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What Did You Do Wrong in the Job Interview?

Dear Annie: I interviewed recently at a company where I really want to work, but I just found out another candidate was hired. I have to admit my interview there didn’t go too well. Even though I have all the right experience and credentials, and I really tried to tell how my background makes me a perfect fit for the job, the hiring manager and I just didn’t connect. I’ve heard that personal chemistry, meaning simply whether you “click” with someone or not, is crucial. (For instance, I’ve read that some CEOs hire people based on whether they’d like to sit next to them on a long airplane flight or not.) But, if you just don’t hit it off with someone, is there some way to create that sense of rapport? I’m not giving up on eventually joining this company, so I’d like to know for next time. — Disappointed in Dallas

Dear D.D.: Interesting question. “Whether ‘chemistry’ counts or not depends on who’s interviewing you,” says Katie Niekrash, a senior managing director at recruiting firm The Execu|Search Group. “If it’s someone in HR who interviews people all day long for all different kinds of jobs, it may not matter. But if you’re meeting with a prospective boss, then yes, you have an advantage if you can ‘click’ with that person.”

The most reliable way of establishing a bond, she says, is to “warm up the discussion by asking questions, not just about the company and the job you’re applying for, but about the interviewer — how she got to her current position, how he likes working for this company, and so on. Human nature is such that people like to talk about themselves.”

One note of caution: If you know ahead of time who will be interviewing you, you can certainly take the popular route of researching the person online to find out, say, where he or she went to college (in case you happened to go there too) and whether or not you have interests in common (golf, anyone?). “But that can backfire,” notes Niekrash. “Bringing up personal information — ‘I saw on Facebook that you have a Rottweiler! Me too!’ — can strike people as kind of creepy. Stick with his or her professional life.”

Fine, but all this assumes that chemistry, or the lack of it, was the reason you didn’t get the job. Maybe it wasn’t.

Based on hundreds of reports from employers about candidates they didn’t hire, Niekrash says the most common reason she hears is “a problem with the intangibles. You’d be surprised how many people show up late for the interview — or, like one candidate we heard about, 45 minutes early, which is just as bad — or don’t make eye contact, or look disheveled, or have a limp handshake.”

If all that sounds obvious, it apparently isn’t. Recruiters often hear these complaints “even about very experienced, senior people,” she says. “It’s all about how you present yourself, not just to the hiring manager but to everyone you meet at the company on your way to the interview.”

Let’s say you’ve got the “intangibles” nailed. Here are 3 more questions to ponder about why your interview went awry:

  • Did you accentuate the positive in your job history? Lots of people have a hard time explaining a job change without coming across as whiny or defensive, Niekrash notes. “If you’re asked why you left your last job, or want to leave the one you have now, don’t go into too much detail, and never say anything that sounds like a complaint,” she says. Likewise, if you have a gap in your resume or you’ve changed jobs often, focus the conversation on what you’ve learned along the way, and why it could be valuable to this employer.
  • Did you know enough about the company and the role? “In any interview, it’s critical that you demonstrate your understanding of the company, and where it fits into the competitive landscape,” says Niekrash. “For next time, be sure to research those things in detail. Read the company’s web site, social media, and recent news coverage.” Many candidates go into interviews in the mistaken belief that they can wing it. But interviewers can tell pretty quickly whether you’ve done your homework — and, even better, put some thought into it.
  • Did you take the company’s culture into account? Figuring out cultural fit is notoriously tricky, but much of it depends on “seemingly ‘little’ things, like the dress code,” Niekrash says. “Do people come to work there in suits, or T-shirts? If you know anyone who works there, ask them. Or, if you’re working with a recruiter, he or she can give you a pretty good idea.” Check out LinkedIn, and sites like and, to get a feel for the corporate zeitgeist, and how well (or badly) you’d fit in.

While you’re at it, Niekrash suggests, take a good look at how you come across online. “People often don’t realize that getting hired, or not, isn’t just about the interview,” she says. “It’s also about your whole presence in the larger world.” She recommends “Googling yourself, double-checking social media, and making sure there’s nothing there that could offend someone.”

Niekrash adds that most hiring managers, if you pluck up the courage to ask, are willing to give you some feedback on what was lacking in your interview. Not so with stuff they dig up on the Internet, however. “Often people get cut out of the running for a job because of something an employer found online,” she observes. “And in that case, the employer usually won’t tell you why.” Gulp.

Good luck!