10 of the Biggest Interview Mistakes

Here's how you can avoid making them - Issue #51

Job interviews are stressful. During my 26 year career, I have sat on both sides of the table hundreds of times. It’s already hard enough to meet all of the requirements, impress the interviewers, and secure an offer.

There’s no need to make it even more difficult for yourself. Yet, candidates often do.

Of course, mistakes will happen during an interview, but most are unintentional or unavoidable. Luckily, these ten basic mistakes are entirely avoidable with some preparation and planning. Don’t let them ruin your chances for a job offer.

  1. Lying about your education, background, or achievements

  2. Not being familiar with the company’s products or services

  3. Acting arrogant, ungrateful, distracted, or upset

  4. Swearing during your presentation or the interview

  5. Trash talking your old boss, team, or company

  6. Always talking over the people in the room

  7. Showing up late for the interview or rescheduling at the last minute

  8. Struggling to answer why you want to work for the company

  9. Asking weak questions because you didn't prepare well

  10. Displaying a profound lack of confidence

I’m not going to leave you hanging with a list of 10 mistakes to avoid. Here is what you should do instead.

1. Be completely honest

It might be tempting to stretch the truth on your resume when the job requirements are just a wee bit beyond your experience. You may not think that it is a big deal, and you may not believe that anyone would ever bother to check. But you might be surprised.

In a high-profile example from 2012, Scott Thompson had to step down from his role as the CEO of Yahoo after only four months. People discovered that he had lied on his resume, claiming that he held a bachelor’s degree in both accounting and computer science from Stonehill College when his degree was only in accounting.

Dishonesty can also occur when people talk about work they’ve done in past roles. I’ve had candidates claim ownership for project work that I knew some else had performed. The industry is smaller than you think, and companies interview people who have crossed paths with other candidates before. In this case, someone else had already shown us this work in her portfolio.

Be honest in your interview about your education, background, and achievements. When you land the job based on your real experience, you won’t have to perform miracles to live up to some fabricated background. Plus, it’s the most straightforward story to tell, because it is all true.

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything” — Mark Twain

2. Do your homework

You may have thought that you left homework behind when you finished school. Sorry, it’s time to dust off those research skills to learn everything you can to prepare for a job interview.

The average American spends 23 hours a week texting, emailing, and using social media. You can carve out some homework time from that to invest in your future career. It’s worth it.

Research the company online and read about its latest news (most companies have sections for press releases, blog posts, and investor documents), the Board members, the investors, the senior leadership team, your future boss, your potential coworkers, the company’s competitors, and the broader industry. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. Do you want the job?

Ask the hiring manager or recruiter for the list of people who will be on your interview team. Do some background research on who they are, what they care about, and any additional information you can gather. Use this to put together useful conversation starters for the people you will meet.

Check with your network to find out more about the interview team and hiring manager. Learn more about their background, what kind of a manager they are, what their hot button issues are, how they interview, and the types of questions you should ask them.

I get a call at least once a week from someone who wants the inside scoop on a potential hiring manager. My network is pretty reliable from decades of developing it, and the Tech industry isn’t that big. So, I either know the hiring manager or know someone who knows him or her. I can reassure the candidates, or warn them about what they are getting into with that person as a boss.

Finally, take some time to use the company’s products or services. In the past, I’ve purchased products and signed up for paid services to perform my due diligence before an interview. Many years ago, I was going in for an interview as a design consultant for a startup that was creating a new tablet device. They wanted someone with experience with PDAs, which I did not have since they were relatively new — and expensive — at the time.

So, I made the investment to buy my first Palm Pilot, got a couple of design and development books for the Palm OS, and spent the weekend learning as quickly as I could. I interviewed, with some added confidence in my new PDA knowledge, and won the contract.

3. Be polite and focused

Demonstrating poor manners and behavior will frequently get you shown to the door early. You’re not going to get an offer if you act arrogant, disrespectful, ungrateful, or keep getting distracted by your phone. Turn it off and put it away.

You would think that this would never happen in an interview, but you might be surprised. For example:

  • One candidate kept reading text messages on his phone during our meeting.

  • Another candidate was rude to our receptionist.

  • We had one candidate lose his temper during the group interview.

  • A few people complained about our coffee, snacks, and lunch.

Not smart, plus it demonstrates poor judgment and terrible manners. These aren’t the kind of people you want on your team. They aren’t even the type of people with whom you want to spend any amount of time.

During an interview, be on your best behavior, focused, and respectful of people’s time. It’s time to get your game face on. Put aside any issues that are going on outside of your interview room and give your full attention to the interviewing team.

End strongly with an upbeat attitude that conveys that you want the job, and expect an offer (that is if you already know that you want it). Follow up with everyone later to say thank you, confirm your interest, and ask about the timing for the next steps and their decision.

No matter how things turn out, don’t burn a bridge. Thank them and let them know that you’re interested if another opportunity comes up.

4. Keep it clean

Speaking of being on your best behavior: Cursing has no place in a job interview. I think most people know this, but some lose control when they get stressed during the presentation and questioning.

If you think this is a risk for you, prepare and practice so that you can stay calm under fire. You don’t want to ruin the impression of an otherwise great interview by slipping up and letting profanities fly.

Now, I’m not talking about a curse word slipping in here or there. It’s still not a good idea, but it won’t wholly sink you. Of course, it depends a bit on the company culture.

When I was at eBay, you didn’t curse in meetings. Then I joined Yahoo, where it took me a few weeks to get used to the frequent cursing. I’m no saint. I do curse from time to time. But, I try not to curse in a professional setting — like an interview — and I don’t think you need to have a constant stream of profanities issuing from your lips.

For example, I had one interview candidate who lost her job offer because she couldn’t stop cursing. She dropped at least 10 F-bombs during her presentation and answering questions at the end. She had a good background, relevant experience, and was smart. But, she seemed upset, and it felt as if she had an axe to grind regarding an experience.

Later, the hiring manager pulled me aside and said, “She’s a no hire. If she can’t control her cursing in an interview situation when she’s trying to be on her best behavior, how is she going to act every day at work? Can’t have that in front of our customers.

5. Respect the past

Related to the previous point, leave the past in the past. Never badmouth your old boss, team, or company. It doesn’t matter how terrible things were, or how justified you feel doing it. It doesn’t matter that they are the reason you quit your old job. Find a tactful way to explain your “difference of opinion” and why you decided to move on.

First, it is a sign of professionalism that you can politely indicate that you weren’t a good culture fit with a past workplace or boss. There are ways to carefully say this that lets the listener read between the lines. You don’t need to spell it out. When you behave like a total professional, the assumption will be that you’re a great person, and your old boss must have been a jerk.

Second, nobody likes a complainer or blamer. You may be justifiably upset with a past boss or coworker, but save your venting for your closest friends or significant other. Or hire me, and let loose. I keep everything confidential, and I know that it feels good to have someone who will finally listen and understand. But, it isn’t something you share with an interviewer when you’re trying to make a great impression.

Finally, your industry is smaller than you think. People have friends scattered across dozens of companies. We all end up working with previous colleagues later. Your words will echo and reach farther than you think.

6. Let people talk

Practice basic conversational manners. When you’re talking with the interviewers, let them finish their questions. When you ask them questions, let them finish their answers entirely. Don’t interrupt people!

Resist the urge to show how smart you are by trying to anticipate their questions and finishing their sentences. Have you encountered someone who does that? It is exceedingly annoying, and it will leave the interviewers with a poor impression.

One candidate that we were interviewing had a terrible habit of doing this. Every time an interviewer started asking a question, the candidate would cut them off and try to finish their sentences.

At one point, a visibly frustrated interviewer said, “No, what I was actually going to say was this…” Believe it or not, the candidate didn’t pick up on this and still continued with the pattern of interrupting. Needless to say, he didn’t receive an offer.

7. Be on time

Show up a little early for your interview. You don’t want to be so early that you’re hanging out in the lobby for an hour, but you also don’t want to rush in at the last minute. We’ve all experienced traffic issues and transportation delays. They’re familiar enough that you know you should give yourself a time cushion.

I can’t even count the number of times when I had candidates show up late for an interview, or call or text from the road to say that they were running behind. Occasionally, someone would even reschedule on the morning of the interview. Ultimately, it shows a lack of respect, professionalism, and maturity.

You can’t repair the damage of being late, but if you show up early, you can always use the extra time.

When I was interviewing, I liked to find a nearby coffee shop, cafe, or park where I could run through my presentation a couple more times. It also allowed me to feel calmer and more confident. Meditate, do some deep breathing, and try a few other techniques to boost your confidence. Rushing in at the last minute is so stressful!

8. Know your why

Why do you want this job? Why do you want to work at this company? Why do you want this specific role?

These may seem like softball questions that don’t require preparation. But, I’ve listened to dozens of people fumble with the answers.

Some of the worst answers I’ve heard over the years:

  • “Oh, good question. Umm, I’m not sure. Let me think about that.”

  • “I’ve been out of work for a few months, so I really need this job.”

  • “Your recruiter emailed me, and it sounded interesting.”

  • “A friend told me that you were hiring, so I decided to apply.”

  • “I’ve heard that you guys pay pretty well.”

I don’t care if that’s what you think deep inside (e.g., I just need a job, and I need the money). You don’t say something like that to an interviewer. You certainly don’t say that to a hiring manager who wants someone genuinely interested in the company, the role, and sees this as a smart career move.

Hiring someone is a significant investment of time, money, and trust. Bringing a new person onto your team can either elevate everything, be a disappointment, or bring it crumbling down. You want to know that the person you are hiring wants to be there and do their best.

Think of interviewing like dating. That may sound strange, but several people I mentor have recognized the similarities.

Would you want to go on a date with someone who wasn’t really interested in you and didn’t really like you? What if the only reason they wanted to go on the date was that they were bored and no one else was available?

Doesn’t feel very good, does it?

The hiring manager and team love what they do and are proud of their company. They want to know that you feel the same way. They want you to acknowledge that they are unique and that you truly want to join them.

Don’t fake it. If you really don’t want the job, or like the company, move on. Find a better opportunity that excites you.

9. Prepare great questions

Prepare a list of smart interview questions ahead of time. Practice asking and answering questions during your commute, at home, or on a daily walk. Record video to check your body language to catch any bad tics.

Practice enough so that you can improv during your Q&A with ease. You want your answers to sound natural, not canned.

Go in with the frame of mind that this interview is as much for you as it is for them. You want to learn about the company, role, team, and hiring manager so that you can decide if you want to work there or not. Prepare questions that will give you the critical answers you need.

Don’t save all of your questions until the end. In other words, don’t wait for the typical, “Do you have any questions for me?” Demonstrate your confidence by following their questions with a question of your own during the interview. Asking questions helps you guide and direct the interview where you want it to go. Take control of the flow when you can.

Ask discovery questions in your earlier interview sessions to get helpful answers that will inform your questions and answers in your later interviews. You can learn a great deal about the company, the organization, their products and services, their business strategy, etc. that will impress interviewers you meet later in the day.

10. Develop your confidence

Be as confident and relaxed as possible. I know that this is easier said than done, but it makes a big difference in how you will be perceived. Read my advice on public speaking for some tips that will help you boost your confidence, smooth your voice, and calm your nerves.

Preparation and practice will have a tremendous effect on your confidence during the interview. When you know your material inside and out, it reduces stress and anxiety. When you can smoothly and naturally tell your story and respond to questions, it will continue to elevate your confidence throughout the day.

Simple acts like a genuinely warm smile, standing to greet people, and standing up to sketch ideas on the whiteboard will also increase both your feelings of confidence and their perception of your confidence.

Allow small pauses and moments of silence before you answer a question, and when you finish answering a question. Resist the urge to fill the gap with a verbal “Ummm.” Silence helps you gather your thoughts, shows that you are seriously considering the question, and makes you feel in control.

Also, if you want others to perceive you as competent and confident during the interview, be aware of your eye contact with the interviewer. When applying for a high-status job, applicants who regularly met the eyes of the recruiter were given significantly better evaluations compared to those who tended to avoid eye contact.

You’ll be ahead of the game

A surprising number of candidates will make these basic mistakes. That doesn’t have to happen. When you prepare, practice, and create a plan to avoid them, it will put you ahead of the pack.

Usually, by the time you are brought in for a face-to-face interview, the hiring manager thinks that you have the necessary background, experience, and skills. The interview is to confirm the facts, see how you think on your feet, and assess your cultural fit with the team.

People like to hire people they like. So, give the interviewers every opportunity to see that you would be a great person to work with every day and will add what they want to the team.

Good luck!

If you’d like some help preparing for your next job interviewlet me know. You can also join my free Slack team where many of us have deep experience interviewing, recruiting, and hiring.

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