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The 3 Most Common Mistakes People Make in Interviews

As the founder of two IT services firms over 28 years, I have interviewed thousands of job applicants. I’ve interviewed over chili, biscuits and gravy, over the phone, via Skype, and in my own kitchen. In spite of that vast array of candidates and venues, I’m still surprised at how frequently candidates make these basic […]

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September 25, 2015

As the founder of two IT services firms over 28 years, I have interviewed thousands of job applicants. I’ve interviewed over chili, biscuits and gravy, over the phone, via Skype, and in my own kitchen. In spite of that vast array of candidates and venues, I’m still surprised at how frequently candidates make these basic mistakes:

1. They talk too much.

In response to my lead-off question which is usually a question about why they’re seeking a change, it’s common for someone to consume more than ten full minutes answering that question. Sometimes they tell me their life story, sometimes they meander through their current responsibilities, and sometimes they simply repeat themselves. The question requires at most a one-minute explanation of why they’re here at this interview. Regardless of the question, any one answer shouldn’t exceed more than two minutes. They should reach a summary, and wait for me at ask for elaboration. I always ask follow-up questions based on their answers, so the unabridged edition usually has a chance to emerge; there’s no need to provide the encyclopedic saga on the first go-round.

2. They don’t answer my question.

This is surprisingly common. I’ll ask “What’s it like to deal with difficult clients?” and I’ll get an answer enumerating each client they’ve worked with over the years. Or I’ll ask “How do you know when you’ve succeeded at your job?” and they’ll tell me their daily job activities. Beyond being genuinely interested in these answers, I’m testing them to see if they can listen and respond. People who make this mistake are often answering the question they wish I’d asked, instead of the one I actually did ask. Candidates should make sure to listen to the question carefully, and if it’s not clear, ask for clarity. Sometimes I deliberately ask an ambiguous question like “What gets you upset?” to see if they have the courage to ask me if I mean in general or at work. I appreciate it when they ask me to clarify my question, since it shows they care about being precise when listening and responding.

3. They don’t back up their statements.

People often make sweeping general statements, not expecting to be challenged to support them. Here’s one: “I just couldn’t put up with the poor corporate culture anymore. It’s hard to work in that kind of environment.” Without exception, I will ask “What makes you describe the culture as poor?” and they’re frequently unable to cite any explanation other than to repeat the claim again. Here’s another one: “She was the best boss I ever had.” I’ll respond by asking “What made her such a good boss?” and their response is to tell me how high their performance scores were. Each claim you make must be based on facts that you can quickly recall and articulate. There doesn’t have to be a cross-referenced business case, but there should be at least one example that illustrates your general statement.

Going to an interview is intimidating. It should be: you’re about to be verbally tested for a job, and you get no study guide or do-over. But candidates should remember that it’s a two-way interview, and to ask questions themselves of the interviewer. I am continually surprised by how many candidates redeem themselves in my interviews by asking me tough and challenging questions.

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