Job-hunting – Why do bad job interviews happen to good candidates?

Posted on: January 23, 2015

Written By: Iona Bain

Few people can honestly say they’ve never replayed a faux pas in their head and groaned: “What was I thinking?” Everyone has moments they wish they could travel back in time to and change. But if the gaffe is made in a high-stakes situation like a job interview, the desire to turn the clock back can be overwhelming.

Unfortunately, until scientists come up with a working Tardis this isn’t an option. In the meantime, the next best thing we can do is learn from others’ mistakes before making them ourselves. So with this in mind, here are five car-crash interviews (including one of my own) and some advice on how to avoid it happening to you. Some are funny, some not so – but there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of them!


 Interview catastrophe #1 – Keep calm and take your time.

About a year ago I was invited to an assessment day for a job with a broadcaster. Along with all the usual psychometric tests, one of the exercises was a game. Each person had 10 seconds to look at a Lego model hidden behind a screen, before describing what they saw to the others. The group had to build a model, based on this description, with the pile of bricks in front of them.

Eager to demonstrate my leadership qualities, I volunteered to go first. I took one look at the model and blurted out: “It looks like a sphincter!” (If you don’t know the word, I’d suggest caution when Googling it.) The room was silent. I staggered on: “You know, like the big Egyptian cat statues…”

The word I was looking for – as the assessor helpfully pointed out – was ‘sphinx’. The model didn’t even look much like a sphinx. In the end it turned out to be a duck.

Take the time to think before answering questions. Under pressure even very short pauses can seem to stretch out for an eternity, but don’t speak before you have something sensible to say. A well-considered response is always going to impress an interviewer more than a quick one. I made the mistake of saying the first thing that popped into my head, and it may well have cost me the job.


Interview catastrophe #2 – Do the right homework. 

When Susan interviewed for a job with the Edinburgh Military Tattoo – a hugely popular annual showcase for military music – she thought she’d done her homework thoroughly. “I’d spent hours researching the show,” she says. “When I walked into that interview room, I knew the TV viewership stats for crying out loud!” But despite having vast quantities of background information at her fingertips, there was one crucial thing she hadn’t prepared for. “The interview roughly went like this: ‘Have you ever been to the tattoo?’ No. ‘But you’ve watched it on television?’ No, never. ‘Well, what can you tell me about it?’ Um, nothing really.”

When researching an organisation make sure to check you’ve not overlooked anything obvious. Many job descriptions demand a ‘passion’ for the organisation’s work, but realistically you’re unlikely to be ecstatic about every place you interview for. That’s OK, but a good grasp of their core business is crucial. For one thing, if you don’t know it beforehand, it’s almost impossible to blag on the spot.


Interview catastrophe #3 – Be confident. You made it this far…

“I got shortlisted for two broadsheet newspaper graduate schemes. On both occasions I was faced with two old-school Fleet Street bores,” says Rachel. During one of the interviews, the line of questioning turned to what Rachel’s parents do for a living. It came across, she says, as an attempt to figure out “if I blended in with their old-school toff image.”

Interviewers can come across as intimidating – even if they don’t mean to – and especially if the organisation is renowned for having a stuffy culture. But remember that if you’ve made it to interview, you’ve impressed them so far. Keep this in mind and act confident, even if it is just that – an act. Research shows that people form an impression of character in less than a second, based on just one word. Confidence without arrogance, a clear voice, firm handshake, and gently mirroring the interviewer’s body-language (but not too much) all serve to impress on interviewers that you and they are on the same wavelength.

And if the organisation really is the type of place that would reject someone because of the school they went to or their accent, perhaps the bigger question is would you really want to work for them anyway?


Interview catastrophe #4 – Don’t lie, you’ll probably be found out.

It can be very tempting to tell an interviewer what you imagine they want to hear, even if it’s not quite true. One friend – too embarrassed to give his real name (let’s call him Joe) – remembers a job interview he had with a political party. “They asked why I hadn’t become a party member yet, and I said I was committed to the cause but just hadn’t got around to it.” Things turned sour when the interviewers revealed they had heard from a staff member (and acquaintance of Joe’s) that he was, in fact, a member of another party. “I remember the word ‘mercenary’ was used about me during the interview,” says Joe.

This might be an extreme example, but experienced interviewers are able to tell the difference between bluster and the bona fide article. It’s one of the reasons they’re there. If you make a claim on your application, make sure you’ve thought about how it can be backed up in a face-to-face interview.


Interview catastrophe #5 – Get creative with transferable skills. 

This one’s a bit of a cop out; it isn’t really a catastrophe at all, but it does show how a bad experience can be turned to your advantage.

These days Dawinder works as a theatre producer, but it took her some time to land the dream job. “I had every single rubbish temp job going while getting into the arts,” she says. The key to success lay in finding the connections between her temp work and the skills required in her ideal career. “It’s terrible working your way up, but with the right attitude in every job you always learn something valuable to add to your backpack of work & life skills.”

You don’t have to look far before you start to find relevant job skills in everyday life. Play music in a band? You probably communicate well as part of a team. Work in a call centre? It takes considerable persuasive powers to keep someone on the line once they realise it’s a cold call. Wrote essays for uni? That takes research and communication skills. Everyone has transferable skills, the real challenge is identifying them.


And the rest…

Get a good sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, breathe deeply and don’t overindulge in coffee before your interview. Basically, remember all the things your Mum ever told you about going for interviews!

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