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No Kidding: What Not to Say in a Job Interview

what not to say in a job interview

“My biggest weakness is my perfectionism.” Some classically cringy job interview answers serve as red flags. This one is among them. We were inspired by this CNBC article to ask recruiters and hiring managers their thoughts. Here are their top answers:

Don’t Ask Inappropriate Questions

You’re expected to ask questions during the interview process, but it matters what you ask and when. “How much paid time off do I get?” can be an acceptable question at the end of the process while nailing down compensation details, but don’t ask in your first interview, as one hiring manager lamented to us.

“We had [a candidate] ask what kinds of drugs we test for. I assume they wanted to know about marijuana since it’s legal in California, but still,” a California-based hiring manager admitted to us. Laws and best practices around marijuana testing, in particular, are changing rapidly. Do your homework on what to expect outside the interview room. And remember that in Texas, marijuana use is still highly regulated. Indicating it may be a problem for you in the interview process may be more than just a little risky.

Don’t Play Coy Or Hard To Get

We’re a bit baffled we need to include this one but, from what recruiters and hiring managers have told us, we do. “I had an interviewee answer the question ‘What makes you the best candidate for this position?’ with [something along the lines of] she thought this job would be a good start for now until she found something better,” shrugged one hiring manager.

Another told us that when a former colleague interviewed to work with her once more, she confessed to the potential new boss, “I heard this job isn’t too demanding; I’m not looking for challenges.”

A recruiter we asked cringed while remembering a candidate who told an employer during an interview that they’ve already accepted another job but still wanted to keep their options open.

Our advice here is simple: Don’t. Just don’t. Playing the “I’m too good for this” card will never work.

Watch Your Candor

Honesty is the best quality. Or is it? Being authentic yet professional in an interview requires a delicate balance of openness.

One former candidate recalls a time he miscalculated that balance completely. “Once I was looking for work, and I pointed out that my number-one goal was not to burnout. The thing was, I was already burnt out (as if getting a job was going to help). It’s cringy for me to recall that I was interviewing in that mindset. But I think it’s true to my feelings at the time.”

A professional in the education field remembers an applicant for an elementary position who expressed, when prompted on what grade she preferred teaching, “I don’t want to be a kindergarten teacher. I want to be a, you know, REAL teacher.”

Another hiring manager said a candidate once told her their best quality was that they knew when to quit a job.

Honesty is essential, but so is professionalism. It’s never a good idea to lie about your skills, education, and career motivation. But a job interview is not a therapy session, and it’s not a place to air out your weaknesses, either. Focus on what it is about you that aligns with the position and the company and highlight those positive attributes. Performance Education offers tips on how to achieve the right level of candor here

Don’t Say Too Little

Sometimes the mistakes happen in what is left unsaid. There’s a delicate balance between saying too much and not saying enough. One hiring manager told us a candidate who shined in all other areas just wouldn’t elaborate on answers to their questions. “Yeah, I’ve done that” isn’t enough of a response to a question about your experience in a specific area. Offer at least one good example of how you’ve mastered that skill.

“I asked someone to describe their work ethic, and they responded by saying that was a hard question, and they don’t know how to answer it,” another hiring manager told us. In this area, practice makes perfect. Note the experience and qualifications listed in the job description and come prepared with an example of each in your work history. Our previous advice on answering the dreaded “Why should we hire you?” question can help. It includes tips on preparing examples using the STAR method, using measurable results, and even admitting when a question has thrown you for a loop.

Skip The Questionable Humor

 “I know someone interviewing for a school position (not a teacher) who said he would ‘spank kids who misbehave,’ but followed with a ‘just joking.’ He wasn’t hired,” quipped another education professional.  

“My colleagues and I were interviewing someone fairly new to the medical speech pathology field with no hospital experience,” a medical speech pathologist told us. “When I asked her how much training she thought she would need from us, she said, ‘Oh, not much. How hard can it be?’”

Humor can be a great way to break the ice and show off your sparkling personality, but using it can be tricky. If you’ve ever been accused of being offensive, pay particular attention to how your brand of humor could be received. TopResume offers this advice on using the appropriate humor in a job interview, including staying away from jokes altogether and tying the humor back into something relevant to the interview.

Ways To Recover

In the end, we all make mistakes. There may be ways to recover, including these suggestions from CNN Business:

  • Tap the breaks. Take a deep breath (or three) and try to pivot the conversation away from you and back to the interviewer.
  • Use the post-interview thank-you note to elaborate on questions that you don’t feel like you answered adequately or details that might not have been clear.
  • Put your references on guard. Ask them to fill in perhaps any specific gaps you left open regarding your ability to do the job or fit the culture if given a chance.

And one more we’ll add: Talk to your recruiter. They can help you determine if the mistake you think you made could affect your chances as much as you believe it did.


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