Interview red flags for employers: 5 common myths about candidates

Christina Pavlou | |

“Do you know why I invited you to this interview?”
“I guess it’s because I have the right skills for the job?”
“Well, yes, you’re qualified, but what really stood out to me in your resume is your birth date. My son was born on that day, too!”

True story. Years ago, when I was interviewing for a different role, I heard that I was lucky enough to be considered for the job since I celebrate my birthday on the same day as the hiring manager’s son. That’s a weird thing to hear during an interview, but it’s not the only time a hiring manager has said something that made the candidate’s eyes roll.

In my case, a superficial thing got me a shot at an interview. In other cases, though, similar things could be reasons for rejection. It could be the “wrong” star sign, too much facial hair or a degree from anywhere but an Ivy League school.

I get it. Sometimes, recruiters and hiring managers are trying to find ways to speed up the candidate screening process, and in some cases, be “original”. Picture this: You’ve opened a new role and you want to decide which applicants are worth interviewing. If you’ve received 20 applications, it’s easy to go through each one of them and see who’s qualified and who’s not. But, what if you’ve received 100? And what if you have five more open jobs at the same time? Plus, what if you can’t screen candidates based on tangibles (e.g. whether they hold a relevant degree), but you have to evaluate intangibles, such as creativity or ability to think quickly?

Same can happen to the next stage – the interview. If you need to make a hiring decision fast (and more often than not, you do have a tight deadline), you have to come up with dealbreakers that will help you quickly sort candidates in qualified and unqualified.

Arbitrary interview red flags = Risky hiring decisions

The problem begins when these dealbreakers are unrelated to the job, even if they seem totally professional at first glance. You might have heard things such as:

  • “I automatically reject candidates who don’t offer or attempt to take the empty coffee cup back to the kitchen at the end of the interview.” The reasoning behind this? This simple test reveals candidates’ level of ownership. People who are willing to “wash their own cup” are more likely to apply this attitude on the job, as well.
  • “If someone doesn’t send a thank-you email, don’t hire them.” The reasoning? Candidates who send a thank-you email are well-mannered, organized and want the job. Those who don’t, aren’t interested enough.
  • “We will only hire people with the ESTP personality type for our sales team.” The reasoning? According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, these people are energetic, analytical and efficient. Those who are introverted couldn’t possibly be good salespeople.

A quick online search will give you tons of examples like these. And when you’re in a place where you have to choose between two (or more) good candidates, it’s natural to turn to these criteria. But are they really valid? Or, do they just serve as unfair shortcuts to a faster – but not necessarily better – recruiting?

Let’s see which are the most common interview red flags for employees and why they should have no place in your hiring process and decision-making:

1. Awkward eye contact

You’re interviewing Diego for a developer role and you notice right away his sweaty, weak handshake and his seeming inability to hold your gaze. It’s clear that he’s very nervous. But, considering this is a job interview, can you blame him?

The way we interpret body language differs among cultures. In Asia, for example, avoiding eye contact is a polite gesture, whereas for Europeans, eye contact is a way to show they’re interested in what the other person is saying. Even beyond cultural differences, lack of eye contact could have various, and not so obvious, interpretations. For example, people on the autism spectrum are more likely to feel uncomfortable with eye contact. And while we usually think that someone who avoids looking us into the eyes might be lying, it’s turned out that liars tend to maintain eye contact for longer.

Psychologists and sociologists may have the right background to understand body language. But, those of us who are not trained in that area, could easily jump to conclusions driven by our personal biases. Back to the previous example, if you’re used to making eye contact with people, you might instantly think that Diego has something to hide and that’s why he avoids looking directly at you. But that’s your interpretation. It might as well be that he comes from a different culture with different habits, or that looking away helps him concentrate, or simply that his eye contacts are drying out.

The only way to be sure you’re evaluating candidates properly and objectively, is through job-related questions and assignments. Body language can give you hints about whether candidates are feeling nervous, aggressive or reserved during the interview, but take those signs with a pinch of salt.

The counterstatement

Let’s not dismiss body language completely, though. There are some non-verbal cues you can pick up during interviews that could, in some cases, play a part in your decision-making. If you’re looking for an event organizer, you want to hire someone who is comfortable speaking with strangers, builds rapport quickly and is pleasant. A candidate who’s nervous throughout the interview struggling to keep the conversation going might not be a good fit.

Still, you can’t rely your decision solely on the candidate’s hand-wringing habit or their trembling voice. You should count in all factors that affect an employee’s job performance to make well-rounded hiring decisions.

2. Unprofessional dress code

First impressions count. And seeing a candidate walking into the interview in ripped jeans, graphic t-shirt or really sweaty shirt might not leave the best impression. But appearance should never be a reason to reject – or hire – someone. Because when you scratch beyond the surface, that’s when you can really discover the candidate’s strengths. Something like what happened to Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness:

There’s a ton of advice online about what to wear to an interview. Yet, those dress code guidelines are often open to interpretation. Depending on their age group, gender, culture or even socio-economic class, people could have different opinions as to what kind of attire is, for example, ‘business casual’. So, there’s a level of unconscious bias when you’re judging candidates based on their clothes. It’s worth making the effort to go past those biases and evaluate candidates using strictly job-related, objective criteria, and not whether they wore a shirt and a tie or not.

The counterstatement

There are some roles that require more formal clothing. For example, employees who regularly meet with clients and senior managers might need to avoid casual wear. In these cases, it’s best to ask candidates directly how they feel about it. Just because they came underdressed at the interview, it doesn’t mean that they can’t follow your company’s dress code policy.

3. Lack of passion

These are common requirements in job ads: to be passionate about Python, to live and breathe email marketing, to be completely obsessed with creating UI design mockups. When you’re hiring a new employee, you want them to be interested in the job, the field and your company. Fair enough. But, passionate? Maybe that’s a lot to ask.

The biggest issue with passion is that it’s not really tangible. Particularly in a job interview setting where candidates want to impress and stand out. They might claim they’re passionate about the job, but is this true or are they simply saying what you (might) want to hear? And, on the other side, if you can’t spot their enthusiasm, is this a sign of lack of passion or are they just keeping their emotions in check?

There’s a cultural issue here, too. Some people have learned – whether through cultural influences or personal upbringings – that it’s best to keep emotions out of the workplace and, therefore, refrain from showing their passion. It doesn’t mean that they’re less excited about the job than a more extroverted candidate. It’s just a matter of how each expresses their passion.

The bottom line is that passion doesn’t necessarily speak for a candidate’s interest in the job. More importantly, it doesn’t say anything about the candidate’s ability to do the job. Interest is a different thing. Interested candidates – and, therefore, candidates you should keep an eye out for – are those who come to the interview prepared, who’ve checked your website, know your competitors and are familiar with your brand. They’re not the ones who “absolutely love” your company and shout about it.

The counterstatement

For some roles, it makes sense to look for candidates who’re truly engaged with your industry or cause. Think of a brand ambassador who influences people to buy your products. It’s important that they’re as genuine as possible when talking to potential customers. This means that it’s best to hire employees who’ve already tried your products and services and are happy to share their experiences.

Or, imagine you have a tobacco company. Would you want to hire an anti-smoker? Even if they’re not directly working on manufacturing or promoting tobacco products (e.g. they’re working as developers or office managers), it’s likely they won’t stay for long in a company if they’re opposed to its mission.

4. Early – or late – arrival at the interview

A candidate who shows up late for their interview is not a good sign. Likewise, another candidate who arrives super early might put you in an uncomfortable position of finding a waiting space and ensuring there’s someone around to cater for them. But don’t be so quick to raise a red flag.

Things don’t always go as planned. It’s normal to underestimate or to overestimate traffic volume, or even to get lost, particularly when you’re going to an area you’re not familiar with. This is not necessarily associated with the candidate’s time management skills or their level of interest for the job. In fact, as this ad from NRMA, the Australian organization that offers roadside assistance, illustrates, sometimes being late means that you know how to prioritize:

The counterstatement

When a candidate is really late for the interview, without giving some notice beforehand or without apologizing, that’s something you might want to further explore. Ask how they’ve managed time-sensitive projects in the past, learn about their job-related scheduling habits (e.g. if they use a calendar app and a task management tool) and consider their overall behavior during the hiring process. For example, if you notice that they usually don’t respond promptly on emails, they might indeed struggle with time management.

5. Long commute

There’s a lot of controversy around home address and whether job seekers should include it in their resume or not. Some career counselors say no, as it could lead to discrimination. But, some HR professionals dislike secretiveness; they automatically think that candidates might have something to hide when they don’t disclose where they live.

No matter how you find out you where a candidate lives (it could be on their resume or you can learn about it during small talk at the interview), it shouldn’t really matter. It sounds reasonable that an employee who lives in the same block as your company’s offices is more likely to be on time every day compared to another employee who has to take two trains and walk for 20 minutes to get there. It also sounds reasonable that employees with a quick 15-minute subway commute will have a better mood in the morning, as opposed to their colleague who has to drive every day for 45 minutes in heavy traffic.

Yes, these may sound reasonable statements, but deep down they’re all assumptions. What if that candidate with the long commute is planning to move to a new house soon? Or what if the employee who has to bear the traffic is perfectly happy to have landed their dream job while also enjoying a quiet family life in the suburbs?

Assumptions could be costing you great candidates – and hinder diversity. If your workplace is in a hip neighborhood and you only hire people who live close by, you’re weeding out those who have a tighter budget, newer immigrants or new residents in the city who may be not as likely able to afford a home in that area.

The counterstatement

If you have serious reasons to believe that an employee’s location could affect their work performance, then address those concerns before making a decision. In other words, be open about the expectations you have and discuss with candidates whether they’re able and willing to meet them. In the long run, employees stay at jobs they like, not at jobs with a convenient commute.

Here are some example interview questions you can ask:

  • The store opens at 9 am so we need you to be here at 8:30 am to get ready for customers. Will you be able to be at the store on time every day?
  • We work in shifts so we need to re-arrange the schedule in case a coworker is sick. Are you available to occasionally take evening shifts?
  • Are you willing to travel X% of time?

Debunking the myths. And then, what?

What all these interview red flags have in common is that they’re based on assumptions. Yes, a candidate who arrives late to the interview might have time management issues, but you don’t know that for sure.

To hire the best, you need to be objective. And you can be objective if you evaluate candidates using tangible criteria, not arbitrary reasons or shortcuts. More importantly, you need to make sure that you’re a great interviewer, giving all candidates the opportunity to shine.

Looking for an all-in-one recruiting solution? Workable can improve candidate sourcing, interviewing and applicant tracking for a streamlined hiring process. Sign up for our 15-day free trial today.

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Christina Pavlou

Christina is a writer at Workable, previously a recruiter. She writes about diversity in the workplace and reports on the shape of things to come. She tweets @ChristinaPaulou.

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