At first glance, it’s puzzling. The job market is finally looking something like its old self, with unemployment at 5.9%, a bit below its 6% pre-recession rate.
Yet, as anyone trying to change jobs (or get one) these days knows all too well, plenty of employers are dragging their feet, taking longer to hire than at any time in more than a decade.
What’s the holdup? Patty Prosser, chair of executive development and recruiting firm OI Global Partners, says at least some of it is “due to the way candidates present themselves, and how they perform during interviews.” That’s not all bad, since, unlike the state of the economy as a whole, “these are issues that are within job seekers’ control.”
OI Partners recently asked its hundreds of North American headhunters and career coaches to list the most common mistakes they see interviewees make. Here are the top five:
1. Don’t stand out enough from other candidates (mentioned by 67% of those surveyed). Most job seekers don’t talk enough, or at all, about “which personal attributes differentiate them from their competition, and describe what unique value they can bring,” Prosser says. One way to do that persuasively is to “read the job description carefully and perfect your pitch to include accomplishments that match the job specs.”
2. Don’t explain how their experience is a good fit for the job opening (64%). “Job seekers often don’t see the forest for the trees. They don’t evaluate what the company really needs—not just listing buzzwords, but showing from their past experience how they can solve problems,” says Prosser. Oddly, the survey suggested that candidates too often downplay their leadership experience, a “strength that should be communicated, even if it isn’t part of the formal requirements for the job.”
3. Don’t show enough interest and excitement (56%). A job interview isn’t the time to play it cool, yet it seems some people do. “Telling a story can have a big impact,” Prosser advises. “Try to find something in your research on the company, the job, or the interviewer that really resonates with you and then share a personal story about it.” Candidates often underestimate the value of enthusiasm, she adds. “Remember, employers hire people, not resumes.” If you already seem to be just going through the motions, hiring managers wonder what you’ll be like to work with day in and day out.
4. Focus too much on what they want, instead of on what the interviewer is saying (54%). Alas, according to this survey, most people aren’t good listeners. “In the initial phase of interviewing, the employer is mainly concerned about their needs and how the candidate might be able to fulfill those,” says Prosser. “So you need to get the interviewer talking in detail about what the real issues are, why the company is looking to hire, and what the ideal candidate for the job would be like.” Persuade an interviewer that you’re a great fit, she adds, and then you’ll have his or her attention when you bring up your own needs and goals—but not before.
5. Believe they can “wing it” without enough preparation (53%). “Prepare for an interview the same way you would for a presentation to a boss or a client,” Prosser suggests. That includes “practice, practice, practice,” plus doing enough background research on each company, and each interviewer, to “anticipate what the hiring manager is likely to ask, and prepare substantive questions to ask them.” That might sound obvious, but about 40% of headhunters and coaches in the OI poll said they’ve seen candidates go in to an interview knowing zip about the employer or the job.
One more suggestion: Be yourself. One in three (33%) lamented the number of candidates who “lack humor, warmth, or personality” in interviews. To be sure, that may be partly because some people freeze up when they’re nervous. Even so, Prosser says, “Be real and sincere. Most hiring managers will see through an act.”