15 job interview horror stories that you won’t believe

Nikoletta Bika | |

When hearing the word “Halloween”, many of us think of decorative spider webs, vampire and ghost costumes, grinning pumpkins and of course, horror stories. Even if you’re not a fan of trick-or-treat season, you may still love a good horror story – not always fictional, but certainly one from the craziness of everyday life that can be relevant all year long.

Since we’re a company specializing in recruiting, we were inspired by Halloween to ask around for odd occurrences during the hiring process – both from hiring professionals and job candidates. We got some juicy stuff, some funny stuff, and lots of weirdness. Here you go, 15 of the best interview horror stories we heard (and yes, we give out awards):

Recruiter/Interviewer horror story awards

The car-lock award

If you think interview no-shows are a nuisance, how about this?

I was interviewing a candidate when she told me she had forgotten to lock her car and asked for permission to go check on it. I said yes. She left and never came back or answered my calls.

— Neil B.

The attachment award

Too many irrelevant resumes means that you, at least, get resumes.

I’ve had people send me so many random things via our job application form – from cellphone bills to their entire university thesis.

— Angela V.

The chuckles award

Not all candidates take interview questions seriously.

I was interviewing a candidate and asked her the common question: “Why do you think we should hire you?” Her response was a laugh – a loud throaty laugh.

— Catherine C.

The family award

Speaking of work-life balance…

I was interviewing a 22- or 23-year-old student for an internship. He not only showed up with his mother, but also wanted to be accompanied by her during the interview.

— Stéphane V.

Interviewer stories are a warmup

We’ve heard these and many more interview horror stories from recruiters where candidates have done something odd or funny. But what surprised us was how many more stories came from the candidates’ side! It seems that when hiring teams are pressured to evaluate people and make good hires fast, they sometimes adopt downright bizarre practices or behaviors that put off candidates.

What’s the solution? Perhaps listening to the other side. Each hiring professional in the following stories has earned an award for odd behavior: If you’re a recruiter yourself, you don’t want to receive these awards. If you recognize yourself here, think of it as an opportunity to improve the process for everyone.

Candidate horror story awards

The zodiac award

Evaluating candidates is hard, but choosing dubious hiring criteria can put people off – go for a well-validated assessment instead.

I was asked what my star sign was. When I hesitantly replied, the interviewer commented that his son was the same one. Awkward silence followed.

— Lilian B.

The email confusion award

Communicating well with your hiring team is vital – mistakes happen occasionally, but candidates’ impression of your brand may be permanent.

I was interviewing with a manager for the role of flight attendant at an airline. Five minutes into the interview, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I checked it as soon as I left the interview – an hour later – and realized it was a rejection email from one of that company’s recruiters. I called them to see if it was a mistake – it wasn’t, they actually rejected me. I asked them why we had the interview in the first place. They couldn’t say.

— Anthony K.

The body image award

You expect candidates to be respectful and they expect the same from you. If something is irrelevant to their competency of doing the job, avoid asking about it.

I was once asked how much I weigh.

— Dimitris D.

I have been asked about my height.

— Sheila T.

The rampant sexism award

Sexism is an undeniable problem and everybody has the right to be treated with respect. Keep your questions strictly job-related and you’ll be more in line with proper protocol.

I was asked whether I believed in love at first sight. It’s a seemingly harmless question, but what does it have to do with the job? And would you ask a man that?

— Christina P.

I was once asked to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t have any children for at least three years. I had to agree as a condition to get hired. I didn’t, of course.

— Anonymous

I’ve had a really traumatic interview where they were asking me about my relationship status, when I plan to get married, when I plan to have kids (“…but you’re 30 so I imagine soon”), how I will manage work and home when this happens. It was awkward and terrible, especially coming from a woman interviewer who had a family of her own!

— Nikki D.

The K-Pop/Prada award

There is such a thing as a too-specific ‘ideal candidate’.

I was applying for an entertainment company and interviewed with the VP, a famous producer of K-pop. We were at his music studio – I was standing next to him in his ‘producing room’, listening to him talking about how great his music is and how he built the K-pop industry. At some point, he handed me the book “The Devil Wears Prada” and asked me if I could be exactly like the main character. I told him “no” because I find a lot of her actions unnecessary. Funny thing is I was hired and he ended up being a terrible boss – exactly like “the devil” in the book!

— Bora K.

The interrogation room award

Candidates are nervous enough as it is…

I interviewed at an embassy in Athens for an internship. They took me to a dark room with no windows where the only light came from a table lamp. I sat at a table while the interviewer was standing. When she learned I spent part of my childhood in Ukraine, she asked me whether I had any knowledge of Ukrainian child trafficking rings.

— Robert V.

The leopard heels award

Scammy companies dress their people in style – or do they?

I once applied to an ad from a dubiously named organization for a vaguely scripted job. They called me back the next day and a very attractive-sounding female said, “We’d like to have an interview with you and potentially offer you a job,” which sounded fishy to say the least. I Googled them and found they’re a scam that promises you huge bonuses and private plane rides, but essentially makes you sell door-to-door as a freelancer. Regardless, I decided to go to the interview for the experience and the giggles.

When I went to their office, I noticed that all the receptionists wore leopard heels and the interviewers wore laminated suits. The other interviewees were in no better shape: one of them had come to interview in sweatpants, with a take-away coffee in hand, and his girlfriend.

I was taken to the “Future Leaders Room” which, I swear to you, had a dingy old conference desk and posters of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie on the walls.

They called me a couple of hours after I left the interview. I never picked up the phone.

— Panos R.

The bathrobe award

Really now, shipowner?

A few years ago, I was looking for a job while I was still doing my degree. One of the interviews I was called to was a PA job for a famous shipowner. The interview was at his house because he had his office there too. I hadn’t completed my studies then and he could see that on my CV. Yet, he started asking me “Why are you still on your BSc?”, “Are you wasting my time?”, “You are not qualified for this job, you don’t have any other work experience.” I told him that he was the one to call me and that he should have looked at my resume before he did. I yelled at him that I don’t take insults from anybody and left. Did I tell you he was wearing just a bathrobe the whole time?

— Anonymous

The Louis Vuitton bag award

Offered salary shouldn’t depend on what candidates are currently making – or what you think they spend on things.

I had just graduated from college and I interviewed for the position of the CEO’s PA at a big pharmaceutical company. My first interview was with the existing PA, and my second interview was with the Marketing Director and another manager whose position I don’t recall.

When I went to the second interview, I carried a Louis Vuitton bag that my mom had given me as a graduation gift. The Marketing Director was asking common interview questions, when the other manager suddenly interrupted asking “Do you think it’s a good idea to bring that bag to an interview?” I realized he was referring to the fact that my bag was expensive and that we were in an economic crisis. I said that it was a gift and I didn’t think much about bringing it or not, it was just my bag. He then asked me, “So if we take your bag into account, what salary should we give you?”

Every answer that formed in my mind was very sarcastic but I settled with: “Whatever salary you think I deserve for the work I’ll do. You shouldn’t worry about what I do with it.”

A few more professional questions came from the Marketing Director, with the final question from the creep being: “What kind of car do you drive?” I replied “X car, it’s not expensive, is it?” “No, but it’s fancy,” he replied.

I didn’t get the job, but I wouldn’t have accepted to save my life.

— Eleni K.

The concept of reality award

The conversation might have been stimulating anyplace else.

Back when I was still an undergraduate student of informatics, I was looking for a part time job. I found an interesting job opening at a well-known insurance company for part-time assistant. I sent my CV and they called me a few days later, arranging an interview with Mr. K.

I arrived at the building and entered the main office – there was no reception room. They had an open space plan with boxed offices, but everyone was gone at that time except an old man in the back. There was complete silence.

The old man noticed me and stood up from his little cubicle. When he came closer, I noticed that his hair was standing on end, as if the man was experiencing great desperation or a mini-electrical shock. Half of his red tie was hanging behind his back.

He asked typical questions regarding studies and previous experience. He had a printed questionnaire full of checkboxes. He was writing down his notes as I answered. He wasn’t actually looking at me. But suddenly, he stopped, and looked at me straight in the eyes. The tie fell forward and he tossed it again behind his back. Then we had the weirdest exchange:

“Are you smart?”

“Yes, I consider myself smart.”

“If I considered you dumb, would you still be dumb or smart?”

“Everyone can have their opinion, that doesn’t mean every opinion is reality though.”

“But what is reality?”

After a few seconds of silence he continued ticking some checkboxes and rushed to say “Thank you Ms. T., bye!” Needless to say I was so relieved I left that building. I was sure I wouldn’t be offered the position and I was grateful for that.

— Gina T.

The really scammy scam award

Sometimes, you just know it won’t work… don’t let desperation get to you.

I was a 19-year-old college student and looking for a marketing internship. I applied and interviewed for many roles but didn’t land a job. Out of desperation, I sent out numerous applications in a single afternoon. Needless to say, I hadn’t done enough research on each position to know what I was getting myself into.

After a couple of days, I received an email to interview at a marketing company. At first, I was excited, but after looking closer at the position I spotted a few red flags. The company didn’t have a website, or any online reviews, and I couldn’t find any indication about what they actually did. The position wasn’t clear either, all I remember is they wanted someone with “a passion for marketing, high energy and an entrepreneurial spirit.” I should’ve trusted my gut, but I held out hope that this might be legit, so I went to the interview.

I drove and parked outside of the company offices which were in the basement of a small building on a busy road. I make my way down to the basement where about 15 other people around my age sat in a lobby. They were all there for interviews.

An overly cheery woman at the front desk checked me in on her long list of interviewees. She spent the next ten minutes hyping up our group, asking us about our hopes and dreams and praising us for having more drive than our peers for looking for an internship. There were uncomfortable smiles all around as we watched people be ushered in and out of interview rooms, each lasting no longer than five minutes.

Then, it was my turn. The creepily happy woman walked me into an office. A man behind the table shook my hand and spent the next five minutes asking me the most cliche interview questions: “Why are manhole covers round?” and “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?” He explained this position was an opportunity to “be my own boss” and “work my own hours.” I’d be working off commission so I’d have to be a go-getter in order to make connections and sales (and there was no limit in how much money I could make). The role? I’d be going door to door selling phone plan contracts for big-name telecommunication companies. This was no marketing internship.

I got out of there and blocked the company’s number from my phone. I’ve learned since that this company holds creepy pep rallies every week where they teach bizarre sales acronyms that you have to repeat and chant as a group. It acts a bit like a cult as it works you to the bone and makes you depend on the community.

My advice to other desperate college students like me: trust your gut and don’t go to sketchy interviews like this. I accepted an amazing (and legitimate) marketing internship a few weeks later.

— Carolyn M.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably either laughing or shaking your head with all these hiring horror stories. Well, people are strange, what’s important is to learn from our experiences. Until next Halloween!

Bonus: How to be the worst interviewer – The worst interview questions

We’d love to hear your own stories! Tweet to us @Workable or share a post with us on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta Bika is a senior writer at Workable and holds an MSc in HR. She writes about all things HR and recruiting, with a particular interest in bias, data, technology and the future of work. She hates meaningless jargon and dreams about space travel. She tweets @Nikoletta_Bika.

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