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Help! I Keep Failing at Job Interviews

If you’re beating yourself up wondering why you aren’t getting job offers or even moving on to the second round of interviews, you may find some answers below.

There are some specific situations and behaviors that I’ve found to be commonly mishandled, even by candidates for professional positions (in fact, sometimes especially by professional candidates). Some of them are how you react to certain circumstances and some are unconscious behaviors you may not even know you’re doing.

Any of them may cause your interview to go off the rails. I’ll start with an example.

Not too long ago, I was asked to sit on the interview panel for a Hiring Manager friend of mine at my company. The opening was for a senior project manager. 

We were scheduled to interview five candidates that had been screened from the applications submitted. Since this was a fairly high-level position, with a salary well over $100,000, I naturally assumed we receive some strong performances from these five top candidates.

Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Four of the five candidates did not perform well enough to further consider. The fifth one was passed on even though her performance was weak. If you’re puzzled by this, I’ll tell you exactly what happened: lack of preparation.

Interview preparation is something I’ve covered many times in other posts and poor preparation was very evident in the four candidates that were not passed on. 

While the lack of preparation on the part of these candidates was obvious in many areas (one of which is having the jitters), two of the questions we asked were pretty much completely fumbled by what should have been high-powered applicants.

Tell Us A Bit About Yourself

This is probably the question that is most fumbled. It’s the opening question we asked in this interview. Since it’s frequently asked right up front in most interviews, your answer creates your first impression. It’s important to get it right and make it the right length.   

The easy (and by easy I mean lazy!) method of answering this question is to just rattle off the the previous employers and jobs you’ve held. This was what each of these five candidates did. This doesn’t take much effort or thought, just the ability to regurgitate what is already on your resume.

The problem with this is that it’s not what the interview panel wants to hear. They’ve read your resume and don’t need to hear it repeated. What we want is for you to take this opportunity to point out your skills, expertise and accomplishments that directly relate to this position and to our organization. 

We want to hear that you’ve done your research about our company and its goals and objectives.This is your chance to show you’ve done your homework and know something about our organization. It’s an ideal opportunity to show how some of your accomplishments directly apply to the job and how you can help the company.

Yet, less than five percent of the many candidates I’ve interviewed over the years were able to answer the question in this manner.

The key here of course is to have deeply researched the company for which you’re interviewing. This takes time and effort but is the best way to demonstrate you’re the ideal candidate for that particular company’s needs.

How Have You Handled Challenges

The next area not handled well by these five was being able to cite a specific example of when they were faced with a challenge, how they developed a solution, and whether or not that solution was successful. What we were looking for was their accomplishments. 

Oddly, they seemed confused by this question. They were able to explain their job responsibilities in great detail but struggled to give specific examples of how performing those responsibilities resulted in tangible accomplishments. 

Since this was an IT project manager position we were looking for examples of increases in efficiency, reductions in expense, increases in revenue, and so on. The four weakest applicants were not able to state any relevant specific statistics. 

The fifth candidate (who eventually did get the job), was at last able to cite some good numbers once she finally came to understand that we were interested in accomplishments rather than just responsibilities. But we had to prod her for these, which is not something we expect in an experienced candidate.

Giving examples of accomplishments, and relating your skills and experience to that specific position are both interview skills that I’ve covered repeatedly in other posts. As as you might expect, these were the exact things that these otherwise experienced and qualified applicants handled poorly.

Make it a point to master these skills so that they don’t cost you your next job.

Unconscious Behaviors That Can Bounce You Our of Consideration

In addition to your qualifications and answers, you’re also being evaluated on how you present yourself, as demonstrated by your behavior during the interview. This can come back to bite you if you have some unconscious behaviors that override your otherwise good performance.

Nervous Gestures

I know you’re nervous during your interview. Every Hiring Manager does. We expect it.

But we’re also judging your ability to overcome that nervousness during the interview and this includes being able to control nervous gestures. Some common ones I see are: shaking your leg, making constant sweeping hand gestures, clearing your throat constantly, and my personal favorite: clicking your pen.

Constantly repeating the same nervous gesture is not only distracting but can lower your interview score.

I had a candidate once that took clinking his pen to a whole new level. Instead of clicking it, he would unscrew the cap and screw it back on again. Over and over. I know he didn’t realize he was doing it, but it got to the point where everyone on the interview panel was looking at his pen instead of him.

About halfway through the interview, after one of the times he unscrewed the cap, he also absent-mindedly pushed down on the spring-loaded refill inside. You know what happened next. When he let it go it popped up into the air and landed in the middle of the interview notes belonging to one of the interview panel members.

 That person laughed it off but I’m guessing this will be an interview that candidate will remember for the rest of his life. The interview panel sure will!

Holding a pen is perfectly acceptable and is a good way to control other nervous hand gestures, so long as you hold it still when you’re not taking notes.

Probably the most common nervous gesture I see is shaking your leg up and down under the table. This is particularly one that you should make a conscious effort to avoid simply because it is so common.

I was once interviewing a candidate who was very tall, probably six foot eight or more. Like many, he had the nervous habit of shaking his leg.

Because he was so tall, his knee would occasionally hit underneath the table. It got to where we could predict when he was particularly nervous with a question by the thump of his knee hitting.

Not quite as bad as sailing your pen refill across the room but still distracting.

Bad Handshake

While handshakes disappeared during the pandemic, they are now starting to return.

The handshake can frequently be one of the more awkward moments with any sort of introduction, much less an interview. Many people don’t even realize how they do it.

The first type of ‘bad handshake’ is what many people call the ‘limp fish’. You know, the one where someone places their hand in yours and doesn’t squeeze at all – it just sits there like a limp fish. 

This comes across as either a sign of insecurity or disinterest, neither of which are good impressions in an interview. 

The other type of bad handshake is the death-match handshake. You know, when someone squeezes your hand like it was an arm-wrestling contest. This comes across as overly aggressive (or, paradoxically, some hiring managers consider it a sign of insecurity!). 

The best handshake is a medium-firm grip, lasting about two seconds. Practice it on your friends until it becomes your new unconscious behavior.

Too Much or Too Little Eye Contact

Many candidates stumble on this one and frequently will end up either making little or no eye contact at all, or focusing their attention on the person in the room who seems the friendliest. 

Here’s my best advice on eye contact. When a person on the interview panel is talking, maintain eye contact with them. When you are the one talking, let your gaze go around the table, making eye contact with each person for two or three seconds at a time.

If there are only two people on the panel, rotate your eye contact back and forth every five or six seconds, so that you’ll look more natural.

If it’s a one-on-one interview, don’t avoid looking at the other person, but don’t stare at them the entire time. That’s just weird.

Look at them for five or six seconds and then look away for one or two seconds. Try to do this with a smooth rhythm, regardless of whether you’re talking or the other person is talking. This is natural and you’ll appear to be more composed.

Here’s the Bottom Line

While I’ve never met a hiring manager who made a hiring decision based only on these types of nonverbal cues, they can certainly have a big impact on the impression you give. 

This means they can be the tie-breaker between two equally qualified candidates, so be sure to pay attention to the nonverbal communication you may be giving in your next interview.

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