding these job-interview pitfalls

Landing a job interview means you actually have a decent chance of getting the job: You've been selected from probably hundreds of applicants to be one of the half-dozen serious contenders for the position.

It's surprising how often hiring managers have a hard time finding a keeper among the six. One told me recently, "I find myself thinking, 'Please God, let one of these people hit the mark.'" Way too many job seekers fall victim to easily avoided situations like the 10 job-interview killers listed below. Any of these sound familiar?

1. Being late: It seems so obvious, but here's a reminder to be on time for a job interview—or better yet, 10 minutes early. Dashing through the revolving door five minutes after the hour does not leave the impression most job seekers hope to leave. Better to sit in the reception area for 20 minutes soaking up the ambience than to show up, sweaty and disheveled, at the very last minute.

2. Arriving unprepared: "So, what does your company do?" was a great interview question in the decades before Google (GOOG) and social media, but it's an unacceptable one now. Employers expect you to walk into an interview up to speed on what they do, their competition, and other tidbits gathered via your pre-interview research. Showing up to an interview sans preparation may be the world's best way to land on the "Thank you for your interest, but no thanks" list.

3. Assuming you know everything: You've done your research, but bear in mind the interview is still a chance for you to find out exactly what the company and your prospective boss are dealing with. Successful job seekers ask as many questions as they can, rather than jumping whole hog into a litany of their accomplishments. Take whatever chances you're given to probe for an understanding of the employer's needs. Much can change in an organization between the job-posting date and the interview date. Often, the really granular stuff you want to know about the job isn't in the job description, so dig in and get the scoop!

4. Focusing on irrelevant issues: A client who left the corporate world to run a small nonprofit organization was looking to hire a marketing manager. She was subjected to one candidate's 30-minute description of the complex intranet site the job-seeker's last employer had installed. "My organization will never have, or need, an employee intranet," my client reminded me. "Why would the candidate go on and on about something so utterly irrelevant to THIS job?" Good question. Don't make the same mistake.

5. Being storyless: The hands-down best way to demonstrate your understanding of a subject matter, a tool, or a methodology is to tell a story about it—one that involves you. Stories are specific. When the interviewer asks, "What kind of experience do you have managing employees overseas?" don't tell them how many people work for you in other countries and where they're located. Tell a story, instead! Talk about changing plans on a dime or how you saved the day in a crisis. Stories have detail, a beginning-middle-end, and (most critically) a point!

6. Forgetting where you are: Interviews are exhausting, physically and mentally. But tough it out. Don't call someone by the wrong name, mention your talks with a competitor, or say anything else that will lead people to think you don't have the stamina for a demanding assginment. Don't slip and mention the wrong company or you'll lose big points in the focus department. The same is true for not-ready-for-prime-time behaviors like lacing your hands behind your head, slumping to lean your head on your hand, or leaning on the interviewer's desk or table. Straighten up there, soldier! You're on stage, after all.

7. TMI: Sharing too much information is a classic, regrettable interview behavior that has scuttled many a job search. Don't talk about your social life more than a light-touch conversation starter, and don't bring your family or friend relationships into the conversation. Don't be too familiar with the interviewer—for instance, if there are photos of children displayed in the office, don't say "Cute kids! How old are they?" which many interviewers can see as intrusive. It also sends a message that you're hoping to use personal chit-chat as a distraction from the main event.

8. Name-dropping: Maybe you worked with some of the interviewer's colleagues before. You can mention a name or two as you arrive, to get the conversation going. Don't make the interview, or even the first five minutes of it, about all the people you know in common. If the interview goes well, reference-checking activities will get under way before long; interviewers don't tend to look favorably on candidates who want to run through a "Who's Who of Folks We Know in Common" before focusing on whether you and this job are a good fit.

9. Trashing your former employer: This sturdy job-search-advice chestnut is as valid now as it ever was. An easy way to slip into the trashing-your-old-job trap is during an explanation of one of your accomplishments. If you say "They call themselves a 'green' company, but they weren't even recycling paper until I got there," you've just bashed the hand that fed you. Steer clear of any sort of boss-bashing, no matter how much rapport you feel you've established with the interviewer in front of you.

10. Not following up: Your lovely notecard will win you important Emily Post points for manners, but also send a lengthier e-mail message or business letter (typed) to bring your conversation with the interviewer back to mind. Start that message or letter by thanking the interviewer for a specific explanation you received, and offering a reminder of one topic the two of you discussed. Follow that up by sharing a new idea or thought you've had since the interview—telling the interviewer that you're already putting yourself mentally in the job.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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