Interview Red Flags and Warning Signs

Jan 24, 2019

By John Putzier, SPHR and David Baker, SPHR

Although the interview and other screening tools are the key factors that we should use in making hiring decisions, bear in mind that there are other factors that can also weigh for or against a candidate’s hire ability.

The interview does not start when you begin asking the candidate questions in your office. It starts when he picks up the phone to call you and continues when he gets out of his car in the parking lot, when he greets (or doesn’t greet) your receptionist or other staff, and throughout the entire process of interactions.

Here are some red flags and warning signs that should make you think twice about any candidate:

1. Arriving late for the interview. This should be obvious, but unless there was an act of God preventing the applicant from being on time, why in the world would you expect her to come to work on time?

2. Treating your staff dismissively or disrespectfully. Remember the good old days when we had secretaries? Mine was also the receptionist in the employment office. Wanda would bring the person’s application and résumé to me for review while he was sitting in the reception area.

All she would have to do was let out a sigh and a look of disgust when she laid the paperwork on my desk, which then elicited a “What’s wrong, Wanda?” from me. At which point, she would say, “Oh, nothing. He’s just a little arrogant” or something of that nature. If the candidate treats my secretary with disrespect before he is even hired, how do you think he is going to behave on the job? This is when he should be on his best behavior!

3. Not wearing appropriate attire for the position. This is a variable. A janitor applicant might be acceptable in clean jeans and a T-shirt, although dressing up a bit would be a plus, whereas someone applying for a management position should be wearing proper business attire. Again, it’s a sign of judgment and awareness.
A good rule of thumb is, “Dress for the next job you want, not the one you have.” In other words, wear aspirational attire!

4. Meet and greet. Did the person extend a confident handshake, look you in the eyes, smile, and greet you? This goes for both men and women. Even a cold, clammy handshake is better than no handshake at all. Again, this indicates judgment and confidence. Note: Some cultures deem eye contact and hand-shaking inappropriate.

5. Talking too much. Despite the 80/20 rule (the job candidate should speak 80% of the time and the interviewer 20%), there are times when a candidate goes overboard or over limits, particularly when she lacks the judgment to know when to shut up or what not to share. This usually happens when you are using open-ended questions and/or clarifying statements.

6. Speaking negatively about past employers and experiences. Even though the story might be true, this is an indication of the applicant’s not taking responsibility for his own actions, or at least sharing what he learned from the experience, instead of placing blame on others for everything.

7. Asking about money too soon. Granted, we all work for pay. However, good judgment says this should not be one of the first questions a candidate voices. It shows a lack of concern of the employer’s needs and priorities, demonstrates short-term, self-centered thinking, and is just poor form.

8. Showing up unprepared. This could include not bringing a pen and paper, not having her résumé with her, knowing nothing about the organization, and other such omissions. If someone approaches a job interview by the seat of her pants, it’s a pretty sure bet that she will approach her job the same way.

9. Using inappropriate language. Even if your culture is laid back and informal, it never justifies a candidate’s use of vulgarity or inappropriate language. This is an indication of a lack of class, self-awareness, and self-monitoring. If he is that willing to let his guard down in a job interview, can you imagine what will happen with customers and coworkers?

10. Being vague in her responses. A key purpose of a job interview is to delve into the details of the candidate’s qualifications, that is, beyond the résumé. If she is vague, nonresponsive, or evasive in her responses, even when you use appropriate questioning techniques, then either she has something to hide or she is just unable to articulate her thoughts. Either way, it’s no way!

11. Exhibiting poor body language. Yes, body language is a legitimate barometer. Beyond the meet and greet, handshake, eye contact, and smile, if the candidate slumps in his chair, or even puts his feet up, that’s a sign. He is on stage. A candidate should have decent posture and demonstrate that he is alert and attentive (or at least awake!) by sitting up or, even better, sitting on the edge of his seat. Leaning back, folding his arms in front of him, and other such behavior indicates closed-mindedness, or at least defensiveness, lack of confidence and/or lack of attentiveness, and maybe even arrogance. Whatever it is, it isn’t a good sign.

12. Not asking any questions. During the interview setup, let the candidate know that she can ask you questions at the end. When you are done asking your questions, ask the candidate what questions she has. If she has none, or if she just asks what the job pays, this could be a red flag. It demonstrates a lack of depth of thinking, lack of understanding of or interest in a job or an organization, or a lack of preparation, and it is also somewhat insulting to you as an employer.

© 2011 John Putzier and David Baker. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from The Everything HR Kit, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (

About the Author(s)

John Putzier, SPHR and David Baker, SPHR John Putzier is president of FirStep, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in workplace performance. He is also a popular international speaker and author of the best-selling Get Weird! David Baker is managing director and CEO of Human Capital Advisors, LLC, an HR consulting firm that specializes in turnkey HR solutions.