The expert’s guide to failing at job interviews

The expert’s guide to failing at job interviews

Busman’s holiday

Write about what you know, so the saying goes. I doubt it would qualify as a specialist subject on Mastermind, but I know a fair bit about job interviews. Since joining my first recruitment consultancy in 2001, I have interviewed several thousand candidates. I’ve also had plenty of memorable job interviews over the years, some more successful than others.

I thought it would be fun to look back on my experiences from both sides of the interviewer’s desk and put together a few top tips, which could help you prepare for your next job interview.

How to be remembered for all the wrong reasons

Let’s start with the standout meetings I have had with candidates, which were memorable for the wrong reasons. I will come on to how to make a more positive impact later.

Bear in mind that the vacancies these candidates were going for were professional, well paid, corporate communications roles…

  • There was the woman who was less concerned with discussing her skill set, more focused on finding a job which allowed her more time with her horse.
  • There was the 30-year-old candidate who brought her mum into her interview.
  • There were several gum-chewers; dozens of armchair slumpers; a couple of drunks and some who could barely string a sentence together.
  • When asked what skills he needed to work on, or where he felt there was room for improvement, one candidate responded with “I’m lazy, but I could work on that”.
  • One interviewee refused to take off his beanie hat and thick coat, despite the fact that we had no air conditioning and the temperature in the office was 25°c. He looked like a hitman hiding a sawn-off shotgun.
  • Do you ever end a phone conversation with friends or family with ‘lots of love’? A few candidates have left my office with that parting phrase – completely by mistake obviously. How mortifying.

Enough about you, let’s talk about me

I have had my fair share of interviews as a candidate myself. Before moving into recruitment, I was a PR consultant, moving around from consultancy to consultancy trying to find a professional home. After job hopping for six years, I realised I needed a career change.

Anyway, I have had many cringeworthy moments in interview situations. Let me tell you about a few…

Mr Brain’s Faggots

A very cool and well-known PR agency invited me for an interview at 6pm. I arrived at 5.45pm – I am ALWAYS early – introduced myself to the receptionist and was told to take a seat, facing the numerous TVs showing an Arsenal away match.

After a while, a man emerged from his office and sat down next to me. He didn’t introduce himself but became more and more animated as the game went on. There was much swearing.

After about half an hour – long after my interview was due to start – Arsenal Fan turned to me and said “Looks like they’re going to lose, I suppose we should just get started” and led me into the interview room. He was the MD and my interviewer.

Bizarrely, the interview went well, despite my thinly disguised fury. He sent me away with homework, to write a PR strategy to support the fictional launch of a new range of meals by Mr Brain’s Faggots (a retro brand of ‘meat’ balls – if you know the brand you’ll understand why the inverted commas).

I did my homework, wrote my strategy and delivered the document by courier with a packet of frozen Mr Brain’s Faggots. A bit of fun which I hoped would make me more memorable than the next candidate.

What I didn’t factor in, because I didn’t know about it, was Arsenal Fan’s holiday plans. The package sat unopened on his desk, slowly decomposing over the next fortnight. He must have had quite the fragrant homecoming.

Sweet revenge perhaps? I didn’t get the job and I sometimes see Arsenal Fan at industry events. He doesn’t remember me. But I’ll never forget him.

Let’s call him Steve

The final stage of the interview process for one of the PR roles I went for, was to present to a panel on my biggest career challenge and how I overcame it. I’d prepared well and had a strong presentation to deliver. It started with a scene-setting introduction, where I explained that my client was a wide boy, a narcissist and a troublemaker.

“Let’s call him Steve” I said with a flourish. There was a ripple of laughter around the room, before one of the panel members announced with a smirk that his name was Steve. Oh.

Why hadn’t I listened to their introductions more carefully? I had to swallow my embarrassment and get on with the presentation.

I got the job. Also Reader, I married him.

I actually did.

Tell us a joke

We’ve all had those awful questions like ‘if you were an animal, what animal would you be?’ or other such nonsense. In one interview I was asked to tell a joke, which I was completely floored by. As the interview was for a charity PR job, of course I could only think of rude or politically incorrect jokes, which would have gone down like a pork chop in a synagogue. I told them I never remembered jokes and am rubbish at retelling them anyway. Got away with it, but didn’t get the job.

Here’s a clean one to use if you ever get asked that question:

Q: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?

A: A carrot.

You’re welcome.

Oh god there are SO MANY other embarrassing stories, this blog could go on for pages and pages, but I’ll stop there because my toes are beginning to curl.

Be prepared

I couldn’t have predicted any of those situations, but there are ways you can prepare for your next job interview.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, do your research. This requires more than a brief look at the company’s website. Have they been in the news recently? What are people saying about them on social media? How are they performing financially? Do you understand what they actually do/make/sell? Who is on their board? Who is interviewing you and what is their background?

Next, think through examples of similar work you have done and rehearse talking through them. Also think about challenging projects you’ve worked on, difficult situations you’ve handled and how you’ve overcome them.

A good interviewer will ask you open competency-based questions, which require much more than yes/no answers, so try to remember all the successes you can bring up if asked.

There are some obvious interview questions that you can prepare for. Here are a few:

Tell us about yourself

This is a chance to give them your elevator pitch – ie what you would say to the CEO/Richard Branson/insert role model here, if you were in a lift and only had a few floors during which to sell yourself. This should be a brief introduction about your career in a nutshell and what you’re looking for next (which will obviously be just like the job you’re interviewing for). Keep it concise, positive and don’t give too much detail. The interviewer can explore your experience with specific questions.

Then breathe and don’t be tempted to fill any silence. Wait for the next question.

Why did you apply for this job?

You will have done your research so you’ll know what enticed you into this interview room. Was it the chance to work with inspiring people (who you know all about because you’ve done your homework on LinkedIn)? Or are you motivated by the challenge of the work/trajectory of the company?

It’s not advisable to make this about money or title, nor should this be an opportunity to gripe about your current role. ‘I don’t have anything else to do at the moment’ is also not a valid answer.

What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

This is a horrible question, but interviewers still use it and you should prepare yourself for it. Strengths should be easy to identify, weaknesses aren’t so easy. Many people fluff this question with nonsense about being ‘a perfectionist’ or ‘too caring’ or working too hard. No one likes a humble bragger and an interviewer will see right through this.

Nor should you confess to being lazy.

My advice is to pick a real area for development, which isn’t critical to the job you’re interviewing for. For example, if you’re interviewing for a job in accountancy, presentation skills might not be too high on the interviewer’s list of criteria.

Whatever weakness you choose, turn it into a positive statement by explaining how you’re working on it and developing that skill.

What are you most proud of?

I like asking this question as it tells me about the candidate’s motivation. If they’re proud of turning around a difficult situation, I know I can trust them in a troubleshooting role. If they’ve mentored a colleague through their career, they will most likely be interested in a role with management responsibility.

Think about this in advance and have a mini case study to talk through. What was the situation, what were the challenges and how did you address them? What was the legacy of those decisions/actions?

Why have you left/why do you want to leave your current role?

This is a tricky one. As a recruiter, I really need to hear the honest, warts and all answer to this question, so that I can find a role that suits them better. However, if you’re in an interview with a company (rather than a third party recruiter), you need to keep this answer positive.

So if you’ve been bullied at work, you might explain that you’re looking for a more supportive working environment. If you’ve been overlooked for a promotion, the more positive approach is that you’re looking for career development and training opportunities.

You get the picture.

You want more?

Please get in touch if you want practical tips. I coach people to become stand-out candidates. You can find out more on my career coaching page.

If you have an interview coming up, good luck!!

Best wishes
Vicki

14 Comments

  1. Karen Finn October 30, 2019 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    Great article, thanks! At the same time, I’m glad that I’m now self-employed. Not sure if I could cope with all of the weird & unexpected questions at this stage of my life! 🙂

    • Vicki October 30, 2019 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      Thanks Karen, I couldn’t agree more! Vx

  2. Champenchopps October 30, 2019 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    Really interesting- more please! My fave interview feedback includes “you’re really unfortunate to have such a monotone voice” and “when are you going to have children?”

    • Vicki October 30, 2019 at 5:10 pm - Reply

      That is so outrageous (and the latter is illegal!). Did you get the job?

  3. Jo B October 31, 2019 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    I have blocked all my past interviews out of my mind now, I’m fairly sure I would have waffled a lot or maybe i interview ok because I actually got all the jobs I’ve ever interviewed for! I’ll be sure to refer to this should I face one again though!

    • Vicki November 1, 2019 at 6:58 am - Reply

      Hi Jo that’s an impressive success rate! You could probably give me some advice. Thanks for reading. Vx

  4. Jackie November 3, 2019 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    I was once asked in an interview if I was in a circus would I se myself as a plate spinner or a juggler. It was the closest I’ve ever got to simply walking out mid interview. I didn’t but I really wish I had!

    • Vicki November 3, 2019 at 11:15 pm - Reply

      That’s brilliant. Plate spinner vs juggler – same difference ‍♀️. There have been plenty of interviews I wish I’d walked out of. Imagine the satisfaction. Thanks for commenting. Vx

  5. Rowena November 5, 2019 at 6:54 am - Reply

    Recently I’ve been asked in job interviews “What are you being paid now?”. On one occasion, I was then offered a job for $5/hr less than this, I refused as I am already paidles than I should be. Another time, I was told, upon being honest about my pay rate, “But you have a degree, & all this experience!” “Yeah, I know. It’s a shame no one’s ever been keen to pay me for it!” So what should I say?

    • Vicki November 5, 2019 at 7:01 am - Reply

      It’s always awkward being asked about pay. All you can do is be honest. But if you know your worth and have researched the rate the market pays for your skills, it will give you a starting point to negotiate. Thanks for reading. Vx

  6. Sherry Fernandez November 5, 2019 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Fabulous article Vicki. Informative, engaging and fun. Love all the little stories, looking forward to more.

    • Vicki November 5, 2019 at 11:14 am - Reply

      Thanks Sherry. Lovely to hear from you. Vx

  7. Ruth Morrison December 6, 2019 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    Hello Vicki, Thank you for the post. It’s always helpful to get an insider’s perspective. I will be looking for a new job in January and it’s good to brush up on current expectations. Do you have any information regarding salary and what to put down when asked about salary expectations? Kind regards, Ruth
    P.S: I live near Toronto in Canada and typically job ads do not include any salary info

    • Vicki December 6, 2019 at 5:20 pm - Reply

      Hi Ruth it’s tough when ads don’t include salary information, yet you’re expected to let the prospective employer know your salary details. I suggest you explain the salary and benefits you’re currently earning and say you want an uplift on that – which you’d like the opportunity to discuss in person. I hope that helps. Vx

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