Do this at job interviews, and set yourself up to fail — Practical tips from an ex-hiring manager

Many people walk into their job interviews only to fail them. Of course, no one consciously chooses to fail their job interviews — but why is it that there are so many job opportunities (even during this retrenchment-crazy time) and so few positions filled? (just do a quick search on job portals & LinkedIn!)

The reasons are aplenty, but let’s take a stab at it from the other side with my experience of interviewing over 100 candidates in the past year ranging from design, writing, IT and research roles.

1. Appearing uninterested and indifferent

No one forced you to attend the job interview. If you’re not interested, it’s probably better to stay home and look for another opportunity. Learn to respect that every person’s time is precious and that it’s not wise to waste anyone’s time if you’re already uninterested from the get-go.

“But what if I’m just looking around and trying to find out more about new opportunities?” you say.

That’s no excuse to appear uninterested, and unless you share it upfront, every employer would assume that you’re interested to land a job opportunity at the company — that’s why you’re there.

2. Having no sense of purpose

While I don’t think employers expect you to know the purpose of your life (it’s good to know, though!), a sense of purpose differentiates a good candidate from the bad. Why do you want to join this company? Why did you leave your previous company? A good candidate has a clear sense of why he or she left the previous company to pursue something else. For example, “I was doing a lot of print designs but realised that with the world going more digital, it makes more sense to pursue a career in digital design.” It doesn’t mean, though, that you’ll always have to be all about career advancement. A simple answer like this may work:

“I felt that my previous job was taking a toll on my personal life, and I wanted to realign my life so that I can have more time to pursue what’s important to me — my family.”

The underlying principle is that you will be seen as someone who makes sensible judgements, not an irrational person, nor one who easily wavers under difficult circumstances.

3. Providing brief or inarticulate answers

“I’m not sure how to answer that,” a candidate said to me once, and left it there.

I was left hanging awkwardly, and moved on to the next question while already discarding her as a candidate in my mind. It’s quite a high calling to be able to answer all interview questions, but that does not mean you cannot be honest. If you’re not sure about the answer, don’t leave it hanging, because the hiring manager would not know what you are unclear about. It is also somewhat prophetic of how you will manage stakeholder expectations in the future — the hiring manager may assume you’ll also leave your stakeholders hanging like that if you were hired.

Seek clarification if the question itself is confusing or if you don’t understand the question. If you understand the question, but still are not sure of the answer, it is good to share why you’re not able to answer it. Honesty and humility can sometimes be a deal breaker. Choose instead to say,

“I completely understand your question, but I find the question quite a challenge to answer, perhaps because of my lack of experience.”

Saying it yourself is a lot more transparent than having the hiring manager assume your lack of skills — this way, the hiring manager knows the gap and how to train you to fill it — if you managed to somehow convince him/her by your conduct that this is your only gap in taking up the role.

4. Giving very general answers

I work for a company in the travel industry. When I asked copywriter candidates why they wanted to work for us, my top-most-disliked-answer was,

“Oh, because I like to travel. I really like writing.”

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like to travel, so do spare some time to think of a more meaningful answer. It doesn’t mean that liking travel or liking writing is wrong. It’s just that we can’t hire someone solely based on their passion without substance in their skills — people are usually hired based on their talent, character (correlated with passion) and potential. What’s a good way to modify that answer? If you’re creating travel content, and assuming that the company you’re interviewing in would want to create original content that’s differentiated, your answer can be, “I really love travelling, and I hope to integrate this passion into my writing where I can uncover hidden gems in unknown destinations, from secret caves in Vietnam to the best cities for marriage proposals, or how travel can help less fortunate people in poverty-stricken countries.” This is not the best of answers we’ve got, but such an answer will demonstrate to your hiring manager that you’re not just for show, that you’ve thought about the kind of content you can bring to the table.

5. Failing to research on the company

This is probably one of the biggest mistake someone can make, because it really shows your sloppiness, and relates back to point no. 1. The next-worst question a candidate had asked me was,

“Actually ah, what does your company do?”

Masking my shock, I mustered a professional smile and reiterated what the company does but we all know whether the candidate landed the role on that day. Advanced research on the company will show how interested you are in the role, differentiate you from other candidates in how you assert on improvements that the company can do based on your observations, and much more. For example, if you’re interviewing for a web developer role, and you noticed that the company’s website still looks like Web 2.0, you already have a clear case to pitch.

6. Not able to articulate your value to the company

Although you may be sick of companies asking you, “Why should we hire you?” or “What differentiates you from other candidates?”, learn to understand that the company needs you to convince them directly or indirectly that you are the best fit for the role. Of course, I do believe that culture fit is a two-way street.

Most of the time, candidates are also assessing whether the company is a fit for them. Understanding that most of the initiative should come from the candidate, it would be wise if you come to the interview ready to articulate what differentiates you from the 99 other job applicants they have screened through before they got to you. Understanding the role will also help you to answer this question better. If you feel that you do not understand the role enough to articulate your value to the company, don’t be afraid to say,

“To be able to differentiate myself, it really needs to be tailored to the current needs of your company. Would you be able to share what your expectations from this role? Perhaps, once I understand the role better, I can share with you how I can fit into the role and exceed your expectations.”

7. Not asking good questions

One indication of a good candidate is one whom the hiring manager can learn something from. I remember going away from many excellent candidates and learning so much from them until today (yes, even in that short hour of interview, all things are possible!). Needless to say, they’re all part of my A-Team now. One of the candidates who challenged me most was one who asked me at the end of the interview:

“So may I know how will you measure my performance in this interview? I would like to ensure that I will be reviewed fairly.”

I was taken aback to be honest, by her directness and yet respected her for making me think twice about how I reviewed a candidate. She went on to be promoted as a team lead within a few months of her joining.

So much can be deciphered directly or indirectly from an interview, and while I do believe that first impression matters, your true character will surface in that first meeting if the hiring manager asks the right questions to probe. What’s more sustainable for you is to strive at developing good professional character and values in your work, to be able to nail your interviews.