The Biggest Interview Mistakes HR Experts See (And How To Avoid Them)

The Biggest Interview Mistakes HR Experts See (And How To Avoid Them)

They meet more people in an afternoon than most of us do in a year. But what faux pas do human resources pros see again and again during the interview process? We picked the brains of two high-profile executives to find out what you definitely should and shouldn’t say, as well as what they secretly think of your résumé.

Picture: ilustrator/Shutterstock

(One was so brutally honest about her just-don’t-do-this advice that she preferred to remain anonymous.)

Not Knowing When to Stop Talking

“Talking over your interviewer is the biggest mistake that interview candidates don’t realise they’re making,” says Stacey Hawley, a career and leadership development coach and compensation specialist. “This is usually from nervousness, but, as a result, the candidates outtalk the interviewer and don’t engage in active listening.”

Amy Michaels*, a human resources director at a high-tech firm in New York City, agrees: “The inability to listen is huge. That person who’s always trying to have the exact right answer but can’t stop talking? They ultimately won’t be a success.” Instead, listen up and watch more subtle clues — like your interviewer’s body language. If she’s shifting back and forth or clearing her throat, it’s time to let her get to the next question.

Bad-Mouthing Your Ex-Job

While it may seem like a no-brainer, putting down your current employer happens all too often, says Michaels, perhaps because the bad feelings are still fresh. If you’re tempted to trash your present company, stop right there.

“When I ask why you’re leaving a place, I don’t want to hear you gripe about your current manager or badmouth your situation,” she says. “Be creative enough to come up with a tactful reason as to why you’re leaving. Otherwise, to me, that’s a huge red flag that you’re not mature enough to know not to do it. Not to mention that it makes me nervous about how tactful you’re going to be externally if I hire you.”

Not Acknowledging Your Mistakes

A couple of interview rules of thumb: “Be well-groomed, and be on time,” says Michaels. “Or email if your train is running late. That happens in New York.”

While one minor transgression may not deep-six your prospects of landing the job, you should still acknowledge it and move on, says Michaels. Hawley will also pardon small errors: “Mistakes are OK and acceptable. No one is perfect — or needs to be.” The bigger red flag, both say, is someone who can’t admit their missteps. “The people who make me nuts just act like being late never happened,” says Michaels. “If you make a mistake, own up to it.”

Neglecting Your Cover Letter

Our experts were adamant about this. “To be honest, I don’t read objectives, and I don’t care if you fence,” says Michaels. “But I do read cover letters.” Hawley agrees: “Absolutely write a cover letter. It’s an opportunity to highlight your understanding of the business, and what you can do for the bottom line.”

And, even in the digital age, there’s no excuse for a quickly dashed-off email — take the time to compose it with care. “Demonstrate your knowledge of the company,” says Hawley. “And link your past achievements to the position, showing how you can contribute to their future success.” That, she says, will always make a candidate stand out.

Trying Too Hard

While confidence is a must, check your supersize ego at the door. “I have a good radar,” says Michaels, “and I have a policy where I will not bring in ego. I’ve made that mistake, and it really affects the culture of an organisation.”

What good HR professionals have that most humans don’t, notes Michaels, is a high EQ. “You notice body language,” she says. “You can sense whether someone has empathy or is overly self-involved.”

Michaels advice? Try to relax and be your (best) self. “I like people who are authentic, and you know it’s who they are,” she says. “I’m just attracted to that.” Of course, HR execs can also pick up on whether you’re posturing. “When you start elaborating on things you don’t actually know or things you think I want to hear, I’m not impressed,” she says.

Curbing Your Enthusiasm

If you’re going to the trouble of sprucing up your résumé and dry-cleaning your suit, at least try to appear appropriately enthused. An interview is an opportunity to learn about the company and vice versa, but you can take yourself out of the running prematurely if you don’t act like you want the position. And that includes doing your homework on both the company and your individual interviewers.

“I would never hire someone who didn’t do the proper research,” says Hawley. But if it came down to a choice between two candidates, “all else being equal, the person who showed the most excitement and interest would get my vote,” she says.

Forgetting Your Manners

When it comes to an interview, you want to dot your I’s, cross your T’s and, yes, put your résumé on nice, thick paper stock — but certain old-fashioned politesse can also get you ahead.

“A handshake is actually important to me,” says Michaels. “It’s a totally stupid thing, but I do pay attention.” So what is she looking for? “You want a firm, confident handshake,” she says. “It tells you whether that person is an introvert or an extrovert. If it’s a sales job, you have to have a healthy handshake.”

As for Hawley, her biggest interview-etiquette pet peeve is equally simple: not following up. So be sure to send a thank-you note or a thank-you email, if you’re trying to be expedient. But don’t just send a form letter to every person who you interviewed with — thank them instead by mentioning a personal connection or a particular detail that you discussed.

Torpedoing the Salary Negotiation

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to get an offer, you’re on to (arguably) the hardest part of the interview process.

There are two common salary-negotiation mistakes our recruiters see: the first is mentioning money too early. “I think it’s really presumptuous for a candidate to bring up money,” says Michaels. “You have to earn the right to bring that up.” The second is forgetting to negotiate at all. “People — especially women — negotiate against themselves,” says Hawley. “They assume how the company will respond, and answer for the company.”

Our nerves often cause us to blurt out a number, locking us into a salary when there was more money to be had. Instead, she says, you should ask open-ended questions, such as “What range do you have in mind?” Then wait and listen.

HR Experts Confess: 8 Biggest Job Interview Mistakes We See [LearnVest]

LearnVest’s mission is to empower people everywhere to take control of their personal finances so that they can afford their dreams.


  • Working in media, the thing I look at in a cover letter is the ability to communicate. It’s surprising how many are littered with spelling and grammar mistakes, and completely unreadable sentences. A Communications Manager who saying “thank you for you’re time”? No thank you!

  • she says. “It tells you whether that person is an introvert or an extrovert. If it’s a sales job, you have to have a healthy handshake.”

    Does it? People would say I’m firmly and introvert but I’ll give a damn firm handshake and I know of many others who do as well. Seems she has a bit of 1950’s hangover.

    • It’s not just the handshake, its the eye contact that goes with it, the greeting, the body language, the demeanour, everything. People can have solid handshakes and be introverts, but its a whole package. You can read a person from a handshake indeed, but maybe they should have elaborated a little on that.

      • Really? I read a person from their hairstyle and the cut of their trousers, I find it far more accurate to judge character that way.
        i.e. almost as unreliable.

        • You do realise that with human interaction, words are around 10% of the actual interaction, 60% of it is body language and the rest vocal tone? A little research goes a *long* way. Well, the numbers may be one or two percent out, but thats the rough idea.

          • The 90% is an old myth, much like than handshake one. I’m not being glib here, it is actually an old urban myth.

          • It is a myth, even 60%, sorry.
            Read about the original source for the thing, studies by Albert Mehrabian. He only did fairly limited, pretty subjective studies in the 1960s originally and the results were hugely taken out of context and misquoted to a point where he himself was quite embarrassed. If you want sources it’s pretty common, just do a google search for the myths of non-verbal communication.
            Surely we communicate non-verbally, but the facts are that language is far, FAR better at communicating thoughts, ideas and intentions than any other means, this is why I’m typing a response instead of posting a video of myself doing an interpretive dance.

          • Yeah I read the same ‘that it’s a myth’ quite recently…might have even been a lifehacker article.
            It also makes little sense to be so heavily weighted against what you say. Language is by far the bulk of our expression and then you use tone and body language to pick out the lies, sarcasm etc…but these are the exception not the norm.

            And even all the body language ideals are retarded. Folded arms = bad….that’s a complete crock. I fold my arms all the time as its comfortable. Certainly doesn’t mean I’m closed or negative or not listening. As others have said if someone applied half the HR standards mentioned n tai article to any of my interviews I wouldn’t want to join their company. It’s a two way street here..I want a career and they want valuable employees.

          • Whether it’s a myth or not is irrelevant. People still pay attention to it, therefore it’s important. It’s no different from posture, body language and attitude.
            90% is probably a bit much but in my experience it can be somewhere round the 60-70% mark.

          • Indeed, I remembered the actual numbers after, more appropriate ones, so I edited it to reflect it. Vocal tone and body language are more important and thus should be reflected as such.

      • I would say that a firm handshake and eye contact will more likely tell you whether the person is confident rather than what type of personality they have. I’m introverted & usually quiet but I will always smile, maintain eye contact, have a good convo and shake hands.

        • How long do you make eye contact for, which way do your eyes look when you talk, what pitch or tone of voice do you have, what strength do you use when you shake (you can’t tell, only the receiver can), what is your stance like, what general ‘feel’ do you give off etc. when you smiled, did one side of the mouth go up, which side, or did both, was it a genuine smile, or a forced one, were teeth shown when you did or just lips, were the teeth open or closed etc etc. The list goes on and on.

          There’s a *lot* that you don’t realise you give off with body language, that you aren’t in control of at all. People who are aware of what to look for, especially professional interviewers, look for all this and more in just a few seconds.

          • So what do any of those things mean?… What does an unsymmetrical smile mean?
            Sure some of those points you raised have bearing , eye contact, confidence in voice etc. but some are just people’s genuine natural variations and how do you judge that?

          • Unsymmetrical smile can often mean things like insincerity, unsureness, or it could even mean sincerity itself. You cannot judge it just from the smile. It’s always in combination with a number of things.

            Quite often certain things are indeed just tics of someone, natural variations, it’s just up to someone to hopefully be well trained enough to pick up on that. Noones perfect.

    • Yes, that handshake thing is moronic, like graphology. It’s usually men who keep that old myth alive most so this is an especially strange example.

      • It’s not so much that a good handshake will get you a job, but a bad one can lose it. There is a lot that can be implied from a handshake and body language in general. It’s not the be all, end all, but first impressions are very important.

        • I once cinched a job because the women who hired me examined a sample of my handwriting using graphology and… it passed, or something.
          It’s not about good body language, it’s about people running out of objective factors on which to judge a candidate and instead turning towards the magical and mythical, like “instinct”, “gut-reactions” etc. When intelligence fails, magic suffices.

          The lesson to gain from that is not to worry about trying too hard to make an impression with that crap because you have no idea what stupid standards people have invented in their own crazy minds. Just shake hands like a normal person and don’t choke.

  • “I think it’s really presumptuous for a candidate to bring up money,” says Michaels. “You have to earn the right to bring that up.”

    I disagree. When I enter a job interview I am interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing me. To suggest that it’s presumptuous of a candidate to raise the question of money is to infer that the candidate should be grateful if they are offered a role – regardless of compensation.

    Why should I waste my time trying to impress the interviewer to land a job that won’t pay my bills?

    A job interview is a two way street. Yes, you should choose the appropriate time to raise certain topics – including money – but no topic that is so curcial a factor should be taboo to either party.

    • I take your point, but I think it should be up to the employer to broach the topic of money. The topic will be brought up… just not by the candidate.

      If for some strange reason the topic isn’t brought up and the session is drawing to a close, the candidate should feel free to ask about remuneration. But the candidate should hold out for this to be raised by the employer.

    • I think it depends on the position.
      If it’s something niche and you are an expert in your field, then go for it… it’s an important part of looking for a new job.
      If you’re straight out of uni with average grades, you’re probably going to take whatever you can get.
      If you’re trying to negotiate a wage as a box stacker or burger flipper… you might be pushing it.

      Also remember that a lot of positions have capped payment scales and award rates that usually don’t change. Feel free to ask what the caps and rates are though.

      I disagree with the wording in the article, but there is a time and place for everything.

    • I think potential employees should definitely bring it up, but rather than making it the first priority of the meeting, put it near the end of your list of Q’s. This way, you’ve got a bit of rapport built up and it won’t come off like you’re only in it for the money.

  • When I did some hiring for DSE back in 2000? I immediately shitcanned ANYONE from an interview who said ‘My biggest fault is I work too hard!’

      • lmao dear god Papa Roach… haven’t heard them since my ex played them to death in I think the late 90s…

  • @smallbizplanned I agree with what you are saying and in essence that’s what I meant by choosing the appropriate time. I wouldn’t walk into an interview and just ask straight up “So, how much does this position pay?”, but I also wouldn’t walk out at the end without having discussed it in some way.

    What I took exception to was the blanket statement that “it’s really presumptuous for a candidate to bring up money”. That’s hogwash and I wouldn’t want to work for anyone that thinks this way.

    It’s like walking into a car dealership and being expected to buy a car based only on what the salesman chooses to tell you, and if that doesn’t include the price then too bad, pay up.

  • One guy I interviewed asked me my age at the end of the interview. I replied “old enough”. Shitcanned his application when I got back to my desk – no way I’m hiring someone who asks stupid questions like that.

  • Some of the HR ‘pros’ might also want to take a good look at themselves, and what some of their ‘mistakes’ might be.

    The thing I’ve come across over the years is that the HR ‘pros’ quite often judge candidates by their physical attributes, in the negative sense, that is to say, they discriminate.

    This happens more often than not. I know, because you develop a sense for when these instances occur.

    I am of stocky build, and have the appearance of anywhere between a south-sea islander, Maori, Thursday Islander, and so on. The perception depends on the interviewer. Just for the record, I was born in Cape Town, South Africa.

    Because of my surname, Smith, and my accent, the initial contact, which is usually over the ‘phone, I come across as being ‘Aussie’, and get to the initial interview because I fit all the criteria required for the position.

    Then as soon as I sit face-to-face with the interviewer, I can see them shifting around in their seats, trying to finish the interview.

    The excuse is usually that I would be unsuitable for the position because I am over-qualified, and I would find the position boring. There are lots more ‘reasons’ I have heard over the years, for me being unsuitable for the position advertised.

  • utter wank, as someone that has hired heaps of staff over the years, most of this is garbage.

    I don’t read cover letters, i want what your skilled at in dot points for me to ask you questions relating to the environment/role around you’re skills.
    I don’t care what paper you’re resume is printed on (normal white A4 is fine), only a dick would.

    I always expect to be asked about money, if you don’t bring it up i will give you the offer at the very low end of the wage range.

    You have to be confident, know what you’re talking about, and if i catch you out in a lie, instant “No”, so if you’re last job was crap, i want to know, i want to know what made it that way and how you went to get it resolved before leaving.

    and most importantly you wear skinny jeans as a guy you start on the bottom of an uphill battle.

  • As an HR of a big cleaning company in Melbourne, I was able to meet and interview a lot of people. The basic mistake they all this was either trying too hard, or just looking their manners out of the acceptable margins. Wish more people follow these tips when going to an interview.

    Joanna J, Head of the HR department in Tiles and Grout Cleaning Excellence for Melbourne

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