There’s nothing more heartbreaking than when a well-qualified candidate fails to make it past the first interview.
Why do things go sideways even when the skill set is there? This post explores the most common feedback from employers when they decide to pass on a candidate. If we were playing Family Feud, these would be the top seven answers to What Went Wrong in InterviewLand. Happily, many of these outcomes can be avoided with a little thoughtful pre-planning and rehearsal.
Here they are:
1. Low energy/Too quiet – The personality equivalent of a weak handshake. It could be as pronounced as someone who hangs back, barely speaks above a whisper and acts as though they need an IV drip. But more often it’s the sum of several tiny infractions: An involuntary yawn, failure to make eye contact, thoughtful/pensive vs. effusive responses, demure body language, etc.
Especially if you’ve been told you’re on the quieter side, it doesn’t hurt to practice with friends and solicit their honest impressions of your energy level. This isn’t Unnatural You. This is You in Technicolor: A little more vibrant and riveting.
2. Didn’t respond to questions or offer enough detail – Make sure you understand your interviewers’ questions and respond with the information they’re looking for. It’s entirely possible you may run into an inexperienced interviewer that doesn’t clearly express their questions or provide a platform for you to convey your experience and achievements. Maybe you discover a shared interest that leads you off-topic. In either case, you could be blind-sided with interview feedback along the lines of: “I don’t know what she does” or “She didn’t give me concrete examples” or “Her answers lacked substance and depth.”
If you sense this is happening, it’s critical that you gently steer the conversation back to your most relevant case studies and accomplishments. You may want to paraphrase your interviewer’s questions to ensure you know what’s she’s looking for. E.g. “Do you want me to give you an example of when I’ve turned around a troubled client relationship?”
3. Wasn’t a cultural fit – Who doesn’t hate this response?! It’s the most purposely vague, overused, misunderstood feedback EVER. When I attempt to pinpoint why it wasn’t a fit, 95% of the time the answer is a sheepish “I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it.” Honestly, it’s code for: You failed to pick up on cues about our company culture/we just didn’t connect/I’m not convinced we’re compatible. Again, it could be the sum of a bunch of tiny infractions: You came Friday Casual and they’re a Suit on the First Date culture, you professed to hate meetings, etc.
A lot of times, the feeling is mutual. You sensed you weren’t connecting. If you’re genuinely perplexed about this feedback, recount your initial impressions of the company culture, agency vibe, personality profile, etc. If you have trouble doing this, it may mean you weren’t picking up the cues and clues imperative to making the grade.
4. Emphasis on needs v. contributions – Of course, work/life balance, benefits, compensation, travel, etc. are important considerations. However, too much focus on these topics gives the impression that you’re more motivated by a lifestyle than to doing exceptional work.
Before any interview, you should list the reasons you want the job and what contributions you can make to the company. These are the things you discuss in your initial meetings. Once the employer is convinced of your work ethic, it’s easier to have a more successful conversation about your personal requests.
5. Didn’t seem interested in us – Have you done your homework on the company and decided why you want to work there? Employers are expecting to hear this, so read up on company history, leadership and recent press releases. Even if you’re indifferent or have a lot of interested suitors pursuing you, candidates that come in with an attitude of “I’m in hot demand, convince me why I should work here” always, always crash and burn. Employers use thank you notes as a litmus test for interest too. When you don’t send one, you’re signaling this wasn’t very important to you.
6. Bad-mouthed former/current employer – Wow, there are some mean ex-bosses I’d love to expose, but a job interview is not the right forum. Even if it seems relevant to describe in the context of your reasons for leaving… DON’T. Be the bigger person. Be gracious about what you’ve learned and why it’s time to move on. You don’t need to reveal too much.
7. Weak rationale for job moves – Companies are funny about this. They want to know you’re committed to leaving if offered a job, but they’re looking for a history of loyalty and staying power. Employers want to hire people who will explore all resources and try to make things work within the current situation, rather than bolt at the first whisper of friction.
Therefore, it’s critical for you to frame up why you’re attracted to this new opportunity and what it promises that you can’t achieve in your current job. Employers also like to see that you’ve tried to be flexible or initiate change when faced with challenges, rather than play the victim.
Final Advice: Know Before You Go
If things went well and you developed a strong rapport with your interviewer, don’t be afraid to solicit feedback and next steps before you leave. You could say something along the lines of “Did I address all your questions? What are the next steps? Is there anything else I can provide that would be helpful (e.g. work samples)?”
Many interviewers are conflict-averse and uncomfortable giving negative feedback in-person, but at least you’ve created an opportunity to surface any hesitancy, misinterpretation or topics you could’ve answered in more detail. It’s far more effective to address concerns during the interview because your chances of saving face later are low. You rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.