10 Interview Mistakes that Cost You Great Candidates

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

We all want to hire the best, but we don't always get the best to accept our offers.  Sometimes we lose out on them for reasons beyond our control ("Linkedin offered them $250,000 in stock options"), but there are also times it was totally under our control ("I didn't hear from you for 2 weeks and accepted another offer.")

The interview is the first impression a candidate gets of your business beyond the press. This is often their only peak into how the proverbial "sausage is made" in your company.  If you're not careful, these interview mistakes will give the wrong impression and lead to great candidates losing interest in working with you.

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10 Interview Mistakes that Cost You Great Candidates

It was surprising both how quickly some friends and I came up with this list of mistakes and how many of us knew we were guilty of these ourselves as much as experiencing them as a candidate.

I hope you will reflect on these and get just a little better for the sake of building a more awesome team. It will also help you be more empathetic for those looking and dealing with the oftentimes awkward interview process.

Mistake #1: Not regularly reviewing new applicants

The Situation: You've scoured the internet for companies that need someone with your skills and experience, while also having a culture that resonates with you.  You finally find one.

You tailor your resume to the job, and excitedly apply.

Then, you hear nothing.

Days go by, then a week, then two weeks.

Maybe your dream company isn't such a dream...

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The Outcome: When you don't respond to candidates, it leaves them making up their own story: Is the company not actually hiring, is the job filled, or do they not care? And even worse, you may find a great candidate applied and by the time you notice it, they already have another job. You both missed out.

Now, the way some people work around this is to get an intro to someone on the team they want to work on. That's great if someone has a strong network, but should that be a requirement to even get a look at your company?  If you're looking for diversity, requiring people to know someone on your team is the opposite of that.

What to do instead: If you're serious about finding good candidates, you need to take every step in the process seriously. That starts with building a regular habit of checking for new applicants.

Most Applicant Tracking Systems can send you an alert when someone applies, or a daily digest of all applicants. Either way, work to review applicants as they come in. If it's hard to keep up, ask for help from some of your team to stay on top of it.  Once you review them, remember to choose to send the rejection note: No is always better than silence.

Mistake #2: Not preparing before interviewing them

The Situation: You've prepared all night for an interview. You dove deep into their product and have all kinds of ideas for how to help the company.

Then you get to the interview, sit down and see a parade of people coming in to interview you who each skim your resume in front of you and ask the same generic questions. You keep a polite face and answer genuinely, but inside you're thinking...

The Outcome: Everyone looks silly when you're reading their resume on the spot. Do you really know what you want in a candidate? Don't use people to help you figure it out.

If you can't prepare some questions and know why each person is interviewing them so they can prepare some constructive questions, don't schedule them to come in.

When you waste interview time, you waste the candidate's time and your team's; the former could have been talking to a serious company, while the latter could have been getting work done for you.

What to do instead: Always remember the opportunity cost for your team when they're spending time interviewing. Make the most of it with good, thought preparation.

Have a clear plan for what each person is meant to evaluate them for in an interview and make sure they come up with good questions. If you need help with this, I highly recommend the book, Who, to help you map out what you want in a hire and what to ask them.

Mistake #3: Making them wait a very long time

The Situation:  You are super excited to interview at Company X. You show up 10 minutes early, hoping to show how dedicated and punctual you are. You proceed to be asked to wait as your interviewer is, "in another meeting...it will only be a bit" only to wait an hour before someone finally starts your interview.

All during that time your mind starts wondering and stress builds as you review your notes for the 12th time and wonder if you forgot anything critical...

The Outcome: Will the candidate remember the super cool office you have, the mocha-strawberry-smoothie machine you have in the kitchen, or the hour long wait you had them suffer through? Sadly, this mistake is usually paired with not being prepared with interview questions.

You wouldn't accept a candidate coming late to the interview, so you have to hold yourself to the same standard.

What to do instead: This isn't a doctor's office. Their time is as valuable as yours. Don't schedule an interview if you know it will be hard to have it then. Don't schedule more interviews than you can handle in a day, either. Consider narrowing your filter of which candidates advance if you're finding you have too many interviews to balance all your other work responsibilities.

Mistake #4: Giving unclear instructions

The Situation: Your uber on the way to your interview gets caught in traffic and you don't get there quite as early as you'd like. The address they give you is easy enough to find, but then you find out they're in a high rise, and security expects you to know what their office number is.

Sweating profusely, you frantically search through your emails on your phone looking for hints. Finally, you're saved by someone walking in from the company, but not before you're totally stressed out...

The Outcome: Does your building have security they need to sign in? What floor are you on? Do you have an admin to welcome them or should they walk in and ask the first person they see for help? Will they be filling out a detailed application form that they'll need answers handy for? Did you tell them how to dress for your office?

No one should be embarrassed because they guessed wrong on something like whether your office is suited up, business casual, or anything goes.

Any of these problems is reason enough to shame a candidate into not wanting to move forward with you or failing an interview they'd otherwise ace.

What to do instead: Take the time to tell candidates the little details you take for granted because you've worked there for years.

Job hunting is stressful and it's hard to remember every thing to ask each company.  You can easily have a template that everyone hiring can email to interviewees. Just make sure it's clear who is in charge of sending it so it definitely happens.

Mistake #5: Thinking spontaneous puzzles will tell you the quality of a candidate

The Situation: You've spent all day prepping for this interview and thinking about questions they may ask based on the job description. Then, you get there and they proceed to ask you a question like, "How many ping pong balls can fit in a school bus?"  Unless you *love* puzzles, that probably makes you feel like doing this...

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The Outcome: Unless you're in the business of ping pong ball estimation, brain teasers won't help you. As Google discovered, these puzzles have no correlation between being a good hire and not.

Show respect for the candidate who came in and ask them things that actually show if they can do the job you're hiring them for. Otherwise, they're likely to walk away feeling like they never showed what they can actually do for your open role.

What to do instead: Ask questions that actually apply to the job and test whether they took the time to prepare. Don't waste time in your interviews evaluating skills people don't need.

As a bonus, if you ask about real challenges in your business, you'll turn interview time into an opportunity to get a diverse set of ideas for solving them.

Mistake #6: Not giving them time to ask questions

The Situation:  You make it through a grueling set of interviews with multiple potential future team members. They sometimes ask you the exact same questions, but you smile and give them all thoughtful answers.

You get to the end of the final interview with the hiring manager and they look at their watch and tell you, unfortunately, there's no time for your questions. You keep a straight face, but inside you're thinking...

The Outcome: They're interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them.  When you don't give them time to ask questions, it's showing what matters to them isn't important to you.  That's not a great impression to set to someone you hope will be on your team. It also makes it hard for them to be sure your company is the right fit all around.

What to do instead: Specifically set aside time for them to ask questions just like you'd put Tina's pair coding session on the agenda.

Make it a reasonable amount of time, and don't let your questions run over into it. Showing you care about their questions, and expect them, sets the right impression on how you care for the interests of your team.

Mistake #7: Not being transparent about your process

The Situation: You have a phone screen, and then another call.  You think they went well, but you're not sure. You are then invited into interview and are told they'll be in touch. You walk out thinking you crushed it, but every day you don't hear builds doubt.

You have other interviews that are moving forward and now you're trying to guess if you should wait to hear on this one or accept another offer (or start the interview process at more companies). Interviewing can feel like a lot of hurry up and wait...

The Outcome: A candidate shouldn't need offers on the table to get you to move quickly. Either someone is awesome enough you're still interested, or you should spare both sides time and move on.

When you aren't transparent about your process (or even worse lack a clear one), you're opening the window for candidates to aggressively pursue other opportunities even if you're their top choice.

Even worse, if you flat out ghost them (i.e.- don't tell them you're no longer interested), the sour taste is likely to lead to them telling others to avoid interviewing at your company.  With today's Applicant Tracking Systems giving you an easy, legal-friendly rejection note you can automatically send them, there's no excuse not to tell them it wasn't a fit.

What to do instead: You should have a hiring plan and be able to clearly articulate the steps each candidate will or will not go through.

If you can move fast through the process, you'll build momentum that makes joining your company seem inevitable for a good candidate. See former HubSpot CTO Elias Torres and Kayak co-founder Paul English for examples of hiring smart people often in less than week. Could you move that fast, or would they be able to steal a candidate right out from under you?

Mistake #8: Not hiring for skill and potential

The Situation: You're out on the interview trail. You're meeting with companies and everyone focuses only on what you've already done and how you can do exactly the same thing at the next job.

What started as an exciting proposition of a new role feels like surprisingly little change.  You're starting to feel like your career is boxed in...

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The Outcome:  Good people want to grow. If you only hire them for what they've already done they will be bored quickly. This makes them easily poach-able if someone else sees their potential and gives them a growth opportunity and can motivate them to be looking for another job on their own.

If you don't ask about what they're excited about and look for potential for people to do more than exactly what their resume says, you'll miss out on some amazing candidates.

What to do instead: Hire people for what they can become as much as what they can already do. They'll be motivated and excited to fill the shoes you give them.

As a bonus, people that are growing into a role are forced to learn new skills to survive which is a habit you want to foster; a company filled with constantly growing people will have tons of great internal candidates who could be promoted within.

Mistake #9: Asking for free work

The Situation: You've enjoyed learning more about the role, and like the people you've met from the team. There's just one more thing: a take home assignment.

Unfortunately, the assignment is neither small, nor simple. It's going to take you a day or two to complete, and it sure looks like work they'd use the work for the business when you complete it. Whether you get hired or not, you're feeling cheapened by the fact they're asking for free work.

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The Outcome: When you ask people to do free work for you, it can create a sour taste; they can feel used, and that you don't value their time or efforts. Especially for designers, this can be a very frustrating, but all too common experience. Not surprisingly, they tell others about it:


What to do instead: You want to find the best candidates, and there's no better way to find out if people can do the work than by having them do the work. That's why we're big fans of this interview tactic. However, it's important to really think about what you're asking:

  • It's okay not to pay: If it's a small task, you wouldn't use it in your actual business, and helps you see if they can do the real job they'll be tasked with, you're all good.
  • Pay them for their time: If it's a large task, you could use it in your actual business, or you're asking them to come work at your office (or remotely with your staff) then you should pay them for their time.

In the end, you'll be paying this person a lot of money if you hire them. A few hundred dollars to pay for a candidate to do some work to make sure they're the right choice, is a low investment, high reward move. It also ensures you're not the next company secretly blacklisted by good candidates who know to avoid you and your requests for free work.

Mistake #10: Mis-using culture fit

The Situation: You go all through the interview process and everything seems great. You like the sounds of the role and you have the right skills and potential.

Unfortunately, you don't get an offer. They reject you on a vague, unspecific reference of "not a culture fit."

On one hand, you're glad to have avoided taking a job where their expectations for you socially or your work values are different. On the other, you're disappointed that you missed out on what sounded like a great next step in your career that could have also really helped the company fill a need. They may have spared you some awkwardness, but you both really lost...

The Outcome: There are a lot of reasons someone may not be a considered a good "culture fit," and unfortunately, many companies use it as a crutch to reject someone they really should hire (Mathias Meyer has a good post on this).

Maybe your team drinks heavily and they don't drink at all (which alienates many groups based on age, religion, and personal choices). Maybe you're a team of 20-somethings fresh out of college and they're older with a family. Maybe they're allergic to dogs and you have an office dog (which if you rejected them for that, violates the American with Disabilities Act).

If things like that are really important to you, by all means filter on them, but realize you're missing out on the value of diversity in your team, and in some cases could be breaking the law.

What to do instead: Ask yourself if the reasons you're rejecting someone actually relate to whether someone can perform exceptionally in the role and live up to the standards you and the rest of the team have set. Can you or whomever on the team is playing the "not a culture fit" card clearly articulate why someone isn't a fit?

It shouldn't be about ping pong skills, drinking habits, or how often someone stays for dinner at the office. Instead, it should be things like the type and caliber of work they do, the belief in your mission, and how they communicate.

Building great teams is too hard not to make sure that they aren't just capable of the job, but a good fit. Just be careful to not confuse hiring only people exactly like you with being a culture fit.


Recruiting reflects your company

I saw this quote tweeted a while ago and it rings true:

What message are you sending candidates?

Finding and hiring good people is tough. They always have options. Don't make it even harder by not getting your interview process right.

Any process is better than none, so make sure you take some time to plan out your process, and treat every candidate with respect.  By also adding a little empathy for what it's like to be the job seeker going through your process, you'll stand out against most other companies.

What are the biggest interview mistakes you've seen or made yourself?

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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