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Top 20 Executive Interview Pet Peeves from Hiring Decision-Makers
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Every aspect of marketing yourself in the job search is highly subjective from the hiring decision-maker's viewpoint. Their view of resumes is subjective; cover letters even more subjective; and by the time we get to the interview phase, opinions could not be more subjective. I've participated in enough interviews from the hiring side of the desk to know that one interviewer can be blown away by a candidate's interview performance and salivating to hire him or her, while another interviewer may be lukewarm toward the same candidate based on the same interview.
In the communication venue that is the job interview, where subjectivity reigns and chemistry and rapport are often keys to success, hiring decision-makers at the senior and executive levels still agree on candidate interview behaviors that annoy them -- sometimes to the extent of sinking the interviewee's chances.
Through a list of the top 20 executive interview pet peeves, hiring decision-makers reveal the landmines aspiring executives can avoid in job interviews.
1. Candidate treats receptionist, assistant, or other lower-level staff poorly or brushes off preliminary interviews with mid-level staff. A 2009 survey by Office Team reported that six out of 10 executives polled said they consider their assistant's opinion important when evaluating potential new hires. Candidates who give support staff short shrift "are usually the executives who say 'people are our greatest asset,' but then treat staff like they are a financial drain, ignoring them unless they need them," reports Linda Konstan of LMK Associates, a human-resources consultant with 25 years of experience in HR. "I've had receptionists give me feedback on executive candidates, and sometimes we haven't hired that executive, even if he or she was most qualified, because of the way the receptionist was treated -- with condescension, arguing about completing an application form, telling the administrative assistant what type of coffee they want before being asked if they'd like a refreshment," Konstan says.
Candidates are probably unaware of what a damaging effect their shabby treatment of support staff can have. "If I ever see an example of a prospective candidate treating the assistants or receptionist in a demeaning fashion, they may as well leave before the interview begins as they are history in my book," says Ron Kubitz, recruiting/training manager at Brayman Construction Corp., Saxonburg, PA.
The same caveat about treating support staff well applies to respectful interaction with those, such as human-resources staff, who are conducting preliminary or screening interviews. Linda LoCicero, operations manager/founder of The Staffing Company, Birmingham, MI, is frustrated by candidates who "act impatient, like I'm the precursor to the 'real' interviewer." If you think early interviews with entities such as human-resources professionals can't derail your chances, read this story from Jacquelyn Saad, president of Inter-Change Consulting Inc., Toronto:
"Some years ago I was senior vice president, human resources, in a large American bank's Canadian operation. We were recruiting for an executive-level trader. The most senior executive in trading was interested in a candidate whom he knew from a position he held previously at another bank." Saad explains that although human resources normally conducted the first interview, she agreed to hold the interview with this candidate last. "I arranged for the candidate to come in on a Thursday afternoon. Shortly before he was scheduled to arrive, he called to cancel the meeting telling my assistant that he had an emergency meeting and needed to reschedule. The appointment was rescheduled for the following afternoon. He arrived in my office wearing jeans and a leather jacket -- and this was years before we even contemplated casual Fridays. He sat slouched in a chair, was unresponsive to my questions, and seemed annoyed that he was required to spend his time speaking with me. I came to learn from him that the emergency he canceled the previously scheduled meeting for was a trip to his barber.
"When I refused to give hiring approval, I was informed by the senior trading executive that an offer had already been made and the candidate would be starting on Monday. I suggested to the executive that he now had a great problem as I would not be issuing an offer letter from my department nor would I authorize the individual being added to payroll. So he could start on Monday, but he wouldn't get paid through my department." After much cajoling by the senior executive who wanted to make the hire, Saad agreed to add him to the payroll. "He turned out to be a disaster, and we were required to terminate his employment sometime later," Saad says.
2. Candidate dwells on economy-inspired negativity or how hard it is to get a job. "I'm seeing a trend of lower-level executives asking up front about severance packages for failures or mergers -- before we even get to the meat of the interview," Konstan notes. That's just one symptom of candidates who, rendered skittish by a troubled economy, are bringing a sense of doom with them to their interviews. Executive job-search coach Rita Ashley, author of of Job Search Debugged cites candidates who use much of the interviewer's time bemoaning the fact that it is hard to find a job. "They've just admitted they are a loser," Ashley says. She compares one of her coaching clients who is networking relentlessly and "is so connected he has had interviews, 90-minute-long informal meetings, and introductions nonstop" to another client, a CEO who "has none of this activity and complains. His interviews are very short." Ashley empathizes with "the beleaguered interviewer [who] has to play mommy instead of interviewing a prospective new hire." Ashley's advice: "OK, it's a tough job market. So, toughen up. Nothing sets a bad tone in an interview more than complaints. Don't be seen as a victim; be seen as highly desirable." She recommends instead that candidates be optimistic and upbeat. "It is your self-confidence and positive attitude that will win you the next round of interviews," she says.
Lee E. Miller, a former Fortune 1000 head of human resources and the author of UP: Influence Power and the U Perspective -- The Art of Getting What You Want, agrees: "Employers want to hire George Clooney, not George Costanza. We are looking for candidates that are confident in what they have to offer a company." Ashley exhorts candidates to "leave all the suffering at the door. If asked how the search is going, mention how pleased you are with the new connections to strategic people and their eagerness to help. Find something positive that shows you are proactive and a winner, not a whiner."
Think also about the long haul, not just the immediate future. "I want someone with a passion to do the work -- not just be out for the money," Konstan says. "That executive needs to prove to me he or she has long-term goals, not just short-term. And asking for severance deal prior to an interview is short-term in my book."
3. Candidate gives long, boring, unfocused, rambling responses to interview questions. "Interview responses that drag on and go off on tangents ... signal a BS artist who does not have command of the language or understand the question or the background or expertise to sum up a situation and get to the core issues at hand," says Cheryl Roshak, an executive recruiter with more than 25 years of experience. "This is how he would handle himself in an executive role on the job," says Roshak, who is president at Cheryl Roshak Associates, New York City. "Interviewees should be able to convey their past career successes in an clear and concise manner," says Ken Heisler, director of SALO Search, LLC, Minneapolis, MN. "It's imperative that they get to the point of their narrative and not let any answer bore the interviewer. If the interviewer's eyes begin to wander, chances are they are no longer actively listening to the candidate's response."
4. Candidate talks the strategy talk but does not walk the execution walk. "I want an executive who can prove that he or she can execute the vision -- even via delegation," Konstan says. "I want someone who can take us from strategy to tactical to action to response/reaction and improve the bottom line both for short- and long-term goals." For David Hughes, vice president human resources at Access Insurance Holdings, Inc., Atlanta, the need for a candidate who can talk about execution depends significantly on the position and the needs of the role. "It's often pretty easy for experienced execs to regurgitate book-learned strategies and techniques, and that's why they need to be able to talk about specific examples of how they personally made the difference in the past," Hughes advises.
5. Candidate is arrogant and expects to be treated differently from lower-level candidates. "Often an exec candidate comes in with an air of arrogance that they are above and beyond looking for a position, greater than other people or their subordinates, and will only look at certain types of positions where they are in total control of a group or department," Roshak says. "There is no flexibility in them. In a work situation, they are hard to please and find fault with their staff much of the time." For Nichole Woody, "this behavior is an indicator of how the candidate will interact with people that report directly or indirectly to them." Woody, who is an outsourced HR professional at Professional Placement Services in Solon, OH, believes that executive candidates "should have the interest of the company in mind with each interaction. Lower-level employees will not likely be inclined to go above and beyond when they do not sense appreciation for their efforts. Additionally this behavior demonstrates that this candidate will not 'get his or her hands dirty,'" Woody says. S. Wichman, performance consultant at Wichman & Associates, Los Angeles, notes that "research today supports the urgent need for senior leaders to build strong relationships, interact with talent throughout the organization, smile, show support, use leadership skills every day, and give credit to groups and teams of people, not always themselves." For Wichman, "ego-driven, reclusive and arrogant managers are dinosaurs."
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
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