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The 8 Biggest Interview Red Flags

Gauging a candidate’s potential and fit during an interview is always a tricky proposition for recruiters and hiring managers.

It’s definitely not something we get right 100% of the time. Recent research found that 46% of business leaders regret hiring their newest recruits, as companies aim to keep up with the talent acquisition challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

A huge 46% of senior decision makers surveyed said they have made a bad hire in the previous 12 months, with smaller businesses most affected.

How can you reduce this number?

There are several interview red flags that you can look out for that should help you spot bad hires. It’s not a foolproof system, but it can act as a safeguard against major hiring blunders.

1. Bragging about other offers

Have you ever had a candidate who boasted about other offers they were considering in the first interview?

When candidates brag about other offers, it’s a good indicator that they aren’t committed to the job you’re offering. They may accept another company’s offer, and they might even use yours as leverage in the process.

If they do join your team, you’re left worrying about retention — these are exactly the kind of candidates that tend to be on the lookout for greener pastures!

It’s important to note that mentioning other offers isn’t always a red flag. At later stages of your process it’s perfectly okay for candidates to be transparent and let you know that they're talking to other companies.

This process looks something like this:

“I am very interested in your opportunity. Please let me know the timing and details for the next step, I also have another offer I’m evaluating.”

2. Lack of passion for the role

You have a responsibility to hire people that are excited about what they’ll be doing. Employee motivation has a direct impact on productivity and growth, but apart from that, if you're recruiting for a B2C role, you should expect the candidate to have at least tried your product (whether it’s a mobile app or a fruit drink).

Ideally, they should use your product and love it! Why else would they spend 40 hours a week working on it?

At the bare minimum, candidates should have read a few company blog posts and spent time researching the role in detail.

It should be immediately apparent how passionate candidates are about the role and how much they want to be a part of your team.

You can test how much research people have done by simply asking a few questions about the company, recent projects, or plans for the future.

3. Playing the victim

Have you ever interviewed a candidate with a victim mentality? You probably have without even knowing it.

For these candidates, everything is someone else’s fault. Their previous boss hated them. Their old company was out to get them. They were ignored for promotions. The list goes on...

Another way to spot this trait is to look out for candidates that are leaving their previous company because there's “nothing left to learn”. While there are occasions when this can be a legitimate complaint, it’s usually a red flag.

Regardless of your company’s size, (and no matter how mundane the work), there are almost always opportunities to learn and improve. If you find yourself faced with a candidate that does nothing but complain, ask yourself how happy they’d be at your company and how much they'd have to “learn”.

4. Lack of ownership

This one is pretty closely related to playing the victim. Look out for candidates who blame all failures on colleagues or managers.

Ideally, what you should look for is “extreme ownership”, a concept Ex Navy-Seal Jocko Willink explores in his book, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win. Don’t let the title fool you, there are many excellent management lessons here that any leader can put to good use. The best candidates don’t just take ownership of their own errors in judgment: they’ll leave their ego at the door, and tell you the part they played in team mistakes and how they could have performed better.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with mistakes. They often help people find a clearer path to success — feedback from mistakes shows us which tactics work and which don’t. The problem is when people don’t learn from their mistakes.

When candidates show extreme ownership you can be confident that they’re the kind of person that learns from their mistakes. When they constantly blame others without taking any responsibility, that’s an immediate red flag.

It’s a pretty simple rule, but it can help you avoid making bad hires.

5. Unable to explain previous work

What’s your first impulse when a candidate can’t articulate what they did at their last job? Usually it’s an instant no. Not being able to talk about their work doesn’t inspire confidence, and makes it seem like they weren’t particularly invested at their last company.

Now, it’s true that your interviewing process needs to account for introverts, because not everyone can speak with free-flowing abandon.

There is a point where you need to draw the line though. You don’t have the option to see the candidate in action at their current company and you (legally) can’t request their HR file. You must get the information directly from them.

It’s really difficult to make a solid evaluation when candidates can’t talk you through their previous role. It doesn’t necessarily mean they won't be a good hire, but it does mean that you should be wary.

6. Asking no questions

A good interview is a conversation. It’s almost comparable to a first date — both sides need to be engaged, otherwise it's tricky to tell whether it’s a good match.

A lack of questions suggests a lack of interest. It makes you wonder how much a candidate really wants the job.

There’s a problem though. This is a pretty well known red flag, so you’ll find that some candidates ask a few generic questions just for the sake of it. How can you spot these people?

The best candidates will ask questions because they’re genuinely interested in learning more about the role. They also don’t flit from one question to the next like they’re ticking boxes on a checklist. They should be curious, and ask follow-up questions to make sure they understand the answers you’re giving them.

7. Rudeness

This is a pretty simple red flag to spot, and it can come in a couple of different guises:

i) Sloppiness and tardiness

First impressions matter. If a candidate turns up looking untidy for an interview, what does that lead you to think of them? It takes as little as 7 seconds for the human brain to form a judgment on someone. By the time you’ve shaken a candidate’s hand or said hello on Zoom, you’ll already have formed your initial impression.

First impression facts:

  • First impressions are lasting
  • It takes only a few seconds to make judgements when meeting people
  • You can control the kind of impression you make, but it won’t happen without planning
  • Initial impressions are often made without the information needed to form an accurate assessment
  • Initial impressions are instinctive
  • An interviewer often relies on the initial impression to determine the best person for the job
  • Our sight is our strongest sense, and provides us with enough information to determine how we feel about someone we just met.

Being late for an interview (without prior notice) is another danger sign. It’s usually indicative of personal tardiness, and suggests that the candidate doesn’t really care about your opportunity.

ii) Swearing

Swearing in an interview doesn’t mean that a candidate will be a bad employee or will perform poorly in the role they are applying for. What it does show is very poor judgment and a lack of self awareness.

Interviews are like auditions. Candidates should understand that while some people aren’t bothered by swearing, there are many people that find it pretty offensive and unprofessional. As a result, certain words should be off limits during an interview.

iii) Unpreparedness

It’s a huge red flag if the candidate didn’t bother to prepare for the interview. If they’re truly interested in the role, they should be putting their best foot forward. Their level of interview prep could also be a good indicator of how engaged they’ll be on the job.

Being prepared isn’t a huge investment. All it requires is:

  • Keeping their resume handy
  • Being on time
  • Researching the company and role
  • Having good questions prepared

8. Reference checking: safeguard or red flag?

There will always be candidates that perform fantastically well during the interview, before disappearing entirely on the job.

The ability to interview well is one thing — the ability to perform on the job is another. This is why you need a safeguard.

Reference checks provide a clearer picture of a candidate’s actual performance abilities and history. If a candidate is refusing to give you a reference, that’s another major red flag that should not be ignored.

It's worrying if: a candidate refuses to provide references altogether, tries to explain why their references aren’t a good judge of character or ability; or demands that the offer be granted before reference checking.

In this case, it’s pretty hard not to worry about what the candidate is hiding. If you find yourself in this position, the safest move is to steer clear and go to your second choice.

If you’re on the lookout for some high quality interview questions that will help you identify the best candidates, check out the 25 best interview questions (and how to spot great answers).

Read more of our thinking on attracting top talent to your organization.