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Seven Surefire Ways to Botch a Job Interview

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In prior lives, as a hiring manager, I've interviewed scores of job applicants. And in the course of interviews, I've seen (how shall I say?) certain recurrent antipatterns of behavior that are usually a pretty good tipoff that the person in question "isn't right for the job."

Here are seven things I don't want to see during an interview. Committing only one or two of these transgressions might not cost you the job, but if a pattern starts to emerge, believe me, I'll notice it; and you won't be asked back.

1. Be late.
This indicates lack of commitment to deadlines. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time is at least a small clue that you know how to underpromise and overdeliver. If you got stuck in traffic, that's fine, it doesn't penalize you (especially if you call ahead to let someone know you'll be late). Otherwise? Don't waste your hiring manager's time. Don't be late.

2. Be unprepared.
Did you leave samples of prior work at home? (Yes, I can look them up online, but it's a nice courtesy to be offered hard copies of previous work, whether printed or on CD, DVD, flash drive, etc.) Did you forget to bring an extra copy of your resume? Again, these sorts of small details aren't going to be a showstopper in and of themselves, but taken together with other items in this list, it can reveal a pattern of inattention to "little things." Sustained inattention to "little things" kills a business. Don't act like you don't know that.

3. Avoid eye direct eye contact.
If you can't look me in the eye when answering questions, I'm going to get the impression, subconsciously at least, that you're hiding something, or that you're ashamed of something, anxious to leave, easily distracted by your surroundings, etc. (or that you just don't like me). Stay focused. I'm your center of attention. Look me in the eye.

4. Say bad things about a previous employer, or be unable to explain why you left a previous job.
If I'm interviewing you, rest assured, I am going to ask you about your previous work experience. That means I'll definitely ask why you left your previous jobs (yes, all of them). Be careful how you answer. If you left a job because a previous employer treated people poorly, provide concrete details; explain the exact circumstances. But be careful. If you say something negative about a previous job, a previous manager, or a company, I'll assume that you may someday say something negative about me or my company. I'll question your loyalty before you even begin working. That's not good.

5. Fail to ask good questions about the job.
If you're seriously interested in the job, you'll have questions. By all means, ask! I want to know what's important to you (work conditions? people? hours? pay? the quality and nature of the assignments?), and I'll get some indication of that in the kind of questions you choose to ask. Plus, asking questions shows that you're inquisitive, thoughtful, and not merely interested in superficial matters -- or just being employed again.

6. Ask a lot of questions about flextime, days off, bonus plan, stock options, and job perks (and show concerns around how much overtime you might need to work).
I need somebody who's a hard worker and committed to helping a team meet difficult deadlines. Don't make me think you're focused on not working hard. It's okay to ask questions about perks and benefits (it's expected, actually), but save them until the end and for gosh sakes, don't make it look like perks, benefits, and compensation are near the top of your list of priorities. I'll wonder about your work ethic.

7. Come to the interview not having gone to the company's web site and not knowing a thing about the company.
Before coming to an interview, do a little homework. Visit the company web site (be prepared to critique it later, if asked), learn the company's history, and try to understand the company's positioning in the market and current strategies. I want to know that you're self-motivated, able to do a little research on your own, and keenly interested in this particular job, at this particular company. If you come to the interview not knowing what the company does, it shows me you don't care about the big picture. Maybe you don't care about anything. Maybe you're just plain lazy. Next.

There are plenty more ways to show an interviewer that you aren't the right person for the job, but these are a few of my favorites. And yes, I've interviewed candidates who flunked on all counts. It's amazing how many job candidates come to an interview well dressed but unprepared, unaware of what the company does, unable to ask questions that aren't related to perks and benefits, and unable to say good things about prior employers.

I want to know that you're a hard worker and a highly focused, self-motivated individual who is detail-oriented, yet also tries to understand the big picture. Is that so much to ask?

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