Subtle Ways to Botch the Interview

The people who are interviewing you are hypersensitive and they'll play it safe.

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Michael Wade
One comment can vaporize your chances--just one offhand remark that somehow triggers an alarm bell. An ill-advised piece of jewelry or a tie that is a tad too loud will also do.

“She seemed way too interested in our vacation and sick leave.”  

“Did you hear his joke about community colleges? Well, my kid attends a community college.” 

“When I mentioned that we have an office in Paris, she asked, ‘When do we leave?’ I know she was joking but that seemed a little forward.” 

“He just doesn’t seem like our type. Did you notice those shoes?” 

[See the best careers for 2010.]

In other words, many of the people who are interviewing you are hypersensitive and perhaps even a little nuts. They know that anyone they hire will be a walking billboard for the quality of their decision-making. They are scared of picking an embarrassment. 

Remember this: They want a safe choice far more than a brilliant one. To paraphrase an old line, Einstein, Churchill, and Edison would not make it past Personnel. 

So you need to put them at ease. You have to convince them that you are what would be regarded in their industry as a safe choice. A responsible selection. And notice the weasel words regarding the industry. What is acceptable with a bunch of PR creative types would not pass in banking. Those wild management consultants tolerate eccentricity far more than law firms. Accountants have a different culture than architects. And engineers? I recall a client who said her company’s main diversity concern had nothing to do with race, sex, or national origin. “It’s the engineers versus everyone else,” she groaned. In her case, anyone who could bridge that gap was a valuable choice. 

[See how to bring drama to the interview.]

A librarian once told me that he worried whenever applicants told him how much they loved books. Why? He was afraid they would spend too much time reading and not enough time working! His perspective was a reminder that subtle objections can come from strange directions. Try to imagine the types of fears that your interviewers may carry into the room. Some will be obsessed by meeting deadlines. Others will stress quality. Many will be concerned about customer service issues. Community relations and knowledge of technology may govern. And that doesn’t begin to account for cases in which some obscure specialty is wanted. 

So what are some general rules on how to appear to be a safe choice? For most jobs, a safe choice comes across as stable but not boring; responsible but not prudish; insightful but not intellectual; friendly but not pushy; tasteful but not snobbish; energetic but not frenetic; courteous but not obsequious; street-wise but not coarse; informative but not pedantic; creative but not crazy; ethical but not preachy; and competent but not intimidating.  

As for appearance, the less it becomes an issue, the better. It is far better to have them listening to your words than staring at your shoes.

Michael Wade writes, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.