Recruiters share their nightmare interview stories to help you avoid cringe-worthy mistakes.

Everyone loves a good “bad interview” story. The tales of egregious mistakes made during important professional conversations never fail to elicit a chuckle of disbelief. In this day and age, how could someone not know better? Yet, whether due to a lack of awareness, manners, or self-control, candidates keep making inexcusable interview mistakes.

This goes beyond sweaty hands and a shaky introduction. Interviews are stressful, and it’s not uncommon for professionals to make a misstep because they are nervous. Most hiring managers have a measure of patience and understanding when dealing with a candidate who needs a few minutes to gather his or her thoughts. However, there are some mistakes that cannot be explained away by the nerves.

Below are five real-life gaffes that were serious enough to cost a candidate the job opportunity.

Interviewing while intoxicated

Why would someone show up to an interview drunk or hungover? Experienced recruiters have their opinions on the matter. Ambra Benjamin, an engineering recruiter at Facebook, compares interviewing to flying in an airplane. “It's an anxiety-inducing, pressure cooker type scenario for a lot of people,” reflects Ambra. “Sometimes bad choices are made to alleviate such pressure. Interviewing while drunk happens a lot more than one might think.”

This misstep is tough to undo. No employer will find a drunk candidate amusing, and it is highly unlikely that intoxication will be overlooked, no matter how great your qualifications. After all, the interview is a test-drive of working with a candidate. Will the aspiring professional cancel an important client meeting because of late-night partying? Is there a risk that he or she might compromise a negotiation because of muddled thinking?  Few hiring managers are willing to accept a gamble with those stakes.

What should you do if you are tempted to alleviate pre-interview nerves with a few drinks? Look for other ways to relax and unwind. Some professionals find that a workout or a walk outside can help them focus the mind and calm the anxiety. Others prefer to meditate, take a shower, or engage in routine activities that don’t require much brain power (such as doing the dishes). Find what works for you so that you can come into the interview feeling and thinking at your best.

Failing to show up on time

Hiring managers have heard it all when it comes to delays. Cars don’t start, there is unexpected traffic at 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, and travel directions mysteriously lead the candidate to the wrong part of town. True emergencies aside, failing to show up for the interview on time can be a deal-breaker. Chau Nguyen, the Founder and CEO or Hirewire, put it best:

“In 3 words: Don't be late.

In 4 words: Don't ever be late.

In 5 words: Don't ever, ever, be late.”

The interview is your chance to demonstrate reliability and professionalism. Running late can lead the hiring manager to believe that you have little regard for other people’s time. Many interviews are structured to allow a candidate to meet several decision-makers in quick succession. By failing to be punctual, you are effectively compromising multiple busy schedules. Is this a sign that you don’t take the opportunity seriously, do you have a problem with deadlines, or are you simply disorganized? Most hiring managers won’t pause to analyze the situation, they will simply move on to the next candidate.

How can you avoid this blunder? The most obvious way is to plan ahead. Have your clothes picked out and ready the night before. Research your travel path (whether by public transportation or by car) and add a cushion of extra time just in case. If you anticipate needing to pick up your breakfast on the way, leave even earlier. In other words, do everything in your power to be on time.

What should you do if a delay cannot be helped? Your first move is to reach out to your contact at the company right away and offer a realistic estimate of when you can get to the office. If the delay is 10 minutes or more, be prepared that the employer may cancel the interview. It helps to have an iron-clad reason why you are delayed. (Hint: a blizzard qualifies as a “good reason.” Alarm clock failure does not.) Apologize sincerely, then move on. If your interview is still on, you will need to regroup and perform at the top of your game — no matter how frazzled you might be.

Bad-mouthing a previous employer

Most professionals go on interviews in search of a better opportunity. However, that does not give them a card blanche to vent about their current or previous employer.

“The most obvious mistake that comes to mind is people heavily criticizing their current employer or manager,” says Michael Kingston, a senior hiring manager at a Fortune 500 company. “That really looks very unprofessional and reflects badly on the candidate.”

There are many reasons hiring managers have little patience for complainers. For one, venting shows poor judgment and self-management. In today’s hyperconnected world, the hiring manager may know the person that is being bad-mouthed (or know someone who does), so the comments may travel further than expected. Most importantly, by staying in a negative spiral, the candidate misses the chance to showcase his or her strengths and talents, connect with the interviewing professional, and demonstrate positive energy and excitement.

What should you do if your experience in a previous position was troublesome? Remember that it is appropriate to discuss the challenges of your past positions if asked, but in doing so it’s critical to maintain a delicate balance between honesty and tact. Stick to the facts, be brief, and turn the conversation back to the present opportunity. Save the venting for your friends!

Skipping the due diligence

Professionals who appear confused about which company and what position they are interviewing for can bring the conversation to a halt before it even begins. The mix-up cannot be explained away by the fact that the professional is applying for a dozen or more similar jobs. Mispronouncing the name of the company, being fuzzy on the job description, and having run out of time to research the position are all likely to disqualify you. Hiring managers will take those as signs that you are not committed, diligent, or organized enough.

What can you do to avoid this misstep? Dedicate some time to researching every company and position you are applying for, especially if an interview has been scheduled. Book a time block for due diligence on your calendar and treat it as an important appointment. If you are unsure how to pronounce the name of the company, call the main line and listen to how the receptionist says it (alternatively, look for company-produced videos on the website). Research the professionals you will be meeting with: Google and LinkedIn can give you insight into their career paths, hobbies, published articles, and more. Finally, prepare good questions to ask the interviewer.

Lying on your resume

Perhaps you have been job searching for a while and are desperate for the opportunity. Or maybe the job looks so amazing that stretching the truth seems worth it. No matter how one might rationalize it, lying on your resume is never acceptable. If you are discovered, the lie will disqualify you from being considered. If your lie goes undetected, it can potentially cost you the job years after you landed it. In that way, getting a job by lying might be worse than not getting it at all.

Lying includes outright untruths as well as embellished facts. Don’t say that you went to Harvard Business School if in reality you only took an online class there. Don’t list your past position as “Personnel Manager” if you were an assistant. Overstating your skills is not OK either; just because you saw a demo for a software package does not mean you can claim to be an expert in it. Resist the urge to list extra languages to impress the interviewer; faking fluency in Japanese with a native speaker won’t get you very far.

How can you position yourself in the best light without crossing the line? Be truthful about your degrees and past positions. If you feel that there is a gap between your education and the requirements of your dream job, close it by getting additional credentials. Consider tapping into your network to convince the company to take a chance on you, even if your experience looks short on paper. Those steps are far more likely to impress a hiring manager than a fake degree on your resume!

Common interview mistakes and ways to avoid them

Arriving at the interview drunk or hungover, being late, bad-mouthing your past employer, and lying on your resume are some of the ingredients for the worst interview of your life — and a lost opportunity. The key to avoiding these mistakes is to invest time and effort into preparing for the interview and managing your mental state. In other words, spend your energy on turning yourself into the best candidate you can be!

Nervous about your next job interview? Learn more about our interview-coaching services!

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