Wrong Answer: Case Studies of failed interviews

Originally appeared in the New York Post 
By Brian Moore

In a job interview, it’s bad enough when a candidate tosses an f-bomb or cries like a 7-year-old watching the end of “Marley & Me.” But employment pros say such behavior is nothing compared to the real Hindenburg meltdowns they’ve seen.

To enlighten and amuse, we collected tales of some of the battiest behavior New York job interviewers have encountered.

And, no, none of these candidates scored the gigs.

You want to sell yourself in an interview — not give yourself away. That distinction was lost on a woman whom recruiter Bruce Hurwitz interviewed for a gig as a special-events coordinator. From Jump Street, the applicant was hitting on him, brazenly enough that his colleagues couldn’t fail to notice. (Sample: “If you take your jacket off, I’ll take off mine.”)

Adding to the weirdness, a few days later, Hurwitz interviewed a man looking for a fund-raising job. The name was familiar — and so was his address, says Hurwitz, who realized he was the amorous applicant’s husband.

“He spoke about his pride for his wife and his children,” Hurwitz recalls.

Although many employers like to say they’re looking for “warriors” who will fight for their businesses, physical combat is generally frowned on in the workplace — and in interviews. That didn’t stop a client of recruiter Roy Cohen from going mano a mano with a hedge-fund hiring manager who questioned a decision the client had made.

“He said that anybody who made that decision was a moron, and that suggested that my client was a moron,” says Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.” “He became defensive. And at some point something else was said, and before they knew it, they were going at it,” he says. At least one punch was thrown before the client was told “to get the (bleep) out of the office.”  

The first sign of trouble for recruiter Tyson Spring was the IM he got from his receptionist telling him that the candidate for a general-counsel position for a major media company was combing his hair as compulsively as Rapunzel with OCD.

“He had a beautiful set of gold locks,” says Spring, “like the guy in ‘The Great American Hero.’”

Other assets were less evident. When he wasn’t hitting on Spring’s female colleague, the lawyer — a Yale grad who was at the top of his law school class — would open his briefcase to refer to what Spring, a VP at Élever Professional, assumed were relevant documents. Until he noticed that the briefcase was empty — save for the lawyer’s tattered hairbrush.

Ask any publicist: If you want to scale the heights of the p.r. world, it helps to be able to speak English. A Korean candidate for an internship at p.r. firm Ruder Finn didn’t let petty language issues get in the way of his ambition to secure an entry-level internship promoting books, recalls ex-Ruder publicist Dennelle Catlett, now a senior publicist at Crown.

“It was pretty quickly apparent that he wasn’t answering questions fully,” says Catlett. Or at all. When queried about what sort of books he liked to read, “He looked up, nodded at me and said, ‘Mmm-hmmm,’” says Catlett.

“We held it together,” she says. “It was very, very difficult.”

Kids like puppets. Job interviewers don’t. That lesson was lost on a woman whom Tracy Brisson — then director of teacher recruitment for New York City’s public schools — interviewed for a music teacher’s position. When the woman was asked the first question, she whipped out a puppet and let it answer. A bit cute for an opening gambit, but it got worse, as the woman insisted an answering every question in the same bizarre fashion.

“I think she thought it was making her stand out,” says Brisson, who now runs the coaching firm the Opportunities Project. Mission accomplished.

A little décolletage is one thing, but fashion industry recruiter Kate Benson recalls a chat with a jewelry designer that turned into a “Girls Gone Wild” outtake.

“She had a beautiful dress on — haute couture,” says Benson. “Japanese-inspired — with big arm holes. “I noticed it was kind of revealing.”

And how! When the woman showed her portfolio, her womanly assets lay as bare as Sylvia Plath’s soul. “Something like that is not easy to overcome,” says Benson. “You’re not Jennifer Lopez going to the VMAs.

Nothing lets a boss know that a candidate personifies grace under pressure better than sweating like John Goodman running the Boston Marathon. A candidate for a six-figure job at a media firm came into his interview sweating, and the waterworks continued from there, says Caroline Ceniza-Levine of the career coaching firm SixFigureStart. To staunch the flow, the applicant used soft tissue. Big mistake.
“He left little pieces of tissue on his face as he was daubing his face,” she says. “He’d daub his face and he’d leave one. And he’d daub his face again and there’d be another one.” By the end of the interview, his face looked like it had been caught in a spitball blitzkrieg. “And at the foot of his chair, there were little tissue shavings,” she adds.

Pros and Cons of Rescinding a Job Offer

Rescinding Job Offers: The Pros and Cons

Rescinding job offers can be a difficult subject for all parties involved in the hiring process. In the worst case scenario, an incoming employee has given resignation to their former employee, if relocation is involved, placed nonrefundable deposits on housing, and generally speaking- began the process of mentally preparing for a new life as your employee. The act of rescinding an offer will inevitably leave one person (plus their sphere of influence) with a negative impression of your organization. Of course, no difficult decision exists without financial risk: While employers have free reign of the termination process in most U.S. States under “At-Will Employment”, this doesn’t apply to employees who’ve yet to start work. Many states have legal theories that can offer prospective employees protection against rescinded offers, such as “Promissory Estoppel”. These theories give potential employees the ability to recover damages such as lost wages and expenses paid toward a move. This is difficult stuff, and the process of rescinding an offer can be as hard on HR folks as performing workforce reductions.

5 signs you’re making a terrible hire

In my career as a headhunter, I’ve interviewed thousands of people.  Most of the blatant impostors don’t get past the resume review stage, but occasionally there’ve been people who in an interview just don’t seem to have it altogether (here are a few examples), or something just doesn’t add up with what they’re saying and what their actual track record is saying.  Here are some warning signs to look for when you’re interviewing.

1) Numbers don’t lie, or do they?: Our firm works primarily with Director through SVP level candidates on the revenue creating side of our clients’ business.  As such, it’s imperative that we learn about tangible accomplishments, and that they’re justified with precise data.  When a candidate throws out eye-popping numbers, such “improved product revenue by 120% over 3 quarters”, the obvious follow up question is, “Wow! How did you accomplish this?”.  The real performers will clearly roadmap the process that led to these numbers, the pretenders will offer packaged clichés or not be able to articulate their role in the performance improvement.

2) Nice shoes, nice shirt, nice hair: There’s an acceptable level of complimentary dialogue between hiring managers and candidates, often this small talk will lighten up the nerves so everyone can perform their best.  But when a candidate goes overboard with compliments in a way that borders on sycophancy and consistently works flattery into the conversation, it becomes a warning sign that this might be someone who’s disingenuous- that they believe in charming their way into a deal.  Our clients aren’t typically purveyors of snake-oil, and as such would rather to hear about a disciplined and consultative sales strategy than the compliments on their lap-top bag.

3) I think I smell a rat: Not everyone gets along, that’s life.  However, there is an appropriate way to address past issues with employers.  If a candidate is snide or consistently negative when discussing prior employees, and if they discourage reference calls with former employers, somethin’ ain’t right! The exception to the reference rule, of course, is when a candidate is still employed and is interviewing confidentially.  In this event, we ask “If an offer is extended, would you be agreeable to us performing reference calls prior to putting in your resignation?”  The expected right answer is, “Sure, if we get to that point, that’s not a problem”, anything else is a little suspect.

4) Money first, details later: When a candidate makes lofty salary demands prior to interacting with a hiring team and understanding the organization or the role, they might be in this for the wrong reasons.  Most ultra-talented folks who are indispensable to their employers treat an interview as an exploration of an opportunity to do their best work, not a pursuit of the best paycheck.  Oh, by the way, most of those who match themselves with the opportunity over the paycheck have longer tenures and ultimately, make more money.  Imagine that.

5) Made you look!: There’s no place for trickery in an interview.  When a candidate deftly steers interview topics away from critical performance needs, instead talking about strengths in areas that aren’t relevant to the role on the table, there’s cause for some concern.   Top performers are confident enough to enthusiastically announce that they lack experience in an area, and express ideas on how they believe they can conquer this area in the future, they don’t try to distract you from this missing piece by sharing their handicap on the golf course.

Now Hiring…Rock Stars!?!

As an Executive Recruiter and a Sr. Consultant charged with training internal recruiting groups on how to effectively grow teams to peak performance through recruitment and succession, I must track the trends of what key characteristics and skill sets employers look for.

Over the last 5 years, some of the buzz words that I’ve seen come and go (and sometimes stick around far beyond their welcome), have included:

  • In Senior Sales roles: Rainmakers, Mobile Book of Business, Proven Closer
  • In Finance, Audit, and Accounting: Big 4 Experience, Analytical by nature, Problem Solver
  • In Executive Leadership Roles (Director and up): Visionary, Entrepreneurial, Strategic

The trend with these idioms is clearly aligned with the tasks at hand for people in the positions. While the terms themselves may have become cliché, they remain

Integrity, quality, and industry experts

Like any professionals, Executive Recruiters “talk shop”.  Folks like to get together and chat about their wins and losses. And because there’s a significant sales component to this role, we’re judged more by our wins than our losses.  As such, when talkin’ shop, it’s sometimes hard to discern what information being shared is accurate.  Imagine a Ford Salesperson standing next to a Chevy Salesperson talking about the number of units they sold in October and what the Gross Margins were on their deals, it’s similar here. Before I co-founded Élever Professional, I was with a Fortune 500 Staffing firm. Former colleagues from those days often call me with reports of such gaudy sales figures that I wonder how they can fit them all in a 24 hour day.  I typically leave these conversations with a chuckle and a 30 minute deficit on my calendar. Click here to read more

Recently, I left one of these conversations concerned about the state of the industry.  A former Sr. Director with a large staffing company called me to let me know that their own firm had decided to shift from a generalist and staffing mentality to an industry focused Executive Search firm.  Their plan was to do away with temporary staffing altogether and build upon their recent success with a client in their new “area of expertise”. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want to be like me.  Hey, no offense, Pal.  None taken.

By me, they were referring to my firm’s long term commitments to a small and select number of clients, rather than a large and expansive pipeline that covered the gamut of search requisitions, from entry level admins and mail clerks to CEOs.  They’d closed a significant amount of work with one client and realized that there is money to be made in a relatively under-serviced field, and they were going to re-brand and go after it!  What’s the problem with that?  There’s a large addressable market with a proportionately small competitive field.  Smart business decision, right?  There is no problem there, fundamentally, but as I asked key questions in an effort to learn about their commitment to this field and their relative success, red flags began to unravel in every direction.  Here’s an unofficial transcript, sensationalized for your reading enjoyment. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (or guilty):