by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Every aspect of marketing yourself in the job search is highly subjective from the hiring
decision-maker’s viewpoint. Their view of resumes is subjective; cover letters even
more subjective; and by the time we get to the interview phase, opinions could not be
more subjective. I’ve participated in enough interviews from the hiring side of the desk
to know that one interviewer can be blown away by a candidate’s interview performance
and salivating to hire him or her, while another interviewer may be lukewarm toward the
same candidate based on the same interview.
In the communication venue that is the job
interview, where subjectivity reigns and chemistry and rapport are often keys to success,
hiring decision-makers at the senior and executive levels still agree on candidate interview
behaviors that annoy them — sometimes to the extent of sinking the interviewee’s chances.
Through a list of the top 20 executive interview pet peeves, hiring decision-makers reveal the
landmines aspiring executives can avoid in job interviews.
1. Candidate treats receptionist, assistant, or other lower-level staff poorly
or brushes off preliminary interviews with mid-level staff. A 2009
Office Team reported that six out of 10 executives polled said they consider their
assistant’s opinion important when evaluating potential new hires. Candidates who give
support staff short shrift “are usually the executives who say ‘people are our greatest asset,’
but then treat staff like they are a financial drain, ignoring them unless they need them,” reports
Linda Konstan of LMK Associates, a human-resources consultant with 25 years of experience
in HR. “I’ve had receptionists give me feedback on executive candidates, and sometimes
we haven’t hired that executive, even if he or she was most qualified, because of the way the
receptionist was treated — with condescension, arguing about completing an application form,
telling the administrative assistant what type of coffee they want before being asked if they’d
like a refreshment,” Konstan says.
Candidates are probably unaware of what a damaging
effect their shabby treatment of support staff can have. “If I ever see an example of a
prospective candidate treating the assistants or receptionist in a demeaning fashion, they
may as well leave before the interview begins as they are history in my book,” says Ron
Kubitz, recruiting/training manager at Brayman Construction Corp., Saxonburg, PA.
The same caveat about treating support staff well applies to respectful interaction with
those, such as human-resources staff, who are conducting preliminary or screening
interviews. Linda LoCicero, operations manager/founder of The Staffing Company,
Birmingham, MI, is frustrated by candidates who “act impatient, like I’m the precursor to
the ‘real’ interviewer.” If you think early interviews with entities such as human-resources
professionals can’t derail your chances, read this story from Jacquelyn Saad,
president of Inter-Change Consulting Inc., Toronto:
“Some years ago I was senior vice president, human resources, in a large American
bank’s Canadian operation. We were recruiting for an executive-level trader. The most
senior executive in trading was interested in a candidate whom he knew from a position
he held previously at another bank.” Saad explains that although human resources
normally conducted the first interview, she agreed to hold the interview with this candidate
last. “I arranged for the candidate to come in on a Thursday afternoon. Shortly before
he was scheduled to arrive, he called to cancel the meeting telling my assistant that he
had an emergency meeting and needed to reschedule. The appointment was rescheduled for
the following afternoon. He arrived in my office wearing jeans and a leather jacket — and this
was years before we even contemplated casual Fridays. He sat slouched in a chair, was
unresponsive to my questions, and seemed annoyed that he was required to spend his time
speaking with me. I came to learn from him that the emergency he canceled the previously scheduled
meeting for was a trip to his barber.
“When I refused to give hiring approval, I was informed by the senior trading executive that an offer
had already been made and the candidate would be starting on Monday. I suggested to the executive
that he now had a great problem as I would not be issuing an offer letter from my department nor
would I authorize the individual being added to payroll. So he could start on Monday, but he wouldn’t
get paid through my department.” After much cajoling by the senior executive who wanted to make the
hire, Saad agreed to add him to the payroll. “He turned out to be a disaster, and we were required to
terminate his employment sometime later,” Saad says.
2. Candidate dwells on economy-inspired negativity or how hard it is to get a job.
“I’m seeing a trend of lower-level executives asking up front about severance packages for failures
or mergers — before we even get to the meat of the interview,” Konstan notes. That’s just one
symptom of candidates who, rendered skittish by a troubled economy, are bringing a sense
of doom with them to their interviews. Executive job-search coach Rita Ashley, author of of
Job Search Debugged
cites candidates who use much of the interviewer’s time bemoaning the fact that it is hard to
find a job. “They’ve just admitted they are a loser,” Ashley says. She compares one of her
coaching clients who is networking relentlessly and “is so connected he has had interviews,
90-minute-long informal meetings, and introductions nonstop” to another client, a CEO who “has
none of this activity and complains. His interviews are very short.” Ashley empathizes with “the
beleaguered interviewer [who] has to play mommy instead of interviewing a prospective new
hire.” Ashley’s advice: “OK, it’s a tough job market. So, toughen up. Nothing sets a bad tone in
an interview more than complaints. Don’t be seen as a victim; be seen as highly desirable.”
She recommends instead that candidates be optimistic and upbeat. “It is your self-confidence
and positive attitude that will win you the next round of interviews,” she says.
Lee E. Miller, a former Fortune 1000 head of human resources and the author of UP: Influence Power and the U
Perspective — The Art of Getting What You Want, agrees: “Employers want to hire George
Clooney, not George Costanza. We are looking for candidates that are confident in what they
have to offer a company.” Ashley exhorts candidates to “leave all the suffering at the door. If
asked how the search is going, mention how pleased you are with the new connections to strategic
people and their eagerness to help. Find something positive that shows you are proactive and a
winner, not a whiner.”
Think also about the long haul, not just the immediate future. “I want someone with a passion to do the work —
not just be out for the money,” Konstan says. “That executive needs to prove to me he or she has long-term goals,
not just short-term. And asking for severance deal prior to an interview is short-term in my book.”
3. Candidate gives long, boring, unfocused, rambling responses to interview questions.
“Interview responses that drag on and go off on tangents … signal a BS artist who does not have command
of the language or understand the question or the background or expertise to sum up a situation and get to
the core issues at hand,” says Cheryl Roshak, an executive recruiter with more than 25 years of experience.
“This is how he would handle himself in an executive role on the job,” says Roshak, who is president at
Cheryl Roshak Associates, New York City. “Interviewees should be able to convey their past career successes
in an clear and concise manner,” says Ken Heisler, director of SALO Search, LLC, Minneapolis, MN. “It’s imperative
that they get to the point of their narrative and not let any answer bore the interviewer. If the interviewer’s eyes
begin to wander, chances are they are no longer actively listening to the candidate’s response.”
4. Candidate talks the strategy talk but does not walk the execution walk. “I want an executive
who can prove that he or she can execute the vision — even via delegation,” Konstan says. “I want someone
who can take us from strategy to tactical to action to response/reaction and improve the bottom line both for
short- and long-term goals.” For David Hughes, vice president human resources at Access Insurance Holdings, Inc.,
Atlanta, the need for a candidate who can talk about execution depends significantly on the position and the
needs of the role. “It’s often pretty easy for experienced execs to regurgitate book-learned strategies and
techniques, and that’s why they need to be able to talk about specific examples of how they personally made the
difference in the past,” Hughes advises.
5. Candidate is arrogant and expects to be treated differently from lower-level candidates. “Often
an exec candidate comes in with an air of arrogance that they are above and beyond looking for a position,
greater than other people or their subordinates, and will only look at certain types of positions where they are
in total control of a group or department,” Roshak says. “There is no flexibility in them. In a work situation, they
are hard to please and find fault with their staff much of the time.” For Nichole Woody, “this behavior is an indicator
of how the candidate will interact with people that report directly or indirectly to them.” Woody, who is an
outsourced HR professional at Professional Placement Services in Solon, OH, believes that executive
candidates “should have the interest of the company in mind with each interaction. Lower-level employees
will not likely be inclined to go above and beyond when they do not sense appreciation for their efforts.
Additionally this behavior demonstrates that this candidate will not ‘get his or her hands dirty,'” Woody says.
S. Wichman, performance consultant at Wichman & Associates, Los Angeles, notes that “research today
supports the urgent need for senior leaders to build strong relationships, interact with talent throughout the
organization, smile, show support, use leadership skills every day, and give credit to groups and teams
of people, not always themselves.” For Wichman, “ego-driven, reclusive and arrogant managers are dinosaurs.”
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search
terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate
publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author,
and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers,
an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling
in the job search at A Storied
Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior
from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic
Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking
Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press),
as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with
Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your
Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide
to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her
or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.