The Dirty Dozen

The interview is over. You are told to expect the results in two weeks. A letter arrives two weeks later, and you open it and read the following:

We regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you a position at this time. Although your background is impressive, your skillset is not compatible with our requirements, and we have identified another candidate who is a better fit for our opening. We will keep your résumé on file and contact you in the event a more appropriate position becomes available. We enjoyed meeting you and wish you well.

The dreaded Dear John letter! You are disappointed and confused. You thought the interview had gone well and you would like to know what went wrong. Well, start with the language in the letter: your skillset is not compatible with our requirements. That must be the reason, correct? Probably not. Your résumé indicated the minimum skill set or the interview would have never happened. There must be another reason and identifying it would be a good lesson learned for future interviews.

Does the company owe you a more specific explanation? If so, will it be shared with you? No and no. In the past, companies were forthcoming with concrete reasons for rejection, but as our society has become increasingly litigious in nature, the willingness to share rejection feedback has all but vanished. Rather than risk a lawsuit for reasons that could be interpreted as discriminatory, a company will use the terminology above.

During my career in recruiting and placement, I kept track of the most common reasons for rejection. I refer to them as the Dirty Dozen, and I will share them with you here.

1. You failed to show sufficient interest in the position. This is a classic. Maybe you truly were not interested, and it showed. Maybe you were very interested and failed to let it show. Regardless of how you feel, the perceptions of the interviewers become their reality.

2. You are over-qualified for the position. This one is used often as a polite way of showing you the door-complimenting you as they send you on your way. Sometimes it is genuine. If the interviewer senses that the job will bore you or that you will become impatient, he or she can legitimately label you as overqualified or unqualified for the position.

3. You are under-qualified. As important as a well-written résumé is in any successful job search, sometimes it can over-sell. Perhaps you presented your collection of qualifications accurately, but the interview exposed some problems in the depth of some of those qualifications. This does not necessarily mean that you misrepresented yourself. Sometimes the potential employer is guilty of a little wishful thinking when reading a résumé.

4. They liked someone else better. This one gets used quite often. Why? It is cut and dried. How can you argue with it? People either like you, or they do not. If they do not, there is nothing you can do to change it.

5. You were beaten out for the position. As long as there are great jobs and great candidates for those jobs, you will have competition. As good as you know you are, it would be a mistake to assume that you are the only qualified candidate for the job.

6. Although you did well, the yes votes were not unanimous. Rarely is the decision to offer or not in the hands of one person acting alone. In most cases, there are many people in the interviewing process, and they all have some input regarding the final decision. Whether they vote on or off the record, their votes will be counted. In some cases, consensus or a majority decision is enough. In other cases, it is all or nothing.

7. You failed to sell yourself for the position. As you leave the interview, ask yourself what impressions you left in the minds of the interviewers. Do they see you in the job for which you are being considered, doing it well, and with a big smile on your face? If so, congratulations. If not, then Dear John.

8. You displayed inappropriate behavior or breached interviewing etiquette. Were you on time? Dressed appropriately? Polite and courteous? Did you treat everyone you met with respect and courtesy, or just those people in the powerful positions?

9. You were not prepared for the interview. How much homework did you do? Were you knowledgeable about the company? The industry? The position? The company’s competitors? Yourself?

10. The position was filled before you got to the interview. This happens frequently. Many companies would rather go ahead with the interview than cancel out on you at the last minute. While it might be too late to recover most of the money they have already invested in the interview process, going forward with the interview does two things for them. First, they can file you away for future openings. Second, it’s good for PR-although you will not be working for that company you are more likely to continue to use their products.

11. You focused too much on you and not enough on them. Human beings are, by nature, selfish-they care about themselves, their needs, and the needs of their dependents. No one expects you to deny your selfish side, but you need to be time-sensitive about it. Showing that self-interest too early in the interviewing process will increase the odds of rejection. When is it safe to broach those selfish issues? After the job offer is on the table.

12. You seemed more interested in the future than the present. Let’s say you asked twenty questions during the interview. Five of them concerned the position at hand, and the rest were focused on the jobs to come. It sounds like you view the initial position as simply a stepping-stone. Is that the signal you meant to send?

Note that some of these are within your power to control, while many of them are not. With proper preparation, interviewing empathy, and strong self-knowledge, you can minimize the chances that they will be used against you. In most cases, it is a combination of reasons that causes your downfall. So, what can you do? Learn from your mistakes, think positive, be prepared, control the controllable, and accept the fact that the rest is out of your hands. Nobody is perfect-you might get away with one or two of the above, especially if the interviewer likes you.

© Tom Wolfe, author and career coach; all rights reserved; excerpts from Out of Uniform: Your Guide to a Successful Military-to-Civilian Career Transition.