The Five Deadliest Job Interview Mistakes

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A lot of people are confused about job interviews. They think a job interview is like a citizenship exam. They think that if they study hard and give the right answer to each question put to them, everything will be fine.

At a citizenship exam, if you answer the questions correctly you’ll get your papers. Everyone who shows up to the exam that day can become a citizen, and we can have a big party and celebrate. Your goal in the citizenship exam is to give the right answer and wait for the next question.

A job interview is exactly the opposite! Only one person can get the job, so the last thing you want to do is sound like everyone else. Yet our office is flooded with mail from people who are unclear on the ‘one person gets hired’ concept as it relates to job interviews.

“You say that I should answer the question ‘Why should we hire you?’ with a non-traditional answer,” goes a typical query. “What’s wrong with ‘You should hire me because I’m qualified, hard-working and eager to make a difference!’?”

You can answer the question that way if you want to, but why on earth would you want to? Every other candidate will answer exactly that way!

The last thing you want to do on a job interview is disappear into the confusing sea of job-seekers that a hiring manager is desperately trying to keep separate in his mind.

Your job on a job interview is to get the manager thinking and to exercise your own brain, too. Neural activity is the key. If you stay in the standard frame and answer the questions like a good little sheepie job candidate, the manager may literally forget who you are.

I was an HR chief for millennia. The biggest problem job-seekers face after job interviews is that hiring managers literally can’t remember them.

“Now Amy Jones – which one was she, again?” a hiring manager would ask me.

“Blonde curly hair, Southern accent,” I’d say. “Oh, yeah, her!” the hiring manager would reply.

How would you keep a dozen job candidates straight if you met them all over three or four days? The more cues you can get during the interview (the Navy Guy, the woman who wrote a kids’ book) the easier it becomes keep each candidate distinct in your mind.

The more you stick to the script and sound just like everyone else in the lineup, the worse the problem becomes.

Managers feel bad when they meet people and forget them, but it happens every day.

“Did I meet Chester Anderson?”

“Yep – tall guy, rides a Harley, remember?”

“Oh yeah, the Harley guy.”

Once a manager forgets you, all the thank-you notes in the world won’t bring you back to mind as a living, breathing human being, much less a contender for the job. Your aim at a job interview is to make an impression, not to sit in the chair like a ventriloquist’s dummy and spit out pat answers on cue.

Here are the five deadliest interview mistakes we see in our work with job-seekers and hiring managers. We’ve provided remedies on the three linked blog pages. Take charge of your next job interview, and make it a high-mojo conversation!

MISTAKE NUMBER ONE: Neglecting the Basics

You’ve got to go to a job interview prepared. If your first question for an HR person or hiring manager is “What does your company do?” you can bet that the interviewer is drawing a big red X through your name in his mind, even if he’s too polite to say so.

You have to know what the company does and for whom, where its various locations are and who its competitors are. You have to know what’s new in the organization and what people are saying about them. Here is a list of of critical pre-interview research topics and where to find the information you need.

The goal of your pre-interview research is not to show that you’re a good little student and a get a gold star, but to understand the company’s business situation. That’s for your own benefit, and your knowledge will help you compose thoughtful interview questions to ask your interviewer, too.

MISTAKE NUMBER TWO: Showing Up Without Questions

“Is there a bus that runs by here?” is a perfectly fine question for a job-seeker to ask an interviewer if the job-seeker is 18 years old or younger. Once we hit adulthood, we’re expected to develop higher-altitude questions about the role, the company’s situation in its marketplace and the hiring manager’s priorities.

Click here for a list of interview questions that you can jot on your spiffy notepad (tucked into your leather or vegan leather portfolio, which you’ll bring to every interview not only to prep yourself with pre-written questions but also to take notes) and refer to when you need it.

The best interview questions, though, are not the ones on our list but organic questions that spring from the unfolding conversation, as in this example.

MISTAKE NUMBER THREE: Answering and Going Silent

When we have in mind that a job interview is like an oral exam, we answer a question and then clam up and wait for the next one. That’s citizenship-exam behavior. That’s not how humans converse, and you’re not going to start an intellectually-stimulating conversation by following the boring, standard script. If you interview in the standard sheepie way, the manager will forget your conversation two minutes after your tush disappears through the revolving door.

Here are two contrasting answers to the lame interview question “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

MANAGER: Where do you see yourself in five years?

APPLICANT: Here, hopefully, working in Accounts Payable or perhaps in Finance.

Is this manager going to say “Wow! There’s a lively thinker!” upon hearing this answer?

Heck, no. Not one neuron is firing in the manager’s brain while you’re matching the lameness quotient of his lame question with your own lame answer.

Let’s try it again:

MANAGER: Where do you see yourself in five years?

APPLICANT: I don’t have a timetable, but I’m interested in astrophysics – yes, don’t laugh! It’s true. I love science, and I don’t know exactly where I’ll go with it but I read everything I can about quantum mechanics, cosmology and the point where engineering and physics intersect.

MANAGER: Wow — but you’re an Accounts Payable person!

APPLICANT: I worked at my grandpa’s hardware store in high school and I learned bookkeeping and then Accounting. I got my BS in Finance because I like fitting the numbers into the rest of the business processes like Purchasing, Sales and forecasting. Somehow I’m going to weave the science in, at some point. Life is long!

You can turn even a brainless interview question like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” into a conversation-starter if you bring a little mojo to the interview.

What is there to be afraid of, after all? The only mistake you can make is to hide behind the script and be forgotten. As long as you stay calm, don’t evaluate or censor yourself and listen to your body, you’re going to do fine.

MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR: Leaving Without Learning

Notice how I keep talking about getting the manager’s brain and your own brain working? To do that, you’ve got to listen carefully to everything your interviewer says, get off the script and react appropriately. You’ve got to let the conversation unfold, and that means keeping the conversation human instead of retreating to the boring and robotic standard interview script.

Let’s compare two answers to the question “What do you know about FrammelSoft?”

MANAGER: Tell me what you know about FrammelSoft.

CANDIDATE: I’m sorry that I’m not familiar with that software, but I’m a quick learner.

This is a classic interview mishap. You’re an experienced Accounts Payable person and you’ve never heard of this piece of software, yet you apologize for not knowing it?

You have nothing to apologize for. Let’s try it again, this time staying human and pushing for some learning on both sides of the conversation.

MANAGER: Tell me what you know about FrammelSoft.

CANDIDATE: Is that an Accounts Payable application?

MANAGER: Not specifically – it’s a kind of mid-range ERP, but there’s an Accounts Payable piece. We’ve been using it since before I got here.

CANDIDATE: How does it fit into the A/P pipeline specifically?

MANAGER: Well, we enter the vendors into FrammelSoft and then it creates vendor reports used by Purchasing. It’s kind of ancillary to A/P but it’s a tricky system and I was wondering if you’d used it.

CANDIDATE: I haven’t heard of it, but it makes me curious, because I thought I read in the job ad that you use SAP.

MANAGER: We do use SAP – this Frammelsoft program is a legacy thing that is actually kind of a pain in the neck.

CANDIDATE: Would it be worth exploring a way to get out of the dependence on FrammelSoft and get that functionality from SAP, which already cost your company a bundle?

MANAGER: That would be heavenly, but our Purchasing guys are completely committed to FrammelSoft.

CANDIDATE: It makes me think that if I were the person you hired for this job, the Purchasing folks would be a high priority for me — getting to know them and then understanding what they get out of FrammelSoft that they can’t get from SAP.

MANAGER: I have to think our SAP Account Manager would be your ally in that.

The hiring manager is mentally imagining you in the job, already! On a job interview, don’t give a harmless little answer and be quiet. Listen, learn and respond! You’d do that naturally if you weren’t experiencing interview jitters.

You can lessen the jitter factor by reminding yourself that not everyone is worthy of your gifts. Only the people who get you, deserve you!

MISTAKE NUMBER FIVE: Groveling

Groveling means cowering and begging. It means watching the interviewer’s face to see how he or she reacts to every word you utter and every non-verbal signal you send. It means shutting down your true personality in order to be pleasing to the interviewer.

You don’t go on dates to please people, do you? You go on dates to figure out whether you and another person have enough chemistry to continue the conversation. A job interview works the same way!

As long as you believe that an employer has something wonderful and precious that you desperately need — that is, a job — and that you are nothing and they are godlike, you are sunk. The only kind of people you’ll bring in then will be fearful managers who are sure to undervalue and abuse you.

When you know in your heart and your gut that you bring to the table something just as valuable as a paycheck and maybe much more — your tremendous experience, intellect and instinct — you’ll carry yourself differently. You won’t trip over your words in an effort to please His Majesty or Her Highness, because you’ll see yourself and the interviewer as equals on a level playing field.

If the energy is right, you’ll have a new job and they’ll have an awesome new employee in a few weeks. If the energy is wrong, your mojo won’t even flicker, because you’ll be one step closer to the perfect opportunity waiting for you, working among people who will grow your precious flame.