Weeding Out Candidates and the Dumbest Thing I Ever Did in an Interview

By James Tehrani

Feb. 12, 2016

With all the weeding that goes on in the hiring process, I’m surprised more recruiters aren’t prize-winning gardeners. But sometimes companies might be letting great candidates get away in their need to weed.

It starts with the cover letter, résumé and, nowadays, dozens of answers from the company’s applicant tracking system.

It’s not uncommon to hear things like, “This guy can’t even spell IBM and he wants to work here?”

Spelling and grammar mistakes are a common reason to reject candidates. I once thought I had an interview with a major magazine publisher, but it turned out to be more of an opportunity for the hiring manager to teach me a lesson by berating me for misspelling his last name on my cover letter. I knew I was done for when he showed me a collage on the wall of all the mailing labels he’d saved where someone misspelled his difficult-to-spell name.

Lesson learned. 

For the few candidates who do make it in the door for an interview, there’s always weeding going on. Focusing on “What did the candidate do wrong?” and “What red flags were raised?” tend to trump examining all the good qualities a candidate possesses.

And sometimes strong applicants do dumb things in interviews. I know I have.

It was a few months after I graduated college. I had left a terrible internship where I spent most of my time faxing and photocopying and took a job as a waiter so I could have my days free to interview. Coincidentally, when you’re behind and overwhelmed in your serving duties, it’s known as “being in the weeds.”

There were many Friday and Saturday nights where I was in the weeds.

As a waiter, you meet lots of different people from fiendish to friendly. There’s the guy, for instance, who scolded me for not putting his slice of pie down with the tip facing “either at 5 o’clock or 7 o’clock.” But I also met nice people, too.

One regular customer was a man in his 60s who worked in the publishing industry. We talked quite a bit, and I told him about my background and career aspirations. After a couple of months, he pulled me aside and told me he knew of a book publisher that was looking for an assistant editor. He told me to send the hiring manager my résumé and that he had already put in a good word for me. Sure enough, I soon got the call to come in for an interview.

I thought it was my big break. Surely his good word would be as good as gold in getting me the gig.

It might have been if it weren’t for my dumb move.

Before the interview, I had copied all of my best college clips and neatly arranged them in a nice-looking portfolio to show off my work. But then it dawned on me that this was an editing position, and not a writing job, so I needed to prove I could edit.

Light bulb!

At the beginning of my advanced editing class in college we were given a really hard test. I don’t recall many people doing very well on it, but I did particularly bad on it. OK, really bad on it. There must have been more red ink on it than a Peter Max “Blushing Beauty” poster. But as a way to prove to us how much we’d learned in the class, the professor gave us the exact same test as the final. I don’t think I aced it, but I did much, much better. I was proud of how much I’d learned about editing in that one semester.

The problem was he never gave us our finals back, so all I had was the original test. “Aha,” I thought. "I’ll bring the test to the interview to show the company how difficult it was and then explain how well I did on the final." "It's foolproof," I thought.

More like proof I was a fool.

While you’re never quite sure what someone thinks of you during an interview, I felt it was going really well. The conversation was free and easy, I don’t recall any stumbling blocks, so I was ready to close the deal. I pulled out my original test, and started to explain how hard the exam was and my vast improvement on the final.

Of course, I didn’t have the test to prove it.

You can’t always pinpoint the moment when you blow an interview, but I blew it and I knew it, even if I didn’t want to believe it. I tried to do damage control, but the interview ended shortly after.

I don’t recall if I got a rejection letter, but the customer at the restaurant who got me the interview came in a week or so later with the bad news. He had talked to his contact at the company and she told him they were hiring someone else. As I rightfully suspected, the test had scared them away.

I can’t say I blame them. It was a dumb thing for me to do. Hindsight, ya know. And maybe the person they did hire was a better fit anyway, but perhaps they missed out on a great candidate who made one boneheaded mistake.

Weeding is essential in the hiring process, but sometimes companies do tend to focus too much on the few cons rather than the many positives. It’s good to remember that there are some weeds you don’t have to pick because they’d actually look good in your garden.

That's my story; what's yours?

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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