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Avoiding Fright—and Flight

It’s not unusual for hiring managers to inadvertently alarm job candidates during the interview process. Here’s how to keep from waving potential red flags.


Overselling. Oversharing. Avoiding eye contact. Watching the clock. Using loaded phrases—such as "We have a fast-paced culture"—that should have been axed years ago.

Managers who behave in these ways while interviewing job applicants run the risk of causing potentially valuable employees to run for the hills.

Despite this year's headline-grabbing layoffs, the number of open jobs in the U.S. is still greater than the number of candidates available to fill them. Many job seekers can thus afford to be choosy, making them more likely to look further afield if they're turned off during a job interview.

In fact, instances in which applicants are frightened away by interviewers are "probably common," says Amit Kramer, an associate professor of labor and employment relations who studies the relationship between work, family and health at the University of Illinois ­Urbana-Champaign.

In a recent SHRM survey of more than 1,000 recruiters, 24 percent said it was somewhat or very common for hiring managers to ask inappropriate interview questions during the hiring process.

"Interviewees who have more to lose are more likely to be scared away than interviewees who have nothing to lose," Kramer says. "An interviewee who has a good job, skills that are desired in the job market and many other options is likely to give up on a job much more easily because of a small thing the interviewer said than an interviewee with no options of other employment."

Interviews Are Mutual

No matter how attractive a position is, the quality of the interview process can be make-or-break for job applicants. "Candidates should be evaluating employers and their representatives as much as they're being evaluated," says Abigail R. Kies, assistant dean for career development at the Yale School of Management.

In a survey of 1,000 job seekers done earlier this year by Downers Grove, Ill.-based IT trade association CompTIA, nearly half of the respondents (46 percent) said they have turned down a job opportunity because of perceived red flags when they were interviewed by hiring managers. "Red flags with hiring managers or poor work culture pose a significant risk to successfully recruiting job candidates for employers," the study's authors wrote.

With that in mind, managerial experts warn against offending behaviors that can turn a promising candidate frosty to your company's overtures. But engaging in the following tactics can help you better present your job openings as ­attractive opportunities.

Don't Overshare

Some small talk and banter are helpful at the start of any interview, but oversharing—even if managers think they're saying positive things about their organization—can be off-putting to candidates.

"One thing I can think [that is a red flag] is trying to oversell how wonderful your organization is, to the level that it almost sounds like you're about to join a cult," Kramer says. "An interviewer who acts as a salesperson rather than a source of reliable reflection of the organization might send the wrong message to an interviewee."

That said, even the slightest criticism of your organization, no matter how offhand or humorous, can also leave a bad impression. 

"Be a brand ambassador," advises Hannah Johnson, CompTIA's senior vice president for tech talent programs. "As a hiring manager, what you do reflects on your entire organization. Information—good and bad—travels faster than ever."

Asking an applicant to share too much can be equally disturbing to a candidate. 

"Students tell of interviewers making small talk and asking about their relationships and families," Kies says. "While hiring managers may authentically want to get to know the full person, it can make candidates feel like their answers may influence whether they get hired. For example, candidates with young kids worry that mentioning them puts them at risk of not receiving offers that require travel or long hours. Unfortunately, these situations and concerns occur even more with women."

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Avoid Loaded Words and Phrases

Most candidates have grown wise to workplace descriptors that may once have been cutting-edge during an interview but are now past their prime. "I have heard from interviewees … that they were scared away by an interviewer who told them how the organization is 'like a family' where 'people hang out together after work,' " Kramer says. Such supposed "selling points," he adds, might be understood as code for "no boundaries in the workplace." Similarly, candidates may react negatively to other frequently used job descriptors:

  • "Fast-paced environment" could be understood as "70-hour workweeks."
  • "Looking for self-starters" might be construed as little managerial direction or feedback.
  • "Applicants should be humble" might give the impression that managers dislike workers with opinions.
  • "Must hustle" could conjure images of a sweatshop environment.
  • "Must wear many hats" might raise fears of being handed too many tasks.

Train Your Managers

Kies recommends providing ongoing interview training for all employees ­involved in the hiring process. "Sometimes, senior ­managers aren't required to regularly repeat those, and they can be brief, useful reminders to all of us," she says.

Training can help interviewers frame solid, thought-provoking questions. "Not everyone shines with standard questions," Johnson says. "Come prepared with questions that 'peel the onion' as to who the candidate is as a person, their motivations, etc. Come prepared with answers about your organization that may be relevant to what's important to the candidate as a person."

Training can also help interviewers avoid land mines. "Some hiring managers may not understand what's appropriate or not these days," Johnson says. "They may need to adjust their interview style to ­virtual versus in-person. Or they may be new to ­interviewing Gen Z candidates."

Prioritize Interviews

Johnson acknowledges that today's hiring managers are "exhausted and overworked."

"When it's a candidates' market, the burden usually falls on the hiring manager," she says. "Frustration is another contributing factor. Sometimes there's a disconnect between the job description, the screening process and the interview." 

Regardless, Johnson says, make your candidate feel welcome, seen and heard. That is, don't be late, don't seem rushed and don't appear distracted.

"Hiring managers should consider their interview time just as sacred as any other meeting," Johnson says. "Showing up late for an interview without apologizing or providing a heads-up can send the wrong signal. Be present and engaged. While the interview may not be the most important thing in the hiring manager's day, it is likely that it's the most important part of the candidate's day."

Recruit Diverse Representatives

When candidates meet with an interview panel composed entirely of people who don't resemble them, "it's very difficult for them to see themselves working at the organization," says Keri Higgins-Bigelow, founder and CEO of livingHR, a women-owned consulting and recruiting firm. "This … is sometimes less of a conscious factor, but we know a sense of belonging is important to candidates."

If you're not getting any traction in your candidate search after three to five interviews, it could be time to rethink your hiring approach. You may need to re-­evaluate your interviewers, interview questions, job ­description and perhaps your entire hiring process—from application to offer.

Bad Interviews Don't Always Mean Bad Jobs

"Red flags wave when the candidates experience a drawn-out process with too many interviews, too many steps in the selection process and significant time lapses between steps," Higgins-Bigelow says. "It sends a message that the company is ineffective at decision-making, has poor time management, lacks empathy, doesn't have a humanized approach, doesn't trust their team and is generally ­bureaucratic with too many hoops to jump through." 

But a poor hiring process may not be an accurate reflection of employee experiences at a company. Kies has convinced a few of her Yale students to accept jobs after counseling them to separate an interviewer's questions and behavior from the overall company. She warns, however, that people like her aren't always there to cover for a company's poor interviewing process.

"It takes a lot of positive counterexperiences to balance one slip-up," Kies says, "and how an organization responds to the [interviewer's] conduct speaks volumes."   

Dana Wilkie is a freelance journalist based in Ormond Beach, Fla. 

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