Ashley Davies: 50 ways to muck up a job interview

Don't take advice to 'just be yourself' too seriously, interviewers expect a degree of guile and sophistication from potential employees. Picture: Getty
Don't take advice to 'just be yourself' too seriously, interviewers expect a degree of guile and sophistication from potential employees. Picture: Getty
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Don’t beat yourself up if you did something stupid – it’s all part of the learning process, writes Ashley Davies

Remember the good old days when the trickiest thing you might get asked in a job interview was: “What is your greatest weakness?” And instead of saying: “I lash out at people who are junior to me when I’m stressed” or “I steal stationery – even the crap” or “Sometimes when people are explaining difficult things to me I focus so hard on looking like I’m listening that I can’t hear a damn thing,” you would say: “Well, you could say I’m something of a perfectionist” and the interviewer would think: “I like this guy’s style”, put a tick next to your name and the job would be in the bag.

Spud-u-no-like: Ewen Bremner messes up as Spud in Trainspotting

Spud-u-no-like: Ewen Bremner messes up as Spud in Trainspotting

These days wily employers are increasingly throwing curveball questions at candidates to see how they think on their feet. You might get asked what colour your brain is or what kind of food you would be. They could request that you write a headline about your life, to make something out of, say, a piece of paper, or even how you’d escape if you were locked inside a kettle. They want to know about your thought process and to get a sense of how you think on your feet when under pressure. You might even be asked what star sign you are, but this is largely so that they can inform you that they’re feeble-minded. If this happens, leave at once – talk to no-one until you get home.

A lot of people, university leavers in particular, will be experiencing their first important job interviews round about now. They might be receiving guidance about how they should be themselves (true to an extent but for pity’s sake not entirely), and how they should ask intelligent questions and maintain eye contact (again, rein this stuff in – it can freak people out). But – and I know this sounds like reckless advice given the terrifyingly competitive state of the jobs market, and forgive me if I sound like I’m making light of what for many is a desperate situation – don’t beat yourself up if you make a stupid mistake in a job interview because the only people who haven’t done this are robots. And mucking up spectacularly is a great way to learn not to do it again.

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I’m shockingly bad at job interviews – partly because I’m not used to speaking uninterrupted on account of being a crashing bore. Once, while trying to demonstrate to a magazine editor what an eagle eye I had for clean copy, I stupidly brought a copy of the publication to the interview, having highlighted all the mistakes it contained. As the editor’s eyes widened with horror, I blurted out: “Oh no – now you’re wondering, ‘Who does this ****ing ***** think she is?’” Weirdly, I got the job. Maybe he was deafened by shame. Another time, trying to demonstrate my leadership skills, I opened a door so energetically that it smashed my ring, causing finger blood to splash on the carpet. I got that job too, but I think the editor was a vampire. I’ve made worse mistakes that I’m too ashamed to say out loud, never mind include here, but I’m not alone.

During an interview for a role as manager of a charity shop many years ago, a friend of mine was asked what kind of donations she thought should not be accepted for health and safety reasons. She replied that maybe guns and porn were not the ideal sort of stock. The interviewers had really been thinking more along the lines of foodstuffs and electrical items, and seemed concerned by her angle. She didn’t get the job. Another friend was caught off guard when the interviewer suggested that he seemed to be quite a lazy individual. He thought about it for about 15 seconds before saying: “Yes, you’re right.” Didn’t get the job.

Don’t be too honest either. Another friend was interviewing a young woman for a job and asked her where she saw herself in five years’ time. The reply was: “Hopefully married with a baby.” Not quite what she was hoping to hear.

A friend’s boyfriend, before starting university, went for a job as supervisor for a summer residential camp for children. He’d been taught by careers advisers to come up with questions during interviews but got too nervous to ask anything sensible, instead asking if he would be sleeping in the same room as the children. This didn’t endear him to the employers and he ended up selling frozen fish fingers door to door. One friend also asked the not-pregnant prospective employer when her baby was due, and managed to get hired.

I’ve also heard more than one story about interviewers – usually newspaper editors – falling asleep while a candidate is trying to impress them with tales of professional ingenuity. These experiences hark back to a bygone age when liquid lunches were the norm. (For the record, we still have those but they tend to involve kale and celery juices. True. True. All true.)

On her way into an interview for a newspaper job, another friend saw the previous interviewee leaving in tears. She ended up having quite an aggressive scrap with the interviewer, which he clearly appreciated, and she got the job.

If you don’t even get a chance to present your clumsiness in person, try not to take it personally because selecting candidates for interviews is not an exact science, despite what people might claim. A while ago a friend of mine, faced with a desk groaning with applications for a job he had to fill, was advised by a colleague to throw half the CVs in the bin “because we don’t want to work with unlucky people”.

If I’m ever in a position to have a say on who gets hired, I have a list of qualities I’d like to see evidence of. When I was certain the person had the skills we needed, I’d engineer a situation in order to see and hear how they managed their mucus, which might be easier than writing: “Sniffers need not apply” on the job description. I also want to hear how they laugh. And I’ll sneak into their house and smell all their perfume. This is important. I’ll also follow the good ones around town after the interview to see how they perform on the street: if they ever form a group in the middle of a pavement, that CV’s going in the bin.