filed in Business on Apr.12, 2010
I interview a lot of people. A lot. And, as some of you may have noticed, there are quite a bit more people chasing fewer jobs these days. So, in the interest of helping others out, here are some suggestions of things not to do during an interview.
To preface my comments, I work in the IT field and my interviewing technique was fine tuned during a long stint at a very demanding federal client. This environment was very fast paced and very high profile (I think one of the guiding comments from the client was “just keep my name out of the Washington Post”), which lead to an unfortunately high level of stress in the job.
When I had the opportunity to interview someone, I usually have between 30 to 60 minutes to determine if the person will be a good fit. After a few times, I believe I have created an interview approach to inject as much stress as possible into the situation to evaluate a potential candidate’s response. Some of examples of this approach would be:
- Giving absolutely no feedback whatsoever. No smiles, no nods, no widening-of-the-eyes, nothing. I have found a lack of response induces far more stress than anything else I could do.
- Asking questions to which there is no answer that could possibly be “right.” A textbook example from my undergraduate Morality & Justice class would be a train speeding towards five people with a switch: if you throw the switch, the train is diverted to another path on which a single person stands — but, that person would have no way of avoiding being hit; or, do nothing and the five die. What do you do? (Obviously, that’s an example, but it’s the kind of question where there is no “right” or “good” answer, so to speak; the whole point is to find out how the person gets to the answer more than the answer itself)
- Providing real world scenarios, but somewhat contrived to avoid the usual canned answers.
The types of technical questions I ask usually contain buried knowledge; meaning, while the question was plainly asking one question, it would assume detailed knowledge of four to seven things required to formulate a reasonable response. As a hypothetical from an unrelated field, “when is it appropriate to use the feminine dative case?” This assumes you know:
- The declension of a verb through all three genders and all five cases
- The applicability of said genders and cases
Here are a few of the mistakes I see from interviewees:
- Trying to know it all:
In the IT field, there are too many possible variants on too many details to know them all. “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer, if for no other reason because you cannot know it all. “I don’t know, but here’s how I would find out” is an even better answer. But, if you try to BS your way through an interview (where there’s really nothing that can go wrong, other than maybe not getting a job), you’ll try to BS your way through the job (when lots of things can go very wrong).
- Trying to have it both ways:
Q: “If you had to pick between planting a garden or weeding a garden, which would you choose?”
A: “Well, I can do both.”
Yes, I’m sure you can, but that’s not what I asked. I know you’re worried that if you say “planting a garden” while you think I might be looking for a weeder so you’ll miss the job. But, in actually, I usually have slots open for both; by trying to straddle the fence, I think you’re telling me what you think I want to hear, rather than actually answering the question. Which leads to the next thing…
- Not answering the question asked:
Q: “Tell me about the time you worked in McDonald’s”
A: “Well, I learned a lot there. But not as much as I did volunteering for the United Way!”
(a) This isn’t politics; you don’t get to answer the question you wanted to answer. (b) If I wanted to know about the United Way, I would have asked about the United Way. Now, I have to go back and ask you – again – for details about McDonald’s.
- Giving obviously canned answers:
Q: “What do you see as your biggest fault?”
A: “I care too much.”
No self-respecting interviewer should ever ask that question, but – even if it does come up – no interviewee should ever hand out the generic advice column answer. Take it from me, we interviewers read those columns, too.
A side note for interviewers: If you must ask this question, here’s a better formulation – “When you look back over your career, what would you say is your biggest success story? You know, ‘I did good there’?” and the converse, “When you look back over your career, what would you say is your biggest failure?” *Everyone* has both succeed and failed at least once. If they say they haven’t, that’s a red flag.
- Not having any questions for the interviewer:
As a general rule, that shows you didn’t prepare, don’t know anything about the company or the position and don’t seem really all that interested. If you do ask questions, ask about the work itself, the conditions, the staff turnover, the client interactions, what would be their biggest problem du jour – anything to show some interest.
Do not, however, ask about vacation time, pay ranges, bonuses and the like. The time to ask that is with the HR person and/or manager. Technical/line people either don’t know those answers or (probably) won’t be allowed to answer. Not to mention that it may not present you in the best light.
- Asking how you did:
Perhaps it was because of my interview style, but I have a surprisingly large number of people asking me how they did — and usually in just those words (“So, how’d I do?”) in a serious, not self-deprecating or joking around kind of way. It almost always ends their chances. In my opinion, you should have the self-confidence to know how you did — even if you’re wrong. But, that’s just a personal pet peeve.
Of course, now that I read this, I might sound a little bitter. Really, I’m just trying to help out a people who are looking for a job and may run across someone like me.