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11 Interview Red Flags No Manager Should Ignore

Mar 09, 2020

Happy businessman shaking hands with a female interviewer in office

Have you ever been so eager to fill a job that you overlooked some things--or ignored your own instincts? 

The key to avoiding bad hiring decisions: Arm yourself ahead of time by knowing the most common (and revealing) interview red flags. Here's a list to get you started. 

Interview Red Flag #1: Showing up late

"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." - Maya Angelou

You'll have to be the judge on this. But if a candidate is late, and doesn't give a reason or call ahead, what does that say? At best, it signals a lack of awareness. It may also indicate a lack of respect for others' time.

In determining what to look for in job candidates, respect has to be high on the list. And respect for others' time is one of the highest forms of respect. 

Interview Red Flag #2: Showing up unprepared

The ideal candidate will be one step ahead, not two steps behind.

Example: Your job posting says "Be prepared in the interview to give a 5-minute presentation." The candidate tells you how they would present. That's not what you need and not what you asked for.

Showing up prepared signals a candidate who listens and pays attention to detail. 

Interview Red Flag #3: Not really grasping the job requirements

Great interview question: "What do you see as the most challenging part of this position?"

The job candidate's answer will tell you (1) how familiar they are with the requirements and (2) what their idea of a "challenge" is. 

Red flag: when the candidate's biggest challenge is something fundamental to the job.

For example, during a practice interview, I once asked a teaching candidate, "What do you see as the most challenging part of this position? She said "Classroom management." 

But that's what teaching is. Or at the very least, a core requirement.  

Interview Red Flag #4: Lacking passion or enthusiasm 

This is tricky, because not everyone expresses passion in the same way or to the same degree. You don't need Tony Robbins.

But you can tell if the person is engaged in the conversation. You can tell if they're happy to be there. If they're not, consider that another red flag. 

Interview Red Flag #5: Lacking common sense

Yes, we all get to be human. No, not every foible is a deal-breaker. But some are.

For example, if a candidate says "My dream is to open my own business," think about why you would want someone like that on your payroll. You need a contributor, not a future competitor.

If at any time a candidate licks their fingers, tries to hug you, or mentions how they "just winged it" on their interview prep, consider those blazing red hot flags. You think I'm joking.

What other real-world examples would you add to this list? Please leave a comment below.  

Interview Red Flag #6: Wanting the job for the wrong reasons

There's nothing wrong with wanting work to be meaningful or rewarding. But some job candidates take it too far. When you ask in the interview "Why do you want this job?" beware responses such as: 

  • "I need health insurance." (What about what you can bring to our team?)
  • "This is a great company." (Okay. But why do you want to work in our department?)
  • "Working here would be fun." (As the saying goes in the entertainment field, "If you want fun, buy a ticket.")

I once worked with an art professor who had spent part of her career at SeaWorld. After she was hired, she was told, "You were the only candidate we interviewed who didn't say 'I want to work here because it would be fun."

Instead, she shared her experience and passion for educating students. She connected her background and interests to the employer's needs--that's what you need in a job candidate as well. 

Interview Red Flag #7: Candidates who can't articulate their value

When a candidate says "I'm a go-getter" or "I have fresh new ideas," it's all too easy to take them at their word, especially if they're young and/or you like them.

But for the sake of your team and a good hiring decision ... dig deeper. As in, "That's wonderful! I'd love to hear an example." 

Sometimes you'll hear about an accomplishment that confirms your good hunches. Other times, you'll hear crickets. 

Interview Red Flag #8: Mistreating (or badmouthing) anyone

And by "anyone," that means anyone in the room or outside the room--from the receptionist to the candidate's former employer to anyone's former spouse. 

Often, a casual question at the start of the interview will reveal something important about the candidate's disposition. Casual questions may include "How's your day so far?" or "Did you find our office okay?"

Pay attention to how the candidate responds.

Incidentally, Harvey Mackay recommends asking "What did you do this morning?" It's a loaded question, but again, the answers are revealing. Did the candidate watch cartoons or read The Wall Street Journal?

Interview Red Flag #9: Not having any questions

In nearly every interview, the job candidate has an opportunity to ask questions of the interviewer. Having no questions may show a lack of preparation, interest, or assertiveness--maybe all three. 

Look for questions that express the opposite of these things--and are appropriate to the stage of hiring. 

Interview Red Flag #10: Supposedly not having any weaknesses

By now every candidate should be prepared for the "What's one of your weaknesses?" question. Beware the candidate who doesn't have anything substantive to share. "I'm too nice" doesn't count.

What you're looking for: humility, self-awareness, and a capacity for learning, growing and changing.

But make sure the candidate's answer isn't something that will haunt you later--or frustrate you. Real-world responses I've heard to the weakness question: 

"I'm not ambitious."
"I oversleep."
"I have a temper." 

Who has time for that? Better answers include something real yet manageable.

I once had an interviewer ask me, "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?" Though I didn't recognize it at the time, it was a variation of the weakness question. 

After stalling for a moment, I said that sometimes I could be pretty intense (which is true) and I sometimes needed to dial it down. Not sure that was the right answer. But I did get hired and the job worked out.

Interview Red Flag # 11: The candidate who's so good you decide not to check their references

When I was fresh out of grad school and working as a career counselor, a business-owner friend called to share the good news about the person he was going to hire. 

"Have you checked her references?"

He had not. I pressed him to do that. A few days later, he called back to thank me. The candidate's references had told a whole other side of the story. No job offer.

Score one for the University of San Diego (USD) graduate counseling program.

Conclusion

When you hire a new employee, you are not just filling a slot. You are fundamentally altering your workplace culture. Will the person you're about to hire make your workplace better? Make it a yes.

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