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Ten Worst Job Interview Gaffes

Chances are better that you’ll get the job you want if you avoid these common mistakes.


It may sound simplistic, but here’s the main thing to remember about going to job interviews: The interviewer doesn’t know you. “You’ve really got to work at the impression you make,” says Rick Richter, a recruiter with Toronto-based sales, marketing and management-recruitment firm wwwork!. From what you wear to how savvy you are about the company and how you express yourself, doing—or not doing—the little things you may not even think about can ruin your chances of getting your dream job. Reader’s Digest spoke with recruiters and human-resources professionals across the country, and they told us about these common blunders (yes, they actually do happen). Steer clear of them if you want to put your best face forward, and check out for tips on how to handle these situations better.

Interview Gaffe #1“My alarm clock didn’t go off!”
You only get to make a first impression once, says Shirley Sywak, a senior recruitment manager for telecommunications company Telus in Burnaby, B.C. If you’re late for your interview, it may be impossible to dispel the negative vibes.

Why it’s a red flag: Being late indicates a lack of organizational skills (you couldn’t get it together to arrive on time) and perhaps a lack of commitment (since you didn’t care enough to arrive on time). Most important of all, says Sywak, “it’s a first-level indicator of what we might expect on the job. If you arrive late for the job interview, what are the chances you’ll be on time for work? It puts a question mark in everyone’s mind.”

Handle it better: Get specific directions to the interview site up front and ask about parking—if it’s an unfamiliar area, you might even try a dry run the day before. Then allow a cushion of at least 15 minutes on the day of the interview, recommends Sywak.

Still running late? It’s not impossible to turn things around, says Gail Pierre-Jérôme, manager of operations for the Atlantic division of Drake International, an employment firm. Start by calling the interviewer as soon as you know you’re not likely to make it on time. Explain and apologize profusely (“I’m terribly sorry, my car broke down”), then show that you realize that you’ve put the interviewer out (“I know how busy you must be”), and demonstrate flexibility (“If you’d like to reschedule, I’d be happy to do that, or if you’d prefer, I will come in right now”). That said, you’d better have demonstrated a strong work ethic and an ability to show up on time at your previous workplace because you can bet the interviewer will check.

Interview Gaffe No. 2: Dissing the secretary
Sywak had been impressed by the charm and vitality of a recent interviewee. He was accomplished, efficient and overall a good bet for an available position, she believed. But after the applicant left, her receptionist dropped a note through the door. Her impression of the man could not have been more different. He was, she told Sywak, abrasive, dismissive and rude, demanding to see the recruiter immediately, pacing the office impatiently and suggesting that the receptionist was being uncooperative when she advised him that Sywak was still busy. “Don’t you know who I am?” he had asked.

Why it’s a red flag: Sywak specifically asks her receptionist to let her know about rude behaviour on the part of job applicants. “Our customers come from all walks of life,” says Sywak, “and every one of them has to be treated with dignity and respect. If you can’t even be civil during the interview process, you won’t likely be able to do that with customers.”

Handle it better: Treat each individual in the recruitment process with respect, from the secretary to the test administrator, or you may find yourself out the door before you even get through it.

Interview Gaffe No. 3: “Sorry, I haven’t had time to google you yet.”
Richter actually had a job candidate say this to the president of a well-known consumer-products company she was approaching for a job.

Why it’s a red flag: “It makes you look like you’re not interested, you’re not thorough and you’re not much of a planner or thinker,” says Richter.

Handle it better: Be prepared and ask savvy questions about your potential employer. “By that I don’t mean, ‘Do you have summer hours?’” says Richter. At the very least, take a few minutes to look at the company’s website or check out its products beforehand, and come up with a list of queries about key business issues or crucial skills needed to perform the job in question. That gives you a starting point to talk about how you can help your prospective employer achieve its goals.

Interview Gaffe No. 4: “I single-handedly doubled my company’s profits last year.”
Interviewers commonly ask for an example of your latest achievement on the job and how you were able to manage it. Many interviewees respond by exaggerating their contribution to their
current employer in the mistaken belief that it makes them sound better, says Michael Harding, president of Inline Reference Check in Caledon, Ont.

Why it’s a red flag: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, asserts Harding, and if the employer discovers that you’re not telling the strict truth, it damages your credibility. On top of that, neglecting to give any credit to the other people involved is a good indicator you might not be a team player.

Handle it better: Make sure that if you’re providing specifics about your achievements on the job, they’re accurate and verifiable—many companies will check your claims with your previous employers. “If you’re applying to a job where teamwork is a must,” says Pierre-Jérôme, “you might even consciously exchange the word ‘I’ for ‘we.’”

Interview Gaffe No. 5: The salary minefield
Richter was almost certain that the candidate he had sent to a local firm would get the sales director position he wanted. “This guy had been through several interviews. He was personable and skilled, and they really wanted to hire him,” Richter says.

During the candidate’s final interview with the president of the company, however, the issue of salary arose. “What are you looking for in compensation?” asked the president.

“Well,” replied the candidate. “I wouldn’t come for anything less than X.”

“Our salary range is lower than that,” the president replied. At that, the candidate stood up and headed for the door.

“Well then,” he said, “I guess this interview is over.”

Why it’s a red flag: The candidate appeared arrogant and rude, and that’s just for starters. “It made him come across as if money was the most important thing,” says Richter, and that’s a turnoff for most employers. For the same reason, the first question you ask about a company should not be: “What are the salary and benefits?”

Handle it better: Salary is a touchy issue to navigate. If you’re interested in a job, try to suss out the salary range early on, Richter suggests, but don’t negotiate until you’ve actually got an offer.

Richter tells his candidates that if the company really wants you, there may be wiggle room in how much they’re willing to pay. As for the abrupt interviewee, he should have responded by saying something like, “I’m not familiar with the bonus plan, but I know there are lots of ways of coming at it. I’m very interested and I don’t think we’re going to have a problem.” Once he shut down the interview process, however, there was no going back.

Interview Gaffe No. 6: “My last boss was such a jerk!”
In the course of interviewing a job applicant, Gail Pierre-Jérôme, in charge of regional operations in Halifax for Drake International, a human-resources-solutions company, asked how the candidate had fared in her recent position. She was very critical of her boss, says Pierre-Jérôme. “She said he was a great guy, but he provided no sense of direction. The whole thing was very negative.”

Why it’s a red flag: Being critical of a previous employer rarely sits well with a potential one. First of all, says Pierre-Jérôme, it makes them wonder what you’ll have to say about them when you move on. Secondly, it can be an indicator of an underlying negativity. And finally, if you’re applying for a job in the same industry, there’s always the chance your interviewer knows the person you’re slagging. In this case, the previous boss just happened to be Pierre-Jérôme’s husband.

Handle it better: If a potential employer asks you to tell her about a difficult work situation, answer the question. The caveat: Keep it succinct and positive, take some of the responsibility for what happened yourself, and tell her what you did to try to remedy the problem.

Interview Gaffe No. 7: “You mean this is not a therapy session?”
Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based junk-removal firm 1-800-GOT-JUNK? asked an interviewee for a call-centre position what was the toughest situation he’d ever had to face. The man told a very personal story about a friend who had died. “He went into a great deal of detail, and the story was very emotional for him,” says Scudamore. “He started to well up.”

Why it’s a red flag: “We were worried he wouldn’t be able to separate his personal life from his work life,” says Scudamore. “It felt more like a therapy session—and I was not his therapist. While I could empathize, it just wasn’t the place to share that.”

Handle it better: Keep it real, but stay focused on the matter at hand, which is essentially to decide whether you’re right for the job. The interviewer doesn’t want to hear about your miserable childhood, your failed marriage or your ongoing relationship problems.

Interview Gaffe No. 8: Ramblin’ on
In an attempt to deliver as much information as possible about themselves, applicants sometimes answer questions at length and stray from the topic. “In most cases I think they’re just nervous,” says Gerlinde Herrmann, founder of Toronto human-resources consulting company The Herrmann Group and president of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario.

Why it’s a red flag: Yes, the interview is about you, but you can appear self-centred if you go on and on. “How do you find out about the job, the company and the issues if you’ve been talking the whole time?” asks Herrmann.

Handle it better: Internet job sites like offer sample interview formats. Do a practice interview with a friend or relative. Come up with some appropriate responses, as well as a few questions that you can ask about the company. Keep your answers short but informative, and finish with, “Would you like me to elaborate on that?” At the end of the session, most interviewers will ask if there’s anything else you’d like to tell them. If you’ve missed some highlights (perhaps you’ve won awards for your work or were recognized for your team-building skills), this is the time to raise them.

Interview Gaffe No. 9: “I don’t really have any weaknesses.”
When Scudamore asked an interviewee the classic question—“What are your weaknesses?”—the interviewee thought for a moment.

“Hmmm,” he replied. “I don’t know. I’m pretty good at most things.”

Scudamore probed, saying, “Nobody’s perfect. I could give you a list of my weaknesses and I’m CEO of the company. What are you worst at?” The candidate couldn’t come up with a thing.

Why it’s a red flag: “Although he actually interviewed very well in all other areas, that was a deal breaker,” says Scudamore. “He was either not able to be honest, or he was not able to reflect on what issues are problems for him. So he can’t make it better.”

Handle it better: Be forthright and self-critical, advises Scudamore. And never mind fake weaknesses like, “I work too hard.” Instead you might talk about your difficulty with finding balance in your life and then offer insights into what you’re doing to improve that. (Did you join the gym or take up cooking?) If you’re not good at managing your time, say so. “Then tell me what you’re doing about it,” says Scudamore (e.g., “I bought myself a good agenda, I’m paying more attention to time, and I’m trying to give myself an extra 15 minutes for every appointment”).

Interview Gaffe No. 10: Desperation
Herrmann recalls one unsuccessful job applicant who contacted the hiring manager directly. “I really need this job,” he pleaded. “Let me come in again.” Pierre-Jérôme has had clients call every day after the interview to find out if they got the position. Such actions exude a whiff of desperation that doesn’t bode well.

Why it’s a red flag: First of all, whether you really need the job isn’t the issue: Ask not what the company can do for you; ask what you can do for the company. Secondly, if you appear desperate for the job, the employer may conclude that you’re not a top-quality candidate and that you possibly will take any old job. He wants to believe you’re specifically interested in the job he has to offer.

Handle it better: It’s always a good idea to send a note after the interview thanking the employer for taking the time to talk to you. If you really feel you didn’t put your best face forward, suggests Herrmann, by all means send a note saying. “I believe I didn’t do as well in the interview as I could have. Here are a few things I don’t think I articulated very well.” Keep it short and factual, she suggests, and then wait three or four days to call, unless directed otherwise.

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