"I'm sorry—we've actually made an offer to another candidate."
It's a phrase any job hunter hates to hear, especially when the days drag on after your initial interview, and you begin to wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”
Of course, most of us already know the tried-and-true etiquette for landing your dream job: Don’t forget the cover letter. Make sure your social media accounts are up-to-date.
But what other little hobgoblins of job hunting can really trip you up?
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
We spoke to hiring managers to find out the real reasons good applicants can get the ax—and seven told us how potential hires they've interviewed have talked themselves out of a paycheck.
1. Lack of Follow Up
“Not providing good follow up is almost always a killer," says Meghan Keane, vice president of editorial at Alloy Digital. "I'm always surprised when I have an interview with someone I really like, and they don't follow up. No thank you note. No outreach. It usually means they aren't interested in the job or aren't as good as I thought."
The reason this matters is that it's a good indication of how you'll perform on the job: "When you're actually working with someone, you need them to be responsible," she says. "If they can't get back to you when they really want to be hired, would they be responsive on a daily basis?”
What you should do: Be prolific in your thanks. After every interview, send a follow-up note, says Keane. Even if you immediately hear that you aren’t getting the job, send a thank you for the consideration. Even if the person interviewing you was rude and you wouldn’t take the job had it been offered, send a thank you because it's the right thing to do. And if you don't want the job, do it simply because you never know where your interviewer will land next.
2. Not Knowing Your Audience
You'd think there are certain things that would be givens: Like not trotting out any big, red flags that could put the kibosh on your getting the job. "In our business, you have to be dedicated to the country and the military," explains Scott Maddox, site manager at a national defense corporation. "Not to mention, you have to be able to pass a background check. I had one applicant who slyly mentioned that he does everything in his power to not pay his taxes. I couldn’t believe he would say something like that to a company that works with the government."
The takeaway: Do your homework—and that means researching not only the particular company you're interviewing with, but keeping up on industry norms and trends. Then make sure that your behavior, and the information you offer in the interview, will help your cause, not hurt it. And, as a general rule of thumb, it's almost always better to pay your taxes. (If you have questions about how to pay your taxes, we can help.)
3. Being Overly Ambitious
"Of course we want employees who are ambitious and hope to move forward with our company," says Jeremy Gates, research team leader at a pharmaceutical company. "But at the same time, I don't want to hire an entry-level employee who isn't going to be happy with the job they're getting. I had one young lady who was extremely bright and very driven, but she didn’t ask a single question about what her position would be now. She was only interested in how quickly she could get promoted and our advancement opportunities. If you’re already looking at the job that you might be eligible for months from now, it tells me that you aren't going to be satisfied with the position you’re getting.”
The takeaway: There’s a fine line to walk between wanting to advance—and wanting it so badly you talk yourself out of a job you haven't gotten yet. It is okay to ask a single question about this job's advancement opportunities, or whether the company frequently promotes from within, but if you want to get hired, never announce that you don't do grunt work, and do focus your attention on proving you're the best candidate for the job in front of you.
4. Playing the Victim
“Every once in a while, I'll get a candidate who just seems to have the worst luck at everything," recalls M.C., a commercial banking manager. "They had to leave one job because of an ill parent, then they were laid off two months later, and then they had a personal health problem. They talk about their life as if it was a series of unfortunate events. And even if those events were out of the person's control, all that negativity can be worrisome. Or maybe I just don't want to bring their bad voodoo into the company. Really, I just feel like I'll spend the next few years feeling sorry for them instead of managing them."
The takeaway: Yes, bad luck can happen to good people, but airing your dirty laundry in an interview never got anyone ahead. The bottom line is that you can't expect a hiring manager to have time or energy to deal with your personal life, especially before you've even proven yourself. Remember: They’re looking for someone to make their job easier, and for someone who knows how to work through problems as they crop up. Save your sad tales for your most sympathetic friend and put your best face forward in a job search.
5. Neglecting Your Body Language
“Once you’ve done this for a while, you have an ability to read people by their behavior," says Deb Niezer, COO of AALCO Distributing. "You look at body language, the way they speak and the way they present themselves to show the whole picture. If they say, 'I’m open to new ideas,' but then sit with their arms and legs crossed, it’s questionable. If they say they have management skills but don’t carry themselves like leaders, it’s hard to trust that assertion. The details make the difference.”
The takeaway: It’s not enough to talk the talk. Seasoned managers hear a lot of the same answers from prospective employees, so they have to look beyond the rhetoric to find people who really fit in with the company culture. That’s why professionals like Niezer pay attention to the subtler details, like how you carry yourself. (Don't know where to start? Our complete guide to mastering body language can help.)
6. Dissing Your Colleagues
“For anyone looking to work in academia, it’s more about inspiring students or faculty than pleasing a boss," explains the dean of a popular university. "Instead of talking about previous managers, I ask questions about how people manage those who work under them. One applicant said all the right things about working with other faculty members and the school administration, but when it came to talking about students, the applicant was dismissive, as if that was the last thing to worry about.”
The takeaway: Anyone interested in management should realize that a reference from your assistant is just as important as a reference from your boss. Employers want to know that a boss can inspire the best from their workforce. Consider getting LinkedIn references from coworkers at your level and below, or listing someone at a similar level to you as a reference. And remember—you just might be working for them someday.
7. Lacking Confidence
“I remember a great candidate who went to an amazing school and had all the skills we would need, but she just reeked of desperation," recalls Aaron Sapp, an attorney in the midwest. "Any and every job, she was ready to do. Whatever the pay, she was willing to take it. It seemed like she didn’t have any confidence in her work. It feels a little bad, because you get the idea that she really needed the job, but at the same time, I don’t have the time to hold anyone’s hand or assure them that they were doing a good job. I look for people who know their worth and ask for it.”
The takeaway: What some see as “accommodating,” your potential employer could see as a lack of confidence. While you obviously want to put your best foot forward, top-notch applicants shouldn’t feel bad about stating what they hope to get out of a job, pushing back against unreasonable demands or refusing to accept less than a fair industry salary. After all, employers want to hire people who reflect a good image for the company, and knowing your worth is an important quality for any employee.
Looking for more tips on finding a job and earning more? Check out 11 Things Hiring Managers Won't Tell You.