10 Ways to Screw Up a Job Interview

If you come through a job interview without messing up and damaging your chances you are going to be ahead of most of your competition. Here are some of the most common mistakes made by job applicants during an interview.

Many books have been written on the interview process and the things that you need to do to in order to succeed in interviewing. When you have read one of these books, your head may be swimming with numerous hints and tips that you will try to execute in your next interview.

All that advice is well and good, but the thing all job seekers should strive for is simply not to screw up their job interview. If you manage to come through a job interview without messing up and damaging your chances you are going to be ahead of most of your competition. This article was originally written for private sector job seekers, so some of the ten items may not apply to federal interviews. Here are ten sure-fire ways to mess up in an interview.

1. Arrive late for the interview. The last thing you want to do is to show up late. An employer expects you to arrive timely for work; so showing up late for an interview really gets you off on the wrong foot. Some ways to avoid tardiness are:

  • Getting complete instructions from the interviewer or the HR department. If possible ask them approximately how long it will take to drive (or take public transportation) to the interview site from where you will be coming. If it is a large company or plant, ask which building the interview is in and ask where you should park.
  • If possible do a dry run, go to the interview site at the approximate time of day for which your interview is scheduled. This will give you a good idea of how long it will take.
  • Give yourself at least a 15-minute cushion. It is far better to arrive early, than to arrive after your scheduled time.
  • If all else fails (traffic jam, Presidential motorcade, act of God) call the interviewer to inform him or her that you will be late and the reasons for your lateness. Ask if they can still fit you in, or if you should reschedule.

2. Forget to perform a “Jam Check.” If you have arrived with time to spare, you can use that time to double check your grooming. Head for the rest room and check yourself out in the mirror. Make sure your clothes are as they should be and check your hair and your teeth. Very few things will turn off an interviewer like spinach caught between your teeth.

3. Dress inappropriately. Regardless of the level of job for which you are interviewing, you should be dressed neatly and cleanly. For professional jobs, men should wear suits and women should wear professional office attire. For other jobs, neat business casual clothes will suffice. Flamboyant clothing or jewelry is a no-no. You do not want anything to distract attention from you and your qualifications for the job.

4. Don’t participate in small talk. Many interviews begin with a little bit of small talk to set both you and the interviewer at ease. At all costs, avoid religion and politics as topics. Safe topics for small talk are the weather, sports (How ‘bout those Cubbies!) and whether you had any difficulty finding the location of the interview. Commenting on pictures or other items in the office is often very effective. However, make sure you are in the interviewer’s office, rather than in one that was borrowed for the interview, before you comment on office accoutrements.

5. Be unable to talk about your work experience as listed on your resume. Many interviewers are not experienced and even some of the more experienced ones will use your resume as a guide for the interview. Be prepared to speak in depth about everything you have on your resume. If you can, practice interviewing with a friend or career counselor. Practice may not make perfect, but it will sure help you polish your interview skills and will put you towards the front of the pack.

6. Be unfamiliar with the job. The more you know about the job and the company (or agency), the better you will be able to present yourself as the solution to the employer’s needs. If you are in a serious job search, you might have done a lot of company research before you got the interview. If you haven’t done such research, do what you can before the interview. Sources for information can be:

  • The Internet. Either the company’s web site or sites dealing with the occupation or industry.
  • The library. Trade periodicals or books such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook are helpful.
  • Networking. Talk to people who are familiar with the job or company. Even if you don’t know anyone with the knowledge you require, you very likely know someone who knows someone who has that knowledge. Networking begins with asking questions, so don’t be afraid to ask others for information.

7. Fail to listen for clues about the needs of the employer. Many interviewers begin the interview by giving you a background of the company and its needs. Treat this information as a gift. Once you have this information, you can tailor your responses to how you can help them fulfill those needs. The employer is looking for someone to solve their problems and, if you can convince them that you have the ability to do so, you will be far ahead of your competition.

8. You don’t know when to stop. If you have practiced you will be able to clearly and concisely respond to their questions and let them know of your accomplishments. Avoid rambling responses that get off the topic of the interview. Do not be afraid of silence and do not attempt to fill in all “dead air.” If you are unsure as to whether the interviewer has gotten enough information from your response, ask him or her if your response was satisfactory.

9. Fail to ask insightful questions. Generally, at the end of the interview, you will be asked if you have any questions. Do not use this time to ask about benefits or when you can take your first vacation. The questions you ask should show your interest in the position. You might want to ask questions such as:

  • What are the long term plans for this organization? For this position?
  • What do you think are the most important skills for this job?
  • How would my progress be evaluated?
  • Do you have any questions I could answer before I leave?

10. Fail to send a thank-you or follow-up letter. A thank you letter has several good points.

  • It will remind the interviewer of you and your qualifications. Few individuals actually send such letters and sending one should make you stand out.
  • It can be used to expand on answers you gave during the interview.
  • You can beef up areas where you felt you didn’t do well in the interview.
  • You can add additional information – the things you “wish you would have said” during the interview.

Throughout the interview process, keep in mind that the process is a competition. You do not have to be perfect, just better than your competitors. By avoiding these ten ways to screw up an interview, you will have a good chance of winning the competition.

Agencies can request to have John Grobe, or another of Federal Career Experts' qualified instructors, deliver a retirement or transition seminar to their employees. FCE instructors are not financial advisers and will not sell or recommend financial products to class participants. Agency Benefits Officers can contact John Grobe at johnfgrobe@comcast.net to discuss schedules and costs.

About the Author

John Grobe is President of Federal Career Experts, a firm that provides pre-retirement training and seminars to a wide variety of federal agencies. FCE’s instructors are all retired federal retirement specialists who educate class participants on the ins and outs of federal retirement and benefits; there is never an attempt to influence participants to invest a certain way, or to purchase any financial products. John and FCE specialize in retirement for special category employees, such as law enforcement officers.