Leadership Advice #78: The Worst Job Interview Advice I’ve Ever Been Given

I had my first “real” job interview in the middle of my senior year in college.

It did not go well.

A few weeks before the interview, I had attended a mandatory session for business school students about how to perform well during a job interview. I’m sure we learned some invaluable lessons, but unfortunately my takeaway was this:

It’s okay to take time to think about a question before you answer.

I am here to tell you that in a job interview, this is terrible, terrible advice.

So here’s what happened: I walked into this job interview in my oversized suit. It was with BP, as I recall. I handled the first few questions just fine, and then the interviewer asked me a hypothetical question about an issue at work.

I didn’t have a quick response, but I had been prepped with the idea that it would be okay if I took a second to think about it. So I said, “If you don’t mind, let me think about that for a second.”

Here’s my stream of consciousness that followed:

Okay, I need a good answer to this question. Conflict at the workplace, how would I deal with it? Come on, Jamey, do this! Okay, okay, focus before you start to think about the fact that you’re still thinking about the question. Wait, you’re doing it. You’re no longer thinking about the question–now you’ve gone meta. How long have you been thinking? It feels like somewhere between 30 seconds and 20 minutes. Maybe they haven’t noticed how long this is taking. Maybe you’re perceiving time differently than they are. Maybe every movement you make appears in super slow motion to them, like in The Matrix.

At this point I’m standing up in front of the interviewer, mimicking Neo’s movements while Agent Smith shoots at him.

Again, the interview did not go well.

Here’s the thing: You need to be able to think on your feet at your job, and you need to be able to prove you can think on your feet at the job interview. Basically, you need to be able to BS. It’s an important skill. You may not start off with a great answer, but as you talk you respond to the interviewer’s responses and improve your answer as you go. It’s the exact opposite of sitting there in silence thinking about The Matrix.

So please, if you’ve heard this advice, disregard it. Prove you can think on your feet.

What’s the worst (or best) job interview advice you’ve ever heard?

11 thoughts on “Leadership Advice #78: The Worst Job Interview Advice I’ve Ever Been Given”

  1. Heading to an interview this morning…..so, this was a pertinent read!

    I think your advice about being able to BS is spot on. But also, know specifically how to BS about your career. I’m a teacher and so when they ask me a difficult question, I usually start with an anecdote from the classroom to show my experience and give myself time.

  2. Oh Jamey. As someone who interviews people frequently, I can assure you that a slight delay when answering a question is about the least harmful thing you can do, as long as it’s not on every question! Freezing up is not ideal, true, but it happens to a lot of people. If you can recover and give a good answer, I’ll let it slide. Sure, I love it when a person can think on their feet, but I understand that interviewing is pretty nerve-wracking, so I try to be humane about the whole thing.

    Here is a list of things that people have done in interviews with me that are far, far worse than that (in no particular order):

    * Crying–not once, but twice.

    * Telling me about your prostate cancer during your interview (AKA, the first time we’ve ever met). Dude, it’s amazing that you beat cancer, but don’t leave me with that mental image when you’re trying to make a good impression. Leave your prostate out of the conversation.

    * Telling me a story involving blood and meth. This one happened about two weeks ago.

    * Showing such bitterness towards an old boss about a fairly benign disagreement that all I can think is that I definitely don’t want you working for ME! “Can’t handle conflict…check!”

    * Rambling for so long on each question that we only get through 4 in the whole hour instead of the 11 I wanted to ask. Time’s up!

    * Not just pausing–but completely blanking–on so many questions that I’m suggesting or feeding you answers just to get the damn thing over with. This person was obviously unprepared, and it showed.

    * Using the “Tell me a little bit about yourself” ice breaker to tell me your entire life story. Believe it or not, there is a wrong way to answer this question, and that is it! It should be a 30 to 60 second highlight reel of your career and accomplishments, not the time when tell me that your dad has been married 4 times.

    * Not adapting to the personality/tone of your interviewer. With one candidate, I used some very obvious sarcasm, and her response was so serious. Sorry, but we won’t be a good fit to spend 40 hours a week together.

    * On the flip side, thinking that just because I made a small joke that we are now BFF’s and you can drop any professional pretense and be super casual. You are still being evaluated. Be PERSONABLE but not FAMILIAR with your interviewer!!

    * Wearing a bluetooth headset throughout the whole interview. That was the same guy who cried.

    Obviously I have a love/hate relationship with interviewing. You never know at first who is going to crash and burn. Will it be entertaining or just painful? But finding the needles haystack that are a perfect fit is worth it!

    • Katie,

      Wow, this is comment of the month material right here! Well done. And I particularly appreciate your input as a fellow interviewer. I agree that I don’t mind little pauses, but I think I embraced that advice a little bit too much, and I would caution people from doing the same. Interviews aren’t the time to sort through your thoughts. Preparation was key, and I was not prepared.

      My favorite vignette that you shared was this one: “Not adapting to the personality/tone of your interviewer. With one candidate, I used some very obvious sarcasm, and her response was so serious. Sorry, but we won’t be a good fit to spend 40 hours a week together.” That’s such a keen observation, and well said. I feel like that’s such a huge part of human connection and engagement, even beyond interviews.


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