Make-or-Break Interview Mistakes

By Liz Ryan, BusinessWeek

Some people go into human resources thinking that it's like social work. Here's a news flash for anyone who thinks in those terms: If you're the kind of person who wants to adopt every stray kitten and advise every needy person you meet, you may want to find a different profession.

The plain truth is that HR people have limits on how supportive they can be. They can help employees only to the extent that what's good for them is good for the company. They can help job candidates even less because the HR person's job is to evaluate applicants -- and eliminate from consideration those the company just doesn't need.

A perfect example of the limits of HR compassion involves the job seeker who needs professional advice. Every HR person has stories about people who have come to interview in wildly unsuitable attire, or who have said something so outrageous within the first five minutes of the interview that the rest of the conversation was a waste. As much as they may joke after the fact, most HR people -- myself included -- dread these situations.

Your natural instinct is to be helpful, to tell the candidate where he went wrong. But you can't; you might get sued, you might offend someone. And in any case, there's no benefit to the company in being so, well, caring. Instead, you clam up, smile that lips-together fake smile that corporate HR people are so good at, and say to the candidate: "We'll be in touch."

So, if hapless job seekers are making the same mistakes during interview after interview, who's going to tell them? Unless their friends somehow see the picture, no one. That task falls to me, right here, right now. Pay attention to these suggestions for avoiding five major "we're done" interview behaviors, and tell your friends:

Dress for the occasion.

I interviewed a gentleman for a product-manager position who was smart and friendly. He arrived in a lovely wool suit, but wearing a necktie with a large Taz on it -- you know, the Tazmanian devil. Now why, I couldn't stop thinking, did this guy wear a Taz tie to an interview? He didn't mention it, so it wasn't some sort of rapport-building device.

I sure as heck didn't mention it, but the Taz tie took up more and more space in the room, until I couldn't tear my gaze from it. Why a Taz tie, in a business job interview? Does the guy own the whole Looney Tunes character collection? It was too weird -- a big deal. Why didn't he wear a different tie?

You don't have to wear Brooks Brothers to a job interview, but you have to look businesslike. There are still plenty of funky startups that would welcome a job seeker in one of those 1950s bowling shirts that Kramer used to wear on Seinfeld. But if you're applying at a standard, buttoned-down company, dress the part. And please, gentleman: If you have any '80s vintage three-piece suits, donate them! Burn them! (If three-piece suits are back and I missed it, somebody let me know. But the '80s ones are unmistakable, and they have to go.)

Restrain the camaraderie.

It's great to be friendly. In fact, it's essential, unless you're applying for an actuarial job (just kidding). But engaging in too much camaraderie with a complete stranger is clingy and pathetic.

I interviewed a woman who had worked for a company for which I had also worked. She had arrived about six months after I'd left. At the interview, she asked about a few people we knew in common from the other company. Of course, I knew them. Sally Jones? Yep. Joe Bartlett? Roger that. Jose Quintera? You betcha. After six or seven names, I thought, look, lady, we know the same people. But she kept going, until she'd run down the whole employee roster. It was spooky -- and it didn't help her case.

Be pleasant, be warm, but keep interview banter professional. This is not a new friend of yours; this is a person who is interviewing you for a position. Go ahead and recommend a dog groomer if the conversation turns to dogs, but don't offer to take her dog to the groomer the next time you go. You think I'm joking? I'm not.

Control your nerves.

You get nervous on a job interview. That's normal. But if you can't sit relatively still for an hour, you'll want to work on that. I've had candidates get up and pace around the room mid-conversation. I've had them walk over to the window, look out, and begin commenting on the street scene. These are not pluses. I've had a candidate say: "I'm tired of sitting. Can we walk somewhere?"

Now, if you worked for the company for even one day, and we were chatting, and you said: "I'm tired of sitting. Want to walk somewhere?" that would be perfectly fine. Everyone gets tired of sitting. But if I'm an HR person -- well, I am an HR person -- and I walk up and down the blocks-long building many times a day escorting job candidates to and fro, then I need to sit sometimes. Once we get to a job offer, we can negotiate terms. Right now, it's sort of -- sorry to say this -- my terms, and I want to sit some more.

Avoid offering too much information.

I want to know everything about you, professionally. I want to know your interests and what motivates you. The history of your car's mechanical problems? I couldn't care less. Too much information, or TMI, is a big problem for some job seekers. Every interviewer has a different tolerance level, but I think I'm pretty forgiving. That's why it's so astounding when people go past even my limit -- and start talking about their difficult relationships, or their problems with their bookies.

Somewhere, buried deep in their subconscious, I believe that such people have the idea that employers give jobs to people who seem to really, really need the job. This is not the case. Keep personal issues to yourself. Once we become workmates, we'll have time to learn all about your soap operas, and you'll learn about ours.

For now, clam up. If you're going into the third chapter of your saga about the horrible boss you left behind at your last employer, and I'm furiously taking notes, here's what I'm writing: Shoot me. Poison me. Kill me now. Kill me now. Please, please kill me now...

Cut the puffy stuff.

You want to promote yourself, I know. But too much puff is a huge turnoff to employers. The key to presenting yourself as accomplished yet modest is to introduce all self-promoting topics with an air of humble gratitude, even mild bewilderment. "I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I won the Nobel prize."

If, instead, you start every sentence with something like: "After I beat out two other guys for the VP spot, and then blew away the goals and made the last guy look like a turkey, well, you could say I became the Golden Boy," you need not finish. The interviewer will be jotting "not in this lifetime" on his little pad of paper.

By the way, there are certain initials that can follow your name on your résumé: M.D., PhD, and JD are among the most common. There are certain technical and professional designations that can sit up there, too: CPA, SPHR, and CFA are some of them. Also, PMP for project manager, and lots of others.

MBA is not one of them. An MBA is something you have, not something you are. Including MBA in your title is excessive self-promotion. Those three initials will help you every bit as much down in the body of your résumé (under Education, duh) as they would next to your name at the top.

Now that you have these hints, you should be unstoppable. Just remember the four P's: No puff, no pacing, no palling around, and no personal info. What did I forget? Oh, yes -- no three-piece suits and no Taz. Now go get 'em!

Next: Top 10 Companies Hiring This Week >>

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive. She can be reached at

Read Full Story