Job Candidates Do the Darndest Things

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek January 24, 2011

Tossing a beer can into a trash bin outside the employer’s reception area on the way into an interview?

Hugging the hiring manager at the end of the interview?

Those are among outrageous blunders job candidates have made, according to the results of a CareerBuilder survey released in January 2011. The findings are from an online survey of 2,482 full-time hiring managers in the U.S. conducted in November and December 2010. Other over-the-top mistakes include:

  • The woman who blew her nose and lined up the used tissues on the table in front of her.
  • The man who talked about an affair that cost him a previous job.
  • The person who ate all the candy from the bowl while answering interview questions.
  • The person who wore a hat that said “take this job and shove it.”
  • The person whose friend interrupted the interview to ask how much longer it was going to last.
  • The person who brought a copy of a doctored college diploma.
  • The person who provided a detailed list of how the previous employer made him mad.

“The goal of any interview is to stand out from the other candidates and ultimately land the job, but make sure you stand out for the right reasons,” CareerBuilder’s vice president of HR, Rosemary Haefner, said in a news release.

Mia Melle, president of West Coast Property Specialists Inc., wishes she could take job candidates aside and clue them in to their missteps. Most of the time an interviewer knows within a few moments of meeting the applicant whether the candidate has a chance of being hired, she told SHRM Online.

“That may seem harsh or superficial, but I’ve been in the position of hiring people for over 10 years and it’s the truth. Unless what starts coming out of your mouth is exceptional, I’ve made up my mind in the first three seconds or so.”

Other things that can contribute to a bad impression: a limp, clammy, cold or even bone-crushing handshake; being inattentive; reeking of perfume or tobacco.

“Whatever you do, do not smoke before an interview,” Melle said. “All I can think about is them stinking up our office every day and having to leave every hour to go smoke.”

Display Sanity

Sometimes the last few minutes of an interview can be the candidate’s undoing, like the guy who nodded his head to the side as the interview drew to a close and said, “Bob and I are really excited about working here.”

“Who’s Bob?” asked Cameron Herold, founder and CEO of BackPocketCOO, who was handling the interview.

The candidate again nodded at his shoulder as if to infer a little man was sitting there.

“Bob—he’s kinda like my alter ego; he’s with me wherever I go,” the man replied.

“I almost died laughing,” Herold told SHRM Online. He wrapped up the interview and said, ‘Hey, hope you guys have a great day.’”

The candidate smiled and thanked him.

“I think he was sure he’d landed the job,” Herold said.

Display Good Judgment

HR4Change founder Tony Deblauwe didn’t give a second thought to the large handbag one candidate carried into the interview—until it started to move and emit noise.

The woman had brought her two-month-old puppy along because her dog trainer had insisted that taking it everywhere for a few weeks was critical to the bonding process.

Deblauwe continued the 30-minute interview with no canine interruptions.

“The person did not get the job based on other qualified candidates,” he said, “but I did relay to the hiring manager that the lack of judgment in this case was a potential concern for me.”

Display Politeness

Punctuality and politeness might seem like no-brainers during a time when the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering above 9 percent.

Think again.

Skye Callan, who handles hiring for CKR Interactive Inc.’s marketing and development departments in California, still remembers the job candidate who did well on the phone but failed to show for the in-person interview.

“I didn’t get a call until the next day to inform me that [the candidate] had a flat tire,” Callan said. “I understand that circumstances like these are unavoidable, but I would have appreciated a call or e-mail the day of so that I could let my colleagues know.”

It left her wondering if the candidate would act the same way in the workplace.

Display Professionalism

Shilonda Downing, founder of Illinois-based Virtual Work Team, received an e-mail from a candidate explaining that he didn’t answer her phone call because he had another interview that day “and he needed to take a break from that process.”

He got a break alright.

“I don’t call back anyone,” Downing said, “who demonstrates a poor attitude or lack of professionalism before the interview has even begun.”

Put Away the Phone

Answering a cell phone or text during an interview is a common blunder, according to 71 percent of HR professionals in CareerBuilder’s survey.

Sandi Vidal, who has 15 years in HR and staffing experience, still shakes her head over the candidate who had a 10-minute phone conversation with a potential employer while in the middle of another interview

Vidal is executive director of Christian HELP, which works with the Central Florida Employment Council to help job seekers prepare for interviews. Other faux pas she related to SHRM Online:

  • The professionally dressed candidate who wore sunglasses perched atop her head. It gave the impression, Vidal said, of “just passing through.”
  • The woman who talked about losing her last job because she underwent surgery, then pulled up her shirt to display the scar.

Be Honest on Your Resume

Information on resumes is subject to verification, but this fine point seems to elude some candidates, such as the finalist for a job who claimed that he had earned a bachelor’s degree from a reputable university.

Problem was that Greg Szymanski, SPHR, HR director at Geonerco Management LLC in Seattle, couldn’t verify it. A call to the university confirmed that the candidate had attended the school and completed the course work, but he did not graduate or receive a degree because of the several hundred dollars’ worth of unpaid campus parking tickets he’d accumulated.

“When I told the candidate this,” Szymanski said, “he asked if we would pay those fines if we decided to hire him.”

The man did not get the job.

The resume of another candidate indicated that he had a bachelor’s degree from a university whose name Szymanski didn’t recognize. Research showed it was a degree mill under investigation by state and federal authorities for handing out bogus degrees and diplomas based on students’ life experiences.

Szymanski called the candidate and asked him about his resume and what he did to earn his degree. When he asked the candidate if he knew his alma mater was under investigation and why, the next thing Szymanski heard was a dial tone.

Re-think the Jokes

Employers like questions from candidates—it usually demonstrates thoughtful research into the company—but nearly one-third of HR professionals told CareerBuilder not asking good ones is a common mistake.

And a jokey question can go horribly wrong. That’s what happened to one young man who was asked if he had any questions about the company, recounted Barry Maher, author of Filling the Glass (Barry Maher & Associates, 2007) and a frequent consultant on hiring decisions.

“At first he looked surprised by the question itself. Then he furrowed his brow, thought for a moment and came out with, ‘Cross-dressing isn’t a problem is it?’

“He sounded perfectly serious. After a few moments of enduring the stunned silence he’d created, he tittered a bit and nervously added, ‘Just kidding, of course.’ I’m sure he was kidding, simply trying to make a joke,” Maher said.

“But worse than the issue of whether or not it was an inappropriate joke, it didn’t come out sounding like he was joking.”

The young man was not invited back for a second interview.

Friends might get your sense of humor, but a job interview is not the place to take your show on the road.

Dress Appropriately

Kristine Baranowski was vice president of a small local bank in Arizona that was hiring a vice president for its mortgage department. One candidate with an impressive resume presented well during the phone interview and was invited to an in-person interview.

The day of the interview a woman walked in wearing torn tennis shoes, a too-small tank top and Daisy Duke shorts.

“I was in shock when she introduced herself. She simply said she had been riding her horse with her parents while they were in town. I have horses, too, and that outfit was not appropriate for riding … and was beyond inappropriate for an interview.”

The interview proceeded, but before the candidate rode off into the sunset, Baranowski told her that the bank was “looking for someone with a more appropriate professional image.”

Then there was the woman who followed a completely different dress code, according to Jack Williams of Atlanta-based Staffing Technologies Worldwide.

The job candidate was applying for a job with a Fortune 500 company. The company was so impressed with her phone interview that it fast-tracked her hire and flew her in to interview with the principal manager in the San Francisco area.

“The night before the interview, the recruiter told the applicant to dress to impress. The [woman] arrived on time but in five minutes the interview was over,” Williams said. The reason: The applicant arrived wearing a “Star Trek” uniform.

“ ‘Dressing for success,’ he said, “is now not a phrase we use to prep people for interviews.”

It’s Like Dating

“Everyone knows you should research a prospective employer, and yet very few people go deep enough,” said Anatomy of Success (self-published, 1998) author Ronald Kaufman. He advises job seekers to research the company as if they were buying its stock.

Find out about the company’s culture and values, its location, its earnings, the outlook for its products and industry, the changes that have occurred at the company in the past 12 months, who its competition is, who are its leaders and how long they’ve been at the company.

He recommends checking the company’s website, Yahoo Finance, Facebook and Twitter pages, and Standard & Poor’s, value Line and brokerage reports so you can walk into the interview fully prepared.

“A key to getting hired is to convince the interviewer that you want a career with their company, not just a job. Like dating, I want someone who wants me and who’s looking for a long-term relationship.”

What Kaufman doesn’t want is to see the person who comes into the interview carrying a messy briefcase filled with food wrappers and a T-shirt; the person who asks staffers personal questions about him, and the person who is rude to the receptionist.

Those are among blunders that have prompted him to eliminate job candidates for consideration.

Then there is the candidate who showed up an hour early for the interview and asked Kaufman to rearrange his schedule; the woman in the revealing blouse who struck a provocative pose and said she would do anything to get the job; the candidate who turned a newspaper around on Kaufman’s desk to read it while Kaufman took a call and the candidate who arrived in a very dirty car littered with papers.

“These kinds of mistakes can seem unimportant,” he said, “but when you interview 30 to 50 people for a job, even the slightest error gives you a reason to eliminate someone and narrow the field down to the top few candidates.

“People need to remember that the hiring decision, after all the analysis, usually comes down to a gut feeling. It’s either going to be positive or negative, rarely in between. Not standing to greet someone can be enough to eliminate someone.”


Reacting quickly and gracefully to a blunder can save the day. That’s what happened to a job finalist for a large health care client.

The man was well spoken and had the skill sets the company sought.

“You could sense his passion,” said Kevin O’Malley, SPHR, chief HR strategist for Sterling Staffing Inc. in the greater Boston area. “This candidate was excited about his work” and in his excitement he rocked back and forth in his chair as he talked.

Suddenly there was a great cracking sound as the chair broke.

“Everything was moving in slow motion, and the only thing you see is this man’s shoes with his feet straight up in the air.

“We were all stunned. In this moment of complete silence, the next thing you hear is this loud [flatulent] noise coming from the candidate. My heart went out [to] him, and I was sure the candidate wanted to just die from embarrassment.”

Without missing a beat, the man gets up, looks at everyone, says ‘now that just knocked the wind out of me,’ and continues his presentation like nothing happened, O’Malley recalled.

“The hiring manager then stands up, stops the interview and says to the candidate, ‘you clearly demonstrated that you have the ability to think on your feet as well as off your feet, and when you get completely sidetracked with what seemed like an embarrassing moment you continue unshaken. When can you join our company?’

“The moral of this story,” said O’Malley, is “just when you think you made the biggest blunder, stay focused and you can come out smelling like a rose.”

Related Article:

Dress to Impress, Not Stress, the Hiring Manager, HR News, November 2010


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