If you’re looking for insight into what not to do in a job interview, there may be no better way to learn than to sit on the other side of the table. Over the decade-plus since I graduated from college, I’ve gone on plenty of interviews, but it wasn’t until I started conducting interviews myself that I really realized how easy it was to put your foot in your mouth while selling yourself to a potential employer – and cost yourself the job in the process.
Take one candidate I interviewed for a position at my previous company. He had good experience, was polite and well spoken, and dressed professionally. But when I started asking some questions about why he and his last employer had parted ways, he made a big mistake.
He’d left the job, he explained, because of nepotism. Unless you were close friends or family of the owner, you couldn’t get ahead, he ranted, clearly still rankled by the experience. While his grievances with his last employer may have been legitimate, airing them in an interview was inappropriate. It made me question his judgment and worry he might be difficult to work with. Ultimately, his response was a factor in my decision to suggest we not move forward with him as a candidate.
I’m far from the only interviewer who’s been turned off by a candidate’s baffling or bizarre behavior in an interview. Ask HR pros about the worst job interview they’ve ever conducted, and the horror stories come out. Barry Maher, an author and speaker, recounted an interview he’d conducted over dinner at a restaurant. The candidate not only requested a doggy bag for her leftovers, but also took the bread from the communal basket on the table, swiped extra tea bags, and tossed a few sugar packets on top for good measure. What happened next was even more unbelievable.
“The waiter returned with the credit card slip,” Maher told The Cheat Sheet. “I signed it and as I usually do, left the tip in cash, and the woman and I got up to leave.”
“After a few steps, she said, ‘Oh, just a minute,’ and went back to the table. Her back was to me so I couldn’t see what she was doing. But when she moved back toward me I have to say, I examined the table pretty closely. I really thought she might have picked up the tip. She hadn’t but, unbelievably, both the salt and pepper shakers were gone.” Maher decided not to offer her the job.
Stealing the condiments is an extreme example of bad job interview behavior, but there are plenty of other ways to sink your chances of landing the job. We had some career experts share their stories of the worst things they’d ever heard a candidate say in a job interview, so you can learn from other people’s mistakes.
“When do I start?”
“The worst thing I ever heard in a job interview was ‘OK, so when do I start?’” Pierre Tremblay, the director of human resources at Dupray, a company that sells steam cleaners and steam irons, told The Cheat Sheet. The candidate lobbed the presumptive question at Tremblay just five minutes into an hour-long interview for a product manager position in the company’s e-commerce department.
“You should never presume you will automatically get the job,” Tremblay said. “We probably have four to five other candidates lined up. A candidate’s cockiness detracts from their overall appeal.”
“I’m doing you a favor.”
“I had a young lady come in for a senior editorial position and I gave her an assignment and she missed the deadline,” Brenda Della Casa, the founder and editor of Badass Living, said. “When I followed up two days later, she suggested that she was doing me a ‘favor’ by sharing her talents with me.”
“When I explained that this was not the attitude of the person I was hoping to have in the position, she attacked me for not liking her. Needless to say, she was not hired.”
“I was indicted for first-degree murder.”
Back in the 1980s, Bruce Ailion, a realtor and attorney with RE/MAX Town and Country, once asked a man he was interviewing for a job as a real estate agent if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He was thrown for a loop when the interviewee replied, “I was indicted for first degree murder but I beat the rap.”
Mentioning a murder charge – even one not resulting in a conviction – probably is going to make many interviewers uncomfortable. Fairly or not, it might hurt your chances of getting the job. But Ailion decided to hear the candidate out.
“It could have been the end of the interview but the applicant did have a good explanation that made sense and checked out,” Ailion said. “He was hired.”
“I don’t know what your company does.”
“I once had a candidate come in for an assistant position who said, ‘I don’t know what your company does but I can learn anything,’” Jill Jacinto, the millennial career expert for Works told The Cheat Sheet.
“I stopped listening to anything she said after that and the interview ended 15 minutes later,” Jacinto said. “For someone not to research the business is entirely ridiculous, especially in this competitive job market.”
“I’m just not motivated.”
Chris Huntley, owner of Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services, had high hopes for the man he was interviewing for a marketing assistant position. After all, the candidate was highly qualified and had been referred to him by a close friend. But when Huntley asked him about his weakest quality, things quickly went south.
“[He] leaned back into his chair, sighed and said, ‘Quite frankly I’m just not motivated these days,” Huntley recalled. The interviewee made things even worse when he added, “There are times I wonder if I should just get out of this business altogether. You know what I mean?”
Needless to say, Huntley was a bit put off by the candidate’s response and ultimately decided not to offer him the job. But the clueless applicant didn’t get that he’d made a bad impression.
“He actually had the audacity to ask me why I wasn’t going to hire him since he ‘nailed’ the interview,” Huntley said. “The lesson of the day — even if you have a personal connection to your interviewer, bring your A game. An interview is an interview.”