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Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview
by Sean Landis
August 26, 2010

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Summary
Sean Landis, author of Agile Hiring, lists ten ways an employer can screw up an on-site interview.

Ha! They finally decided to send me an email. Let’s see what it says...$5K more than the offer I just accepted. Not worth it. Thinking back, that was the worst interview I’ve ever had!

1. Be unprepared

Each interview session went the same way. They began with an uncomfortable silence while the interviewers read my resume. Then came a series of canned questions followed by a number of, well, random questions, as far as I could tell. Given the long pauses between the last several questions, you’d think they could have thought of something better to ask.

I felt like an irritating relative who drops by unannounced. You are compelled to invite him in to keep the peace, but you’d rather be doing something else. They certainly hadn’t prepared for me. I caught one team lead taking a quick glance at the top of my resume before extending a hand and saying, “You must be Sean.” And twice my interviewers and I had to go searching for a free conference room. One time we settled on the lunchroom.

2. Make a bad first impression

That whole interview was doomed from the start. I was fifteen minutes early and had to wait an extra twenty minutes while the receptionist tracked down the first interviewer. I guess she never found him because the person who picked me up clearly didn’t want to be there. He didn’t introduce himself, and briskly escorted me to a small conference room. He spat out, “I’m going to find Mike,” and slammed the door as he left.

3. Make the candidate feel inferior

It really was a blessing that my interview with Mike was late; I don’t think I could’ve stood another minute with the “Chief Architect.” Mike made me feel so stupid. He had a way of glaring at me in disbelief when I took too long to answer a question. If I didn’t know the answer, he would be sure to tell me, condescension dripping from every word. If I knew the answer, he would still follow up with some minor correction or piece of trivia that I failed to include. What a jerk.

4. Be late

No one seemed to be on time. There was the late start, and then I had to wait a few more times while one of my interviewers went to find the next interviewers. Lunch was cut short because we had to wait for a director who was in a meeting. I figured either these folks didn’t use calendar software, or they were simply too busy to do an interview. The work/life balance must suck if people don’t even have the time to deal with hiring.

5. Ask the wrong questions

Oh and the questions! I had looked forward to meeting Mike because of his reputation in open source operating systems, but I didn’t expect him to ask me about Linux device drivers. After all, his company sells supply chain software, not operating systems!

Then there were those two clever team leads that kept asking trick questions. “Here’s a piece of Java code. What does it do?” The damned thing looked like a monkey wrote it. I later learned the code had been entered in an obfuscated code contest. Not something normally encountered in production!

And Oh My God! The lunch questions! Couldn’t they have been a little more creative? “Where do you want to be in five years?” “Your boss, dumb shit!” I should have said it.

One guy had a checklist under the table from which he would ask hypothetical questions. “What would you do if a team member refused to pair program with you?” Shoot his ass.

They didn’t ask me my favorite though: “If you could eat anything right now, which historic figure would you invite.” Now that I think about it, not only did they waste my time with their stupid questions, they really pissed me off! I can’t imagine working with some of those people.

6. Ignore the candidate’s comfort needs

One of those interview sessions went by quite slowly. I don’t remember the questions but I do recall being deeply concerned about incontinence. I wrongly assumed that someone would ask me between sessions if I needed to use the rest room. I still had to ask on the next transition, as no one was offering.

I’m surprised I had to go so bad since no one offered me water or coffee. After lunch I took control, made the restroom break happen, and asked for a cup of coffee. By then I had realized no one was looking out for me so I had to look out for myself.

7. Fumble hand-offs

It’s good that I’m assertive because I was rarely introduced when I was handed off to a new set of interviewers. It reminded me of my kids who never introduce me to their friends.

One of the few interview teams that was on time had to wait ten minutes, and kept interrupting us while my interviewer grilled me on why I chose a leopard as the animal that best describes the way I debug code.

8. Allow interruptions

The director that made us late for lunch took about three calls at the restaurant. By the third, he didn’t even bother to step away. Every time he took a call, the two team leads with me would whip out their Blackberrys and check for messages. I wonder what those people do that they can’t step away from their job for an hour at lunch, especially for an interview.

Now that I think about it, that company really must have had a problem with scheduling software. People kept opening the conference room door and, after seeing us, say something like, “Oh sorry, I’m just looking for an empty room.” Maybe they just don’t have enough conference rooms. It must be a crazy place to work if people can’t find conference rooms when they need them.

9. Use litmus tests

And then there were the comments about the suit. “Over-dressed, aren’t you?” “Are you going to a funeral after this?” “I don’t think Marketing is hiring.”

If I’d known about the anti-suit culture, I would have worn Dockers and a polo shirt. I just wanted to convey that I took the interview seriously. Apparently the feeling wasn’t reciprocal.

One interview team immediately branded me a heretic when I stated that I saw the value in pair programming but thought it could be overdone if forced on people. I didn’t say that again for the rest of the day.

10. Fail to follow up promptly

So let’s see, it’s been three weeks since that ill-fated interview. I had received my first offer a few days later from the company I interviewed with two days before. I had an interview with my eventual employer the next day. I accepted their offer three days later. So those two companies were able to get back to me in just a few days.

I wonder if I should respond to this email out of respect. Ha. Ironic.

Dear Ms. Williams,

Thank you for tendering me an offer for the position of Senior Software Engineer. I am sorry to inform you that I have accepted another offer and will not be pursuing employment with you.

Best regards

Share your opinion

This is not a true story but similar things have all happened to me or to my colleagues. Some of my past employers have screwed up interviews in some of these ways. What are your experiences? Have you ever turned down an offer because the employer screwed up your interview? Did you ever accept a job after a really bad interview, only to regret it later? What are your best (worst?) interview stories? Please share your opinion in the discussion form for this article, Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview.

About the book

If you are convinced that hiring is a mission-critical activity, and you are committed to becoming great at hiring, I suggest you read my book, Agile Hiring. It is strikingly different from what has been written before on hiring. Much of the hiring wisdom is still there, but many of the ideas are new. These new ideas have been developed and tested in companies that are committed to hiring great software professionals. They work. I describe the key technical parts of hiring: resume reviews, phone interviews, on-site interviews, and making the offer.

Resources

Sean Landis is author of Agile Hiring, which is available at:
http://www.artima.com/shop/agile_hiring

About the Author

Sean Landis, a software architect with over twenty years of experience hiring software professionals, has hired in companies with less than ten developers and ones with thousands. He successfully retooled hiring practices at three companies, leading to significant improvements in the quality and quantity of new hires. Sean is a practicing software professional who today practices agile development and has innovatively applied agile principles to hiring.


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