Five Interview Lessons Learned from Horrible Interviews

By Xin Lu on 16 January 2008 (Updated 16 June 2011) 16 comments

When I started blogging last year I wrote about the lessons I learned as an interviewer in the Silicon Valley.  Since then I have changed jobs and have not interviewed so many people.  However, my husband is currently in the midst of interviewing quite a few people for his company and he told me stories of some of the worst candidates ever. I think in the process of interviewing people I have learned quite a few lessons on how to be a good interviewee, and here they are.

1. Personal Hygiene Is Important - My husband told me that a candidate he interviewed literally "smelled like yak" and he and his officemate had to get a fan and blow the putrid air from the office for a couple hours after the interview. I have not met anyone in an interview that was intolerable because of their hygiene, but obviously it is a very bad idea to disgust your interviewers with body odor. The least anyone can do is to take a shower and put on some deodorant before an interview.  Here in the Valley people do not mind casual clothing, but being clean is still essential.

2. Do Not Schedule Conflicting Interviews - This seems like very obvious advice but some people still do not quite get it.  My husband said that another candidate started to take a phone interview with a different company in the breaks in betwen his interview and then took up the entire office for his other interview!  Then the owner of the office had to kick the candidate out. I suppose the candidate was not interested in my husband's company, but there is no need for him to be extremely rude and steal an office that does not belong to him.

3. Read Your Own Resume and Know What is on It - When I interviewed a woman for my last company I asked her how much she knew about MySQL and Oracle since both of them were on her resume.  She told me that she knew MySQL is made by Microsoft and Oracle is open source, and I asked her if she were sure and she nodded confidently.  Then I told her she was wrong and she confessed that she wrote those things because her friend told her to just write as many technical keywords as possible  so that job board search engines will pick her resume up by the keywords. The lesson here is that it is fine to put popular keywords on your resume as long as you actually know what they are.  It is also helpful to read your resume from time to time and refresh your memory about past projects.

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4. Do Not Give Your Entire Life Story - One of the most common questions I and many other interviewers ask is "tell me a little about yourself".  In one incident I did regret asking this question because a woman told me about her life going back fifteen years.  She included details such as sicknesses in the family and marital problems and other personal details.  It was a bit overwhelming to say the least and since she kept on talking I did not get to ask her very many questions.It is best to just summarize a few of the jobs you have had and leave out all the personal details since they should not be part of the workplace anyway.  It is perfectly fine to be friends with your coworkers, but making your interviewer your therapist is a big no-no.

5. Make Getting the Job Your Priority and Do Not Show Your Ulterior Motives -  A lot of the times it is hard to guess how an interviewer will interpret what you say. In my experience you should only show that you want the job for the job and nothing else.  For example, I have met a few candidates who asked me repeatedly if they could get greencard sponsorship.  The fact is I do not know because I am an engineer, but those questions show me that the candidate is needy and probably would take any company that sponsors them. Another candidate kept on questioning me if my company would go public and how much money would the employees get. The problem with that line of questioning is that even if I knew I cannot tell a random stranger that type of confidential information anyway. It is fine to join a company because you need sponsorship or if you want to be rich, but all those things will not happen until the company accepts you.

To sum it up, the basics to being a successful interviewee is to be professional, know your stuff, and keep your focus on getting the job.  After you get the job, you will have the power to get what you want from the company.

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Guest

There was a time when I didn't have hot water for a few weeks, What do you do then?

Guest's picture
Guest

Other options, if you can't stand the thought of washing in cold water...

* See if there's a local YMCA or university facility you could use [better if your lack of hot water is due to a breakdown rather than finances]
* If you're friends with your neighbors, ask to use their shower for very important events like that.
* Ditto if you have any family in town or anywhere nearby.
* And finally, if your pride will allow it, you might look into nearby shelters that have shower facilities for their residents.

Sure, there are circumstances when none of these would work, but they're a few alternatives. But seriously, there's no excuse for a lack of hygiene.

Guest's picture
zfolwick

I realize this is a really old thread- but I felt I could contribute:

not showering is a common problem among soldiers and hardcore campers. We use baby-wipes and baking soda or some other body powder. If you are somewhat tolerant of cold water, you could do the "washcloth and bucket" sponge bath- although that's pretty uncomfortable.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

simple, you can wash yourself with cold water

Guest's picture

I've got a few of these stories myself - like the time I was interviewing for a DBA to assist rewrite and then manage a rather complex cluster of applications for SQL databases. My first candidate told me the first thing she would do is rewrite the application in Access, because she knew that better than SQL. Ummm...thanks for coming.

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Jim

There was a time when I was young when I couldn't afford to pay my natural gas bill. I showered in ice cold water instead for about 3 months till I was back on my feet. Not having hot water is no excuse for smelling like a pig.

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Hamish

That's not a yak, it's a highland cow (AKA "heilan coo"!)

Thanks for the helpful article, though.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

You are right!  that's not a yak! It is still pretty cute though.  I edit my article to state "smelled like heilan coo!"

Guest's picture
Gil

I've done this when in a foreign country that only had freezing water... boil some water (electric tea kettle, rice cooker, whatever you got) and throw it in a small basin with cold water to make some warm water and sponge bathe. When you need to get clean, you'll find a way!

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

The boiling water method is actually what I grew up with in China in the 80s.  The hot showers are only available in these communal places.  Now most homes have water heaters, but when I was young we boiled water with coal blocks.  In the summer it's hot enough to just have cold showers and baths, though.

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Polenta

I guess this is the year-2007 equivalent of the late '80s story about the candidate who wore a Walkman and headphones, and told the interviewer "Go ahead, I can hear you over my music."

A friend in Santa Clara was interviewing a young man for an entry-level position. As they were talking, the young man's phone rang. He checked the display and started texting a reply while the manager was talking. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt: "Is everything okay? Is there some kind of emergency?"

"Oh no everything's cool. Go ahead," he replied, still tapping away.

She told him "You know what - why don't we reschedule for another time. I'll call you," and ushered him out the door.

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Shan-Oh

Hey - good advice! I interview fairly frequently - thought I'd share some of the no-no's we had.

I help do the interviews for a number of introductory positions with our state environmental agency. Most of the applicants are just graduating from the university with science degrees. Some of the 'highlights'

1. One applicant had his hands in his pockets and jiggled 'everything' constantly throughout the entire interview. It was very uncomfortable for both of us interviewers, because we couldn't even look at him with out our eyes being drawn to the action. If you have that kind of nervous twitch, for the love, bring something to keep your hands busy besides yourself!

2. Midway through an interview one lady stopped in the middle of her answer to dramatically inform us that the natural aura's were changing and that it would rain soon...too bad for her it didn't rain that day.

3. Showing up a little early is okay, but showing up an hour or more early, and demanding attention (water, clipboard, copies of her resume, coffee, etc.) is another. One gal showed up exactly one hour early, kept our admin busy with her needs the whole time, and basically made a very poor impression on the whole office before she even stepped into the interview room.

4. Reeking of desperation is also bad. One guy brought a picture of his two month old baby and showed it to us as 'his reason for needing this job' and basically had a pleading tone the entire time. Yeah, I felt sorry for him, but he didn't give us any other professional reason to hire him.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

haha thanks for these stories.  They are pretty hilarious.  I think sometimes people just being themselves a bit too much and oblivious to what others think. 

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Dalinae

The problems with visa sponsorship are that a foreigner cannot work legally without a visa and many companies refuse to sponsor people for visas. There is no point wasting your (and your interviewer's) time and energy with a company which will not sponsor you. Maybe there is a better approach than asking repeatedly during the interview (I always checked beforehand), but it is a legitimate and crucial concern.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Yup, visa sponsorship definitely is a legitimate concern, but usually the interviewers are employees who aren't familiar with the company's immigration policies.  It's probably best to ask HR beforehand like you said.

Guest's picture

Amazing just how dumb or self absorbed some folks can be.... as I'm in the job market it's good to know that I'm not really 'competing' against all of my competition.

Thanks for sharing!
Dave