Make-or-Break Interview Mistakes by Liz Ryan

To get on HR’s good side, avoid certain behaviors. A major faux pas, and your name gets crossed off that list of potential candidates.

Some people go into human resources thinking that it’s like social work. Here’s a news flash for anyone who thinks in those terms: If you’re the kind of person who wants to adopt every stray kitten and advise every needy person you meet, you may want to find a different profession.

The plain truth is that HR people have limits on how supportive they can be. They can help employees only to the extent that what’s good for them is good for the company. They can help job candidates even less because the HR person’s job is to evaluate applicants — and eliminate from consideration those the company just doesn’t need.

A perfect example of the limits of HR compassion involves the job seeker who needs professional advice. Every HR person has stories about people who have come to interview in wildly unsuitable attire, or who have said something so outrageous within the first five minutes of the interview that the rest of the conversation was a waste. As much as they may joke after the fact, most HR people — myself included — dread these situations.

Your natural instinct is to be helpful, to tell the candidate where he went wrong. But you can’t; you might get sued, you might offend someone. And in any case, there’s no benefit to the company in being so, well, caring. Instead, you clam up, smile that lips-together fake smile that corporate HR people are so good at, and say to the candidate: “We’ll be in touch.”

So, if hapless job seekers are making the same mistakes during interview after interview, who’s going to tell them? Unless their friends somehow see the picture, no one. That task falls to me, right here, right now. Pay attention to these suggestions for avoiding five major “we’re done” interview behaviors, and tell your friends:

Dress for the occasion.

I interviewed a gentleman for a product-manager position who was smart and friendly. He arrived in a lovely wool suit, but wearing a necktie with a large Taz on it — you know, the Tazmanian devil. Now why, I couldn’t stop thinking, did this guy wear a Taz tie to an interview? He didn’t mention it, so it wasn’t some sort of rapport-building device.

I sure as heck didn’t mention it, but the Taz tie took up more and more space in the room, until I couldn’t tear my gaze from it. Why a Taz tie, in a business job interview? Does the guy own the whole Looney Tunes character collection? It was too weird — a big deal. Why didn’t he wear a different tie?

You don’t have to wear Brooks Brothers to a job interview, but you have to look businesslike. There are still plenty of funky startups that would welcome a job seeker in one of those 1950s bowling shirts that Kramer used to wear on Seinfeld. But if you’re applying at a standard, buttoned-down company, dress the part. And please, gentleman: If you have any ’80s vintage three-piece suits, donate them! Burn them! (If three-piece suits are back and I missed it, somebody let me know. But the ’80s ones are unmistakable, and they have to go.)

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Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace, a former Fortune 500 HR executive, and the author of Happy About Online Networking: the Virtual-ly Simple Way to Build Professional Relationships. Liz speaks to audiences around the world about work, life and networking, and works with employers on attracting and retaining world-class talent.