Ladders 2020 Interviews Guide: #Interviewfails

Hi Readers,

The 2020 update for my best-selling Ladders Interviews Guide is out now and available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.  I’ve included a brief excerpt below.

This updated version is designed to make your 2020 interviews go smoothly.  Whether you’re interviewing for better pay, a better job, or simply to maintain lifestyle insurance for you and your family, the third edition of Ladders Interviews Guide gives you the essence of what you need to know in about 90 minutes.

Ladders Interviews Guide provides 49 common interview questions and answers, best practices and expert advice on questions to ask in an interview, how to answer behavioral interview questions, and interview tips for fast-rising and mid-career professionals.  Along with its companion guide, Ladders Resume Guide, they make a great pair of helpful guidebooks for you on your 2020 adventures.

Here’s the excerpt I promised you…

We all have pet peeves, blind spots, and character flaws.  Occasionally they sneak into your interviews…

Coming out of business school, I’d scored a great interview opportunity with a top investment firm in New York.  I’d had a few great rounds with the team, and on this particular day, I was meeting with a “name” partner — one of the big guns who had founded the firm and whose name was on the door.

This senior partner was the kind of imperious fellow who’d later be photographed in Bermuda shorts riding ponies on his Carribean estate in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition.  Frankly speaking, not my cup of tea. So when he dropped my least favorite interview question of all time — the question that forever marks you as a careless, sloppy nitwit because it is so meaningless and begs for such phoniness — I snapped.  

Yes, it was that awful old #interviewfail: “What’s your greatest weakness?”

So I guess my impishness got the better of me, and I looked him straight in the eye and replied: “Brevity.”

And not saying another word, stared politely right back at him.  Probably with a little bit of a wise-ass grin, as the seconds stretched along into a nice quiet awkward impasse.  It was pretty juvenile, and I’d let my joker get the better of me. Things went downhill from there, and the interview ended with a polite “don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out” pat on the back a few minutes later.

I’d blown the interview and felt like schmuck.  OK, maybe 50 percent schmuck and 50 percent vindicated avenger of suffering interviewees everywhere.  But in any event, it was a great opportunity and I’d killed it with a smarmy, smart aleck reply.

Something similar — a goof, a slip, a personality quirk — has happened to you before and will happen to you again.  At some points in your career, you’ll really botch an interview. Like everything worthwhile in life, you’ll just need to dust yourself off and try again — it’s how you handle the recovery that marks your professionalism.  In the best cases, you’ll at least have a funny story to share years later in a book you write about interviews.

There are also unfortunate questions — illegal, unethical, or immoral questions that interviewers ask candidates because it popped into their head, or because they want to know, regardless of the rule of law.  Most interviewers aren’t trained, so if you feel aggrieved, remember that they feel uncertain. While we wish that all interviewers approached their duties with the seriousness of purpose with which you approach yours, that’s generally an unfulfilled dream.

If you get callow, but nonetheless illegal, questions about race, pregnancy, disability, or any other aspect of your life about which you should not be getting questions, you’ll need to decide how to handle it.  You may perhaps decide to have a bit of sympathy (once) and then move the conversation back to the relevant stuff. At a later time or date, you can reflect on the experience and make a reasoned decision about whether you’d like to continue to engage with an employer, future colleague, or boss, with such a haphazard approach to weighty topics.  Blatant, purposeful, or explicit discrimination in these areas can not and should not be explained away — don’t talk yourself into believing it will get better, because it won’t. If this is how the firm behaves when it is trying to impress, things will be much worse day to day. It is best to turn tail and make for the exit as quickly as possible.

In 2020, it’s increasingly illegal to ask your current compensation.  This has always been an irrelevant question, and I’ve long counseled professionals to demur politely when asked.  After all, you’re negotiating the appropriate price for future work, not rehashing whether or not your past work was adequately compensated.  Focus the conversation on your target compensation or the pay level offered by the interviewing firm. This provides you with an opportunity to improve your pay, especially if your prior employer had a monetary setback or reduced wages for or non-performance-related reasons.

I mentioned earlier that some interviewers cling to weird superstitions and fixate on a pet question to which they ascribe inordinate powers of prediction.  “This is my lucky question” is the kind of magical thinking that does not belong in a modern interview, but nonetheless, there it is. If you can, dissuade your interviewer with a polite redirection.  “What are the best answers you get?” is a good way to not answer the question and move the conversation along.

And from their point of view, what don’t interviewers want to hear?  What are #interviewfails you should avoid?

They don’t want to hear you trash-talk your former or current employer.  On the principle of “bad-mouth thee, bad-mouth me,” your interviewer — legitimately — worries that if you’re willing to throw your present employer under the bus in a conversation with strangers, your interviewer, too, will face the same fate at some point in the future.  Never, ever, say a bad, mean or unkind thing — especially if it’s true — because that displays your ability to be an ingrate, a gossip, and a ne’er-do-well.

They don’t want to hear arrogance or timidity.  An overburdened sense of self, or an underdeveloped self-confidence are both worrying to employers in the heavily collaborative workplace of 2020.

They also prefer to not be on the receiving end of wandering, meandering, drifting answers.  If they’re wondering when your answer is going to end, you’ve gone on too long. If you’ve had problems with long-windedness in the past, practice until you get yourself out of the habit.  Your iPhone or Android have convenient timers and voice memo recording. Use some of your practice hours to record yourself giving two minute answers to the questions above. If you can’t bring the answer in under 120 seconds, then start over and do it again, and again, until you can.

Interviewers definitely do not want to be a forum for your alternative career development plans.  You may be tempted to dwell on issues such as how difficult the job search is (ok, yes it is, so how is talking about it going to help shorten your job search?), or what your perfect career would be (we’re not here to talk about your perfect career, we’re here to talk about this job and who we should hire for it).  You should resist the temptation.

Interviewers do not want to hear your company’s confidential information.  Well, ethical interviewers anyway. With the precedent of Uber coughing up $250 million for their Google recruit’s ethical lapses in mishandling trade secrets, no company should want to hear your employer’s secrets.  And I’m sure my readers share an ethical backbone that would prevent them from ever considering such a course of action in the first place.

Interviewers prefer not to hear all of your answers in corporate voice — you know, the tone and vocabulary of an annual report, rather than a backyard BBQ.  You should instead try to sound like the worker or coworker you are going to be — approachable, human, normal. A level of formality that falls between your college reunion and your spouse’s work event is probably in the right range.

At its essence, interviewers don’t want to see in an interview the behaviors they don’t want to see in the workplace.  If interviews are predictions of the career ahead, you want to be a positive, capable, effective person they’ll look forward to spending their workdays with.

And finally, you may ask, if so many interviewers are untrained, how likely is it that I’ll be on the receiving end of a behavioral interview, anyway?  Won’t the interviewers just be winging it the way they’ve always done? The answer is, in part, yes.

While interviewers are by and large not trained, the behavioral interview advice and training they are ignoring is nonetheless influential.  It seeps into the process through example questions, discussions of answers from people who do interview behaviorally, and expectations communicated from HR.  Further, the HR person or recruiter is far more likely to have undergone training for behavioral interviewing and is more likely to ask you questions similar in tenor and tone to those above.

In any event, behavioral questions being more substantial and piercing than prior generations of interview questions, if you train yourself to master these, you’ll be able to handle any others with style.