The number one goal for a job interview: avoid self-sabotage

Mon, 19 Mar 2012 | By Robert Kelsey

Recruiters obviously know that job interviews are the pivotal moments in any career. As Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) said just before meeting Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 classic Wall Street: “If life comes down to a few moments, this is one of them.”

Unfortunately, it’s a lesson many recruiters’ clients have to learn the hard way. All too often, interviews are the events that leave candidates cringing at their responses or behaviours. They can kill future confidence and cause those layers of regret to stack up: turning previously strong candidates into people that feel they’ll never get through the door marked “progress”.

Of course, we can all remember those cringe-worthy moments. Certainly, I’ve had my fair share – incidents and exchanges that I would now describe as self-sabotage. Indeed, now middle-aged, I’ve started to look back at them – not as the key moments I flunked (because of my own stupidity), but as the times life taught me an invaluable lesson. That said, it’s taken me a while to get to this healthier juncture.

Purely for the purposes of enlightenment, here are my worst interview howlers – with the lesson learnt added (much later, of course):

1. Disabling behaviour: Early for one interview near Covent Garden, I thought I had time for a cigarette (being a teenage smoker). But I needed a light, so asked this professional-looking gentlemen walking by. He looked an unlikely smoker and couldn’t help, but he did turn out to be my interviewer. He was also unimpressed at me revealing myself as a bit of a street ruffian, and I failed to land the job.

Lesson: rein in the oikish behaviour long before the interview door. In fact, rein it in fullstop – you are now entering professional life.

2. Disabling CVs: Under ’interests’ on my CV was the word ’politics’, something my interviewer (for a holiday job with a logistics company) found troubling. “As long as you don’t bring it to work,” he said. At best he thought I’d bore him silly on the overnight trip to Aberdeen. At worst that I’d be a trouble maker. In fact, I was doing a politics degree at the time, so why did I need to list it as an interest?

Lesson: Self-sabotage goes beyond what you say. Why list offputting hobbies that may have your interviewer wondering about your commitment?Being a DJ is a favourite I see these days, suggesting late nights and illegal substances.

3. Arguing: A crucial post-university interview with the well-known editor of a national newspaper. This was my Bud Fox moment, so why did I get into an argument with him about his paper failing to cover a pointless and long-forgotten protest march in my university city of Manchester? I thought I was impressing him with my news sense. In fact, I was forcing him on the defensive.

Lesson: You are not there to win, but to win people over – remember that.

4. Assuming prejudice: Left in a meeting room for an interviewer to arrive, I waited with increasing frustration until he tripped in late apologising for the fact he was “the wrong side of a bottle of claret”. In fact his jollity continued as he disregarded my CV and said “forget all that, tell me: what school did you go to?” He was obviously posh, so I resented the question and let it show. He ended the interview soon after.

Lesson: Why assume the prejudice? If there’s genuine prejudice you’re doomed anyway, but the chances are you’re being overly-sensitive. My interviewer was simply looking for a connection. Rapport is important in an interview: don’t reject it when it’s offered on a plate.

5. Exaggerating: Another summer job – this one as a driver, via an agency. In fact, the interview went something like this: “Drive that to Edmonton, now. There’s a map in the cab”. Yet the truck was so terrifyingly large I couldn’t believe I could legally drive it. I got as far as the first roundabout – panicked – parked up (illegally) and fled home. The agency never rang me again.

Lesson: Don’t lie about your skills and experiences. You’ll get caught out. Mild exaggerations are fine, but saying you can do something you patently can’t is setting yourself up for a nasty reckoning.

6. Clever comments: Asked to introduce myself at a mass interview for a brewer-turned-leisure company I decided to play on the fact I knew the brewing side had been sold by stating I could tell the difference in the taste of the beer. What utter rubbish! The way the beer was brewed hadn’t changed one jot from the way it had always been brewed – as all the wizened company executives in the room well knew. My ’clever’ comment meant I got no further in the process.

Lesson: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Do your research about the company, and never offer insight that’s anything other than 100% fact.

So what can be done to stop self-sabotage in job interviews? In fact, that’s the easy bit. Candidates must remember that, on paper (and assuming they haven’t over-exaggerated), they are qualified for the post – hence the interview. They are now being assessed on everything apart from their qualifications (although these may be tested for veracity). It’s the soft skills that matter now, meaning that they should:

Be smart. I’ve had people turn up for interviews in jeans or scuffed shoes, or in need of a haircut or – most commonly (for men) – without shaving. Handing the interviewer such an obvious signal they are lazy and disorganised or – at best (or possibly worst) – have attitude, is suicide. The man who spotted me smoking didn’t care that I smoked. He cared that I projected myself so poorly in public.

Agree with them. Sorry, they have a queue of people out the door and they are not going to take on the person that finds fault. They don’t want to hear ’clever’ views about what they are doing wrong, but what they are doing right. Even if they ask you directly: “What’s wrong with us?” – avoid the trap, or just add a layer – something like “I’d hope to take what you do much further”. Flattery is also a good way to overcome any awkward pauses, though it is better to be articulate and descriptive rather than just gushing. 

Tell the truth. Most interviewers can spot a ’porky’ from 100 paces. So while a mild exaggeration if fine – no more than putting a shiny gloss on actual achievements – any out-and-out lies will be quickly exposed, resulting in almost certain rejection. As stated, candidates will broadly have what’s needed or they wouldn’t have got the interview: so piling on fantasy levels of experience can only harm their chances.

Get the body language right. This is an intense assessment based on our every facet. So facial expressions, posture and gestures all matter enormously. Candidates should be attentive (but not intense), alert and engaged. Constant head bobbing, grinning or exaggerated hand usage should all be contained. Eye contact is good but staring is bad. Mirroring is good but freaking them out is obviously bad. Taking notes is good (and helps prevent overdoing both the eye contact and mirroring) but writing verbatim will rouse suspicions.

Don’t be yourself. Lastly, candidates should ignore all previous advice containing homilies such as ’be yourself’ or ’just relax’. This may be good advice for a date, but it’s a disaster for a job interview. Being relaxed can make people look smug and arrogant, which is fine for a popstar or super model but a disabling quality in other careers. Meanwhile, being a little nervous indicates that you’re taking the opportunity seriously. As for candidates ’being themselves’ – fine, as long as they are bright, diligent, attentive, confident and committed. If not, their best tactic may be to fake it – within limits of course!

- Robert Kelsey is author of What’s Stopping You? the bestselling book on overcoming disabling insecurities in the workplace.

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