How to fail at job interviews

Busman’s holiday

Write about what you know, so the saying goes. I doubt it would qualify as a specialist subject on Mastermind, but I know a fair bit about job interviews. Since joining my first recruitment consultancy in 2001, I have interviewed several thousand candidates. I’ve also had plenty of memorable job interviews over the years, some more successful than others.

I thought it would be fun to look back on my experiences from both sides of the interviewer’s desk and put together a few top tips, which could help you prepare for your next job interview.

How to be remembered for all the wrong reasons

Let’s start with the standout meetings I have had with candidates, which were memorable for the wrong reasons. I will come on to how to make a more positive impact later.

Bear in mind that the vacancies these candidates were going for were professional, well paid, corporate communications roles…

  • There was the woman who was less concerned with discussing her skill set, more focused on finding a job which allowed her more time with her horse.
  • There was the 30-year-old candidate who brought her mum into her interview.
  • There were several gum-chewers; dozens of armchair slumpers; a couple of drunks and some who could barely string a sentence together.
  • When asked what skills he needed to work on, or where he felt there was room for improvement, one candidate responded with “I’m lazy, but I could work on that”.
  • One interviewee refused to take off his beanie hat and thick coat, despite the fact that we had no air conditioning and the temperature in the office was 25°c. He looked like a hitman hiding a sawn-off shotgun.
  • Do you ever end a phone conversation with friends or family with ‘lots of love’? A few candidates have left my office with that parting phrase – completely by mistake obviously. How mortifying.


Enough about you, let’s talk about me

I have had my fair share of interviews as a candidate myself. Before moving into recruitment, I was a PR consultant, moving around from consultancy to consultancy trying to find a professional home. After job hopping for six years, I realised I needed a career change.

Anyway, I have had many cringeworthy moments in interview situations. Let me tell you about a few…

Mr Brain’s Faggots

A very cool and well-known PR agency invited me for an interview at 6pm. I arrived at 5.45pm – I am ALWAYS early – introduced myself to the receptionist and was told to take a seat, facing the numerous TVs showing an Arsenal away match. After a while, a man emerged from his office and sat down next to me. He didn’t introduce himself but became more and more animated as the game went on. There was much swearing.

After about half an hour – long after my interview was due to start – Arsenal Fan turned to me and said “Looks like they’re going to lose, I suppose we should just get started” and led me into the interview room. He was the MD and my interviewer.

Bizarrely, the interview went well, despite my thinly disguised fury. He sent me away with homework, to write a PR strategy to support the fictional launch of a new range of meals by Mr Brain’s Faggots (a retro brand of ‘meat’ balls – if you know the brand you’ll understand why the inverted commas).

I did my homework, wrote my strategy and delivered the document by courier with a packet of frozen Mr Brain’s Faggots. A bit of fun which I hoped would make me more memorable than the next candidate.

What I didn’t factor in, because I didn’t know about it, was Arsenal Fan’s holiday plans. The package sat unopened on his desk, slowly decomposing over the next fortnight. He must have had quite the fragrant homecoming.

I've interviewed thousands of candidates and have been interviewed many times. This is how to prepare for job interviews and what can happen when you don't.

Sweet revenge perhaps? I didn’t get the job and I sometimes see Arsenal Fan at industry events. He doesn’t remember me. But I’ll never forget him.

Let’s call him Steve

The final stage of the interview process for one of the PR roles I went for, was to present to a panel on my biggest career challenge and how I overcame it. I’d prepared well and had a strong presentation to deliver. It started with a scene setting introduction, where I explained that my client was a wide boy, a narcissist and troublemaker.

“Let’s call him Steve” I said with a flourish. There was a ripple of laughter around the room, before one of the panel members announced with a smirk that his name was Steve. Oh.

Why hadn’t I listened to their introductions more carefully? I had to swallow my embarrassment and get on with the presentation.

I got the job. Also Reader, I married him.

I actually did.

Tell us a joke

We’ve all had those awful questions like ‘if you were an animal, what animal would you be?’ or other such nonsense. In one interview I was asked to tell a joke, which I was completely floored by. As the interview was for a charity PR job, of course I could only think of rude or politically incorrect jokes, which would have gone down like a pork chop in a synagogue. I told them I never remembered jokes and am rubbish at retelling them anyway. Got away with it, but didn’t get the job.

Here’s a clean one to use if you ever get asked that question:

Q: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?

A: A carrot.

You’re welcome.

Oh god there are SO MANY other embarrassing stories, this blog could go on for pages and pages, but I’ll stop there because my toes are beginning to curl.

Be prepared

I couldn’t have predicted any of those situations, but there are ways you can prepare for your next job interview.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, do your research. This requires more than a brief look at the company’s website. Have they been in the news recently? What are people saying about them on social media? How are they performing financially? Do you understand what they actually do/make/sell? Who is on their board? Who is interviewing you and what is their background?

Next, think through examples of similar work you have done and rehearse talking through them. Also think about challenging projects you’ve worked on, difficult situations you’ve handled and how you’ve overcome them. A good interviewer will ask you open questions, which require much more than yes/no answers, so try to remember all the successes you can bring up if asked.

There are some obvious interview questions that you can prepare for. Here are a few:

Tell us about yourself

This is a chance to give them your elevator pitch – ie what you would say to the CEO/Richard Branson/insert role model here, if you were in a lift and only had a few floors during which to sell yourself. This should be a brief introduction about your career in a nutshell and what you’re looking for next (which will obviously be just like the job you’re interviewing for). Keep it concise, positive and don’t give too much detail. The interviewer can explore your experience with specific questions.

Then breathe and don’t be tempted to fill any silence. Wait for the next question.

Why did you apply for this job?

You will have done your research so you’ll know what enticed you into this interview room. Was it the chance to work with inspiring people (who you know all about because you’ve done your homework on LinkedIn)? Or are you motivated by the challenge of the work/trajectory of the company?

It’s not advisable to make this about money or title, nor should this be an opportunity to gripe about your current role. ‘I don’t have anything else to do at the moment’ is also not a valid answer.

What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

This is a horrible question, but interviewers still use it and you should prepare yourself for it. Strengths should be easy to identify, weaknesses aren’t so easy. Many people fluff this question with nonsense about being ‘a perfectionist’ or ‘too caring’ or working too hard. No one likes a humble bragger and an interviewer will see right through this.

Nor should you confess to being lazy.

My advice is picking a real area for development, which isn’t critical to the job you’re interviewing for. For example if you’re interviewing for a job in accountancy, presentation skills might not be too high on the interviewer’s list of criteria.

Whatever weakness you choose, turn it into a positive statement by explaining how you’re working on it and developing that skill.

What are you most proud of?

I like asking this question as it tells me about the candidate’s motivation. If they’re proud of turning around a difficult situation, I know I can trust them in a troubleshooting role. If they’ve mentored a colleague through their career, they will most likely be interested in a role with management responsibility.

Think about this in advance and have a mini case study to talk through. What was the situation, what were the challenges and how did you address them? What was the legacy of those decisions/actions?

Why have you left/why do you want to leave your current role?

This is a tricky one. As a recruiter I really need to hear the honest, warts and all answer to this question, so that I can find a role that suits them better. However if you’re in an interview with a company (rather than a third party recruiter), you need to keep this answer positive.

So if you’ve been bullied at work, you might explain that you’re looking for a more supportive working environment. If you’ve been overlooked for a promotion, the more positive approach is that you’re looking for career development and training opportunities.

You get the picture.

I've interviewed thousands of candidates and have been interviewed many times. This is how to prepare for job interviews and what can happen when you don't.

You want more?

I have loads more interview tips and techniques – 18 years’ worth. But I don’t know if anyone’s interested in reading this, afterall it’s not my usual fare.

Please could you let me know if you’ve enjoyed this post and if you’d like more? Leave me a comment below. I’d also love to hear from you if you’ve had an amazing or terrible interview experience. Your story could make it into a follow up article.

If you have an interview coming up, good luck!!

Much love, Vx