Over the course of my career I have scheduled thousands of interviews with hundreds of hiring managers at a wide array of companies and organizations. I have learned that although no two managers look for the exact same set of skills or behaviors, there are recognizable patterns in the feedback I receive when a candidate is not presented with a job offer.
Obviously, if you are unable to demonstrate the basic fundamental skills necessary to be successful in the job, anything else that happens during an interview is irrelevant. No amount of preparation or coaching on interview techniques can help if you simply are not qualified.
Job seekers should find it helpful to know where others have stumbled in interviews, specifically when skill level was not the sole (or even primary) reason provided for a candidate’s rejection. Over the years, I have repeatedly heard the same feedback from hiring managers when a candidate didn’t get the job. Here are some of the most common causes of failed interviews where the applicant’s skills were adequate. Make sure none of them apply to you:
- “Candidate has wide breadth but little depth.” The “jack of all trades” response is not uncommon, particularly for folks who have perhaps bounced between different companies and roles too soon to hone their craft. Having experience working in diverse environments is almost always a positive, but only if you are there long enough to take some deeper skills and experience away with you. Companies will seek depth in at least some subset of your overall skill set.
- “Candidate displayed a superiority complex or sense of entitlement.” This occurs most commonly when a candidate subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) expresses that he is only willing to take on certain tasks if hired. Candidates who are perceived as team players may mention preferences, but will also be careful to temper those comments by acknowledging their willingness to perform any relevant tasks that need to be done.
- “Candidate showed a lack of passion.” The lack of passion comment has various applications. Sometimes the candidate is perceived as apathetic about the job opportunity at hand or as uninterested in the hiring company. If you are interviewing for a position in one field but enrolled in a graduate program in an unrelated discipline, interviewers may suspect that your true interests lie elsewhere. Regardless of the source of apathy, this perception is hard to overcome. If you have no passion for the business, your profession, or the people, chances are the interview is a waste of time.
- “Candidate spoke more about the accomplishments of co-workers.” This piece of feedback seems to be going viral lately. Candidates apparently ramble on about other groups and teams that were responsible for the success of their projects, yet they fail to dig deep into their own contributions. This signifies to interviewers that perhaps the candidate is either the least productive member of the team or is simply unable to describe his own duties. Give credit where it is due to your peers, but be sure the primary focus of the dialogue is on your personal achievements (and how you can repeat them for your new employer).
- “Candidate seems completely unaware of anything that happens beyond his/her desk.” Repeatedly giving answers such as “I don’t know who handled that” or “I’m not sure how that worked” can be an indicator that you are insulated in your role, or that you don’t have the curiosity to learn what others do at your company. As the most successful companies seem to be continuously moving toward increased collaboration between teams these days, this lack of information will be a red flag for potential new employers.
- “Candidate more focused on one specific skill than on the overall job responsibilities.”Although rare, this seems to trouble managers a great deal, and it’s often a symptom of a “fanboy” complex. This is a candidate who shows such deep passion for 10% of the job that it is doubtful he/she would even bother to consider the other 90%. When a potential hire talks incessantly to evangelize one relatively minor aspect of their job, companies often (and should) show some reluctance to hire the person.
- “Candidate’s claimed/résumé experience ≠ candidate’s actual experience.” Embellishing the résumé and overstating accomplishments is a tradition that goes back many generations. A blatant lie on the résumé is obviously a serious no-no, but even some minor exaggerations or vague inaccuracies can come back and bite you. The most common example is when a candidate includes a popular and trendy skills buzzword on a résumé, yet when asked about it during interviews can do little more than properly pronounce the buzzword itself. Including items in a skills matrix that are not representative of your current skill set will raise immediate trust issues that are impossible to overcome.
- “Candidate’s experience is not ‘transferable.’” If you have worked for the same company for many years you are no doubt very adept at doing things the way your company does them. You may have become so insulated and set in doing things a certain way that the learning curve in a new environment could be perceived as too steep. Hiring managers may worry that you will struggle to adapt to a new environment. It’s what Morgan Freeman’s character Red describes as becoming “institutionalized” in the film "The Shawshank Redemption": “Man's been here 50 years. This place is all he knows…Believe what you want. These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. After long enough, you get so you depend on 'em. That's ‘institutionalized’."
Keep these points in mind before your next interview and when considering your next career move and hopefully you won’t have to wonder, “Why didn’t I get the job?”