Even in a tight labor market, job seekers need to make a good first impression. And you only have a brief window to do so. A 2018 CareerBuilder survey found that approximately half of employers know within the first five minutes of an interview if a candidate is a good or bad fit for a position—and sometimes sooner. Some candidates take themselves out of the running during the very first interview through their questions, comments, or actions, says Brianna Rooney, the “Millionaire Recruiter” and founder of technology recruitment firm Techees.
The CareerBuilder survey respondents reported on some of the most outrageous behavior they had seen. One was asked if she was qualified to do her job. Another candidate requested a cocktail during the interview. Showing up in a Darth Vader costume or slippers, as other recruiters reported seeing, is also usually frowned upon.
While most candidates don’t engage in such outrageous behavior, there are some other questions and actions that can get you cut from consideration before you’ve gotten out of the gate. Here are eight things to avoid doing or saying when you’re going for a first-round interview.
Walk in cold
Stay away from questions or comments that make you seem uninformed, says Amanda Davis, director of business operations for recruitment and consulting firm Vaco. She’s heard of candidates asking, “So what does this company do?” or not know the job for which they were interviewing. “It seems intuitive that you wouldn’t ask those questions, but some people don’t understand,” Davis says.
Ask about drug or background tests
Rooney says that candidates who immediately ask about whether the company requires drug tests or background checks may seem like they have something to hide. Save those inquiries for later in the process, she suggests.
Bad-mouth previous employers
“If you bad-mouth your former boss in front of your prospective new boss, you’ll be on the chopping block,” says career expert and leadership coach Henna Pryor. If your interviewer hears you speaking poorly about a previous employer, it stands to reason you might do the same thing to them, Pryor says. Also poor form: revealing trade secrets or other sensitive information about former employers. If all else fails, you can always focus on something you learned from the job or some other positive aspect.
Eat or drink
Don’t eat or drink during the interview, unless the interviewer invites you to do so, such as when you’re sharing a meal, Davis says. Certainly, don’t eat during a phone or video interview. No one wants to see that.
Inquire about vacation or severance
Your first interview is a time to show the company representative why they should hire you, Rooney says. There will be plenty of time to find out about perks and benefits once you’ve got them interested in you. Asking “what’s in it for me” questions about vacation, work hours, 401(k) matches, and the like in the first round can be off-putting.
Assume the interviewer memorized your résumé
Yes, the recruiter has your résumé but likely didn’t memorize it—so don’t assume they did, says Lisa Barrow, CEO of Kada Recruiting, a digital recruiting firm. “I had a candidate once tell me in our first conversation that ‘Pretty much everything about me is on my résumé.’ She didn’t feel the need to provide any context beyond that,” she says.
There is value in telling your story, adding context, and being able to show that you can communicate what you’ve done and add color as to how it is relevant to the role you’re interviewing for, Barrow says. So, go ahead and answer, even if you feel you’re repeating yourself.
Over-prepped candidates try to show themselves in the best light in every situation. That can lead them to give “throw-away answers,” which are a big turnoff to recruiters, says career coach Tim Toterhi, author of The HR Guide to Getting and Crushing Your Dream Job. Saying, “Sometimes I work too hard,” is often used in response to the question “What’s your greatest weakness?” Even a senior-level recruiter may be unable to resist an eye roll for that answer, he says. Instead of opting for a self-serving cliché, be thoughtful about what you say.
“It’s really important for a candidate to be specific, and that can entail actually letting the interviewer know what you’re still working on or what you’re not good at,” he says. That will often help you make a stronger connection with the interviewer.
Ellen Mullarkey, vice president of business development for HR consulting and staffing firm Messina Group, says she’s had many interviews go awry over 30 years in the business, but one stands out: She was interviewing an energetic, “stellar” candidate, she says. “I asked her if she had any other questions, and she said, ‘Yes, I need to know if you want to move forward with hiring me because I have a job offer at a competitor and I need to get back to them this afternoon,’” Mullarkey recalls. “Her presumption was a big turnoff, and even if she was bluffing, she did not get a callback for a second interview.”
Rooney agrees. The engineers she places are in high demand, and sometimes that leads to bad behavior, in the form of being arrogant or unprepared. Be prepared and professional, she advises. Coupled with the right skill set, that’s an effective way to get past the first interview.
But always do this
Once you’ve scored that first interview, one simple question can help you gain an edge, says Sewickley, Pennsylvania, career coach Cynthia Corsetti. “Candidates need to remember that the interview isn’t really about them. I know that sounds counterintuitive,” she says. But the interview is about the hiring manager solving a problem. “The problem can’t be solved with the current makeup of staff, so they need to replace someone or create a new position entirely. This is time-consuming and costly,” she says.
By asking, “What characteristics or skills will make a person successful in this role?” you immediately shift to tone to the company’s needs, she says. The answer may give you a briefing on the skills and accomplishments you need to highlight to show you’re perfect for the job.