12 Polite Habits Job Interviewers Actually Dislike—and What to Do Instead
Good manners can open doors when it comes to career opportunities. But it's easier than you think to miss the mark in a job interview.
The dos and don’ts of interviewing
There’s no way around it: Job interviews are stressful. That goes for everyone, whether you’re just starting out, changing careers or applying for a job you know you’re perfect for. After all, that interview is your chance to make a good impression, and if you don’t, you can pretty much kiss that job goodbye. That’s why you want to be as professional and polite as possible, especially since those qualities are among the first things your job interviewer will notice about you. The only problem? You might not be as polite as you think you’re being.
That’s because while the general rules of etiquette apply here, there are a few others that are specific to job interviews. For example, you want to be polite when discussing your previous jobs … but you also shouldn’t sugarcoat things. “Most candidates strive to highlight their accomplishments and omit all the controversy,” says career expert Mariana Boloban, Head of People at Headway EdTech. “Yet being overly positive about previous job experience shows a lack of self-awareness and honesty.” Of course, at the same time, you can be too honest, which can make this feel like a minefield.
Luckily, there are some easy ways to navigate tricky situations like answering common interview questions, deciding what to wear or asking about salary. We spoke to job interviewers to get the scoop on which “polite” habits actually drive them nuts—and what to do instead. Here’s what you need to know to land that job.
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Not asking any questions
It feels weird to ask questions at an interview. After all, you’re the one being interviewed, and you don’t want to seem like you haven’t done your research on the company. Plus, you don’t want to eat up too much of your interviewer’s time and possibly overstay your welcome. Especially if this isn’t the first round of interviews, you might say something like, “Your colleagues have answered all my questions.”
But Neha Sangwan, MD, a communications specialist and the author of Powered by Me, says that this response shows a lack of engagement and can indicate that the applicant is not taking the opportunity seriously. “Someone truly interested would likely ask several people the same question and compare their answers or use this as an opportunity to show interest in getting to know the individual in front of them,” she explains.
Do this instead: Ask the interviewer a question specific to their experience, such as: “How did you decide this was the right place for you?” or “What’s your favorite aspect of working here?” Or if you do have lingering questions, this is the time to ask them. You should also know how to answer every job applicant’s least-favorite question: “Tell me about yourself.”
A formal situation calls for a few formalities. Your cover letter should be professional, your conversation shouldn’t be overly familiar, and you should keep some private details private. This is a job interview, after all! But the world has become increasingly informal, and being overly formal is an etiquette mistake too.
“You might think you’re being polite by saying Ms. Jones or Mr. Jones, but it feels stiff if your interviewer is calling you by your first name,” says Kelly Donovan, owner of Kelly Donovan & Associates, a job-search company. Also, although it’s considered polite in the South, you shouldn’t call your interviewer “sir” or “ma’am.” Aside from feeling out of sync with the vibe in the room, adds Boloban, “when a candidate is overly formal, it’s harder to connect with them, build trust and analyze if they match the company’s culture.”
Do this instead: Mirror your interviewer’s behavior. “If you’re being addressed as Mr. or Ms., you should address them with that formality as well,” Donovan says. “But if your interviewer is calling you by your first name, they’re giving you implicit permission to do the same.” If you’re still hesitant (old habits die hard!), Donovan suggests confirming by asking, “May I call you John?”
Being transparent about other possibilities
You might really like the person you’re interviewing with, and you don’t want to mislead them. And it can certainly feel like you’re doing that when you’re speaking with other companies, especially when you think you might be getting an offer from them soon. Plus, maybe if you mention these other possibilities, including ones at your current company, that could light a little fire and prompt this company to make you an offer. Unfortunately, this likely won’t turn out the way you hope it will.
While being truthful and transparent are admirable qualities, they won’t play well in this specific situation. For starters, the interviewer is not your buddy, no matter how well you get along in an interview. Beyond that, Dr. Sangwan says, revealing your other options too soon shows ambiguity and implies that you’re not serious about the job.
Do this instead: If you’re considering another opportunity, use something interesting about the other company as fodder to ask a deeper question about this company, advises Dr. Sangwan. For example, if the other company is more environmentally conscientious and that’s important to you, you could use that intel to frame a question such as: “I’m passionate about the environment and curious if there’s an opportunity to innovate and evolve the marketing campaign to be more green.”
Talking about “we” instead of “me”
It can be hard to talk about yourself, and highlighting your accomplishments may feel like bragging. But it’s important that your interviewer knows your direct contributions to your current or former companies. “When asked to describe their accomplishments or greatest strengths, some candidates describe what their sales team accomplished, which leaves the interviewer trying to distill what the candidate’s role was and what skills, perspectives and attributes they contributed,” Dr. Sangwan says. “The interviewer may conclude that they didn’t meaningfully contribute and should be hiring someone else from that team.”
Do this instead: Answer the question with an expanded perspective of the three layers the goal was accomplished: Me-We-World. In other words, first talk about how you accomplished the goal, then about how your team assisted and, lastly, about its impact on the “world” (aka your customers, clients or company). Once you give the basics, says Dr. Sangwan, you can read the room and see if you should be more specific about any of the layers. Above all, be specific about your contribution so the interviewer gets a clear idea of what you have done and what you can do. Here’s what that might look like:
- Me: My strengths center around creativity and innovation. I pitched and outlined the original concept, then created a plan to make it happen.
- We: My colleagues are fantastic at taking our brainstorming ideas and executing them.
- World: This partnership then allowed us to serve our customers in an innovative way well before others in our industry. This captured media interest and was reflected in our stock price.
Wearing formal business attire
This is a tough one—especially if you’re an interviewee of a certain age. Many people have been taught that a job interview calls for a suit. Full stop. And while this is expected in some workplaces, more and more companies now have casual environments. “You could appear out of touch with their culture if you show up in a suit and tie while your interviewers are wearing jeans,” Donovan says.
Do this instead: Do a little research. “If you know anyone who works at the company, ask them for insight into what the typical attire is for the department you will be interviewing with, or ask the HR rep for input,” Donovan says. “It’s fine to dress a notch above what the typical attire is, but try to avoid having too dramatic of a difference.” Defaulting to business casual is a safe bet here; it mainly means looking polished and neat. You can often opt for khakis or dark-wash jeans as long as they’re paired with a tailored top and, for women, smart accessories.
Only asking important questions at the end of the interview
It’s the grown-up, job-interviewing version of the mantra we heard as kids: Speak only when spoken to. You may think it’s polite to let the interviewer drive the conversation, then ask your questions at the end, but interviewers aren’t fans of this—especially if any of your questions relate to your experience … or lack thereof. “Bringing this up at the end of the interview leaves the person interviewing you with a negative perspective,” says Kelsea Warren, a workplace well-being coach and consultant. “It can be off-putting, as they have often not fully considered this during the interview process.”
Do this instead: Make your interview more of a conversation, weaving in questions in the course of your time together, not in a lump at the end. If you’re a new graduate or switching fields, feel free to ask the interviewer if they have any hesitation about your experience—but do it early in the chat. This will give you ample to time to assure them you have what it takes to do the job well, and it won’t seem rushed or like an afterthought.
What are those final questions for? They should address any information you still need to know about the company, the role or the work environment. And you should always end on a positive note.
Preparation is important—it shows your work ethic and your commitment to getting this job. But it is possible to be so prepared that your answers sound mechanized and bland. This effectively removes your personality from the process, which is the last thing an employer wants. For example, familiarizing yourself with the company website is critical, but reciting the copy verbatim is going to show that you’re great at memorizing but maybe not so skilled at speaking off the cuff.
It also won’t showcase you as a person or potential employee. “If you lean too heavily on what you think they want to hear, you may be leaving out crucial aspects of your own needs and personality in the process,” says Warren. “This can come off as disingenuous.”
Do this instead: Set up a mock interview at home, which you can do solo or with a friend or family member. The most important part of this is saying your answers out loud, Warren says. This will ensure you’re comfortable saying them to a real person, help you identify any potential stumbling blocks and even figure out other points of discussion to bring up.
Not pointing out a mistake
The likelihood is high that your interviewer is considering multiple candidates and may make a mistake and confuse you for someone else. “If your interviewer says something erroneous about your background, you might think it’s rude to point out the mistake,” says Donovan. “However, allowing a misunderstanding to linger can lead to bigger problems.” If they get your college wrong or mention your MBA when you didn’t attend graduate school, you should nip that in the bud.
Do this instead: Clarify immediately. This shows confidence and how you might deal with a minor issue in a workplace scenario. You’re not being rude by pointing it out, and it’s always wise to keep the facts straight, especially when there’s something at stake. FYI, this is a polite habit that most people dislike, so it’s an important skill to have.
Insisting on paying the check at a restaurant
If your interview takes place over lunch or dinner at a restaurant, you might think that offering to pick up the tab—and even arguing over it—will show how generous and polite you are, but you’ll impress your interviewer more with solid conversation starters. “Paying for the meal is the employer’s responsibility,” Donovan says, “and the interviewers will pay with a company credit card.”
While it’s polite to offer to treat or split the check in most other circumstances, in this case it’s understood that the employer invited you to a meal and therefore they’re taking care of the check. That seemingly playful banter about the check can get uncomfortable quickly, and this whole exchange serves as an example of how you interact with others, which is especially important if you’ll be dealing with clients in your role.
Do this instead: Resist the urge when the check arrives, and instead allow your interviewers to handle it. It is polite to thank them for the meal, so be sure to do that.
Ending the interview early to save them time
You’ve made your case for why you’re a perfect fit for the job and things have gone well, but all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the conversation will hit a lull or fall flat, so why not save everyone the awkwardness of that moment and end the interview? After all, you want to respect their time. But here’s the thing: This highlights the awkwardness of the situation and makes things worse. Plus, they’ve already set aside this time to get to know you. “It seems more disrespectful to schedule time that you are not using for well-thought-out questions,” Dr. Sangwan says.
Do this instead: “Bring the conversation to a natural conclusion by summarizing what you’ve heard,” Dr. Sangwan suggests. Consider sharing the unique aspects of the company culture that impressed you or how your passion, experience and skill set would contribute to the team and company achieving their goals. The key is to keep the conversation going in an organic, natural way. “Be ready to ask thoughtful and relevant questions demonstrating your understanding of the company and position,” Boloban says.
Sending a thank-you note right away
Of course it’s polite to send a thank-you note, and you might think the sooner, the better. After all, you want to keep the good vibes going and show your interviewer just how interested you are in the job. The problem? If you send it immediately—like, right after the interview—it may feel impersonal. “Remember: Interviewers are looking for genuine interest in their company, not just formality,” Satish says. How can you even have time to process your meeting and really think on it if you’re shooting off an email minutes later?
Do this instead: Send a thank-you email the next day. And when you do, “specifically call out points from your conversation and offer any supplemental information you discussed, like a personal website, a book recommendation or an article link,” Satish says. This will show your interviewer that you know how to follow up appropriately. And in case you were wondering, an email thank-you is absolutely fine and even preferable, since many people work remote or hybrid and snail mail may take too long to get to them.
Showing up early to a video interview
It’s common knowledge that you should show up about 10 minutes early for an interview, right? Well, yes … but only if that interview is in person. “I’d encourage candidates not to log onto a remote video interview prior to the start time,” Satish says, noting that the interviewer needs time to check their own audio, background, camera and more. If you log on too early, you might be inadvertently taking away their visual prep time and stressing them out. After all, they feel pressure too because it’s uncomfortable to keep someone waiting.
Do this instead: Log on 30 seconds after the interview start time. “Your interviewer will thank you,” Satish says. You should also familiarize yourself with these Zoom etiquette rules, making sure you’re in a well-lit, quiet location and acting as professionally as you would if you were meeting in person.
About the experts
- Neha Sangwan, MD, is an internal medicine physician, a corporate communication expert and the founder of Intuitive Intelligence, where she teaches individuals and organizational leaders to communicate effectively. She is also the author of Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life.
- Mariana Boloban is a career expert and the Head of People at Headway EdTech.
- Akhila Satish is an award-winning career expert, a scientist and the CEO of Meseekna, a “science-first” company that helps organizations hire, train and develop their employees’ talent.
- Kelsea Warren is a workplace well-being coach and consultant.
- Kelly Donovan is the owner of Kelly Donovan & Associates, a job search company.