11 Red Flags to Watch for During an Interview

Man wearing a headset looking at a computer

Interviewing is a fine art. Some questions, answers, and strategies are straight-forward, while other aspects of meeting with job candidates are more nuanced. Sometimes an answer or attitude sends up a huge red flag. Other times a comment or omission that seems insignificant can have much bigger impact, and it’s important to know what to watch for.

We talked to more than a dozen HR and recruitment professionals and business owners about what red flags they note during interviews.

First Impressions: Red Flags at the Starting Line

Some warning signs present themselves immediately. Don’t discredit those little red flags that might start the interview off on a sour note.

1 – The candidate is late.

Your time at work is important. A good team member will understand, and will be at an interview 10 to 15 minutes early out of respect for you and your time. Diane Domeyer is executive director of the specialized staffing service The Creative Group.

“Seven in 10 hiring managers surveyed by The Creative Group said they would immediately discount interviewees who don’t at least acknowledge their late arrival. Job seekers should play it safe and build in extra travel time, or call if they are running behind.” — Diane Domeyer, Executive Director, The Creative Group

Jennifer Main started at Travertine Spa Atelier as an intern before joining the staff, and now leads interviews for new team members.

“If this candidate is going to show up late for their interview you can bet your bottom dollar that they will show up late on work days as well.” — Jennifer Main, PR Specialist, Travertine Spa Atelier

It is, however, important to remember that everyone has good and bad days. If a candidate is late, but calls ahead and has a sincere reason it’s a red flag, but don’t discount him immediately.

2 – The candidate is disheveled.

While we can’t fault someone for having bad style or a limited budget for wardrobe, you will usually be able to tell if she at least tried. Barney Cohen has more than 40 years of experience in business, but it doesn’t take decades to recognize a sloppy individual.

“Appearance and demeanor: is the applicant appropriately groomed? Is he/she excited to be here?”— Barney Cohen

Bronwen Hann is a “corporate matchmaker.” After selling her first staffing firm to a multinational, she started Argentus to focus on staffing for supply chain brands. She points out that perhaps neat but inappropriate attire may not be a sign of lethargy, but may indicate a poor fit for your corporate culture.

“Basic things such as inappropriate attire, not responding to social cues, being too relaxed and over familiar, not making eye contact or paying proper attention to the interviewer can all be subtle red flags that make the interviewee a bad cultural fit.” — Bronwen Hann, President, Argentus

Unkept hair, wrinkled or messy clothes, dirty fingernails, etc. are signs not necessarily of a bad worker, but may indicate laziness, poor attention to detail, and/or insufficient interest in your job opportunity.

3 – The candidate is unprepared.

You take time out of your busy day to prepare for an interview, and should expect no less from the applicant you are meeting.

“If a candidate doesn’t know anything about the company, and shows up without a resume or paper and pen, then he/she is probably going to be unprepared in a workplace as well.” — Jennifer Main, PR Specialist, Travertine Spa Atelier

Heidi Parsont
Heidi Parsont

As the Founder and President of TorchLight, Heidi Parsont has built her reputation on matching top talent with the right employer. After countless interviews, she still prioritizes preparedness.

“Examples of being unprepared for an interview could include: not bringing … a resume or [not] knowing about the hiring company. Every candidate should know at least something about the hiring company and the industry they work in. When a potential candidate exhibits these traits in an interview, it is almost certain he/she will exhibit them in the workplace.” — Heidi Parsont, President, TorchLight

Jeremy Marcus
Jeremy Marcus

Serial entrepreneurs Jeremy Marcus—founder of J Marcus Finance— and Barney Cohen both go out of their way to give interviewees a chance to demonstrate just how prepared they are.

“I ask what questions they have for me. If someone pulls out a list of questions, or has some ready for me in some way, it shows he/she is prepared. If they have none then it gives me the impression they will take any job that is offered.” — Jeremy Marcus

“I find very direct questions that require clear responses help me separate good applicants from the rest. Two questions I’ve always asked potential employees are, “Tell me one thing you really like about my company,” and, “Tell me one thing you think my company can improve?” If they can’t give me an answer to those questions, then I know that they haven’t done their homework and aren’t really serious about working for me.” — Barney Cohen

If an interviewee can demonstrate that he has done his homework—that he knows about your organization and the position he is interviewing for—that’s a good sign. If he doesn’t, have a couple questions in your back pocket so you can find out for sure.

Background and Experience: Capture the Red Flag

Some red flags will fly from the highest towers, others will have to be hunted for. As you talk to job candidates about their work history and experience, keep an eye out for a few more hidden warning signs.

4 – Candidate complains about previous employers.

Most people have worked for bad bosses at some point, but, like any challenge, what is important is how people respond to and deal with the difficulty. Complaining about a previous employer usually indicates a readiness to blame others and a failure to accept responsibility.

“Sixty-two percent of hiring managers surveyed by The Creative Group said speaking poorly of a former employer or job is an immediate turnoff. Badmouthing former colleagues or clients may also lead hiring managers to question your professionalism and attitude.” — Diane Domeyer, Executive Director, The Creative Group

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation, but she is still very involved in the hiring process at her organization. She points out another insight from complainers:

“[Complaining] about a former job not having enough flexibility, or having trouble at a former job, could indicate unreliability and an overall ‘problem’ mentality.” —Deborah Sweeney, CEO, MyCorporation

Senior recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting Inc, Kevin Leh, sympathizes with disgruntled employees, but emphasizes that, in addition to the subtle implications of complaining, it’s just unprofessional.

“Some people leave companies disgruntled, and they can use interviewers as a sounding board. Although they may have a point, and you can understand where they are coming from, it is never a good idea to go into an interview and carry this baggage.” — Kevin Leh, Senior Recruiter, Goldbeck Recruiting Inc.

For a myriad of reasons, complaining about a previous employer is a big red flag. Any candidate who has read an article or blog about how to perform well at interviews will know it too, so it’s also a loose indication of how well he or she has prepared.

5 – Candidate left previous jobs for bad reasons.

As you talk through the candidate’s work history, make sure to ask why those other jobs ended. A candidate may give vague answers for one or two, out of respect for the employer and in an effort to not speak badly about the manager or brand, so be gracious if it seems like that’s what’s going on. Stake a red flag, however, on candidates who give no answer at all or who give the same answer for too many previous jobs.

“A candidate who cannot explain why he/she left his/her former position, or what he/she is looking for in a job is a huge red flag. That candidate may be covering for something, and honesty/candor are critical qualities in new hires.” — Deborah Sweeney, CEO, MyCorporation

Chantal Bechervaise
Chantal Bechervaise

Chantal Bechervaise is an HR Evangelist and Founder of Take It Personel-ly. She has seen too many candidates give the same vague explanation for leaving most of the jobs on their resume, and she’s not impressed.

“I understand that not every company that everyone has worked at is going to be great, but telling me that you left every position because you, “wanted to explore new challenges,” or that you, “outgrew the position or company,” sets off a red flag.” — Chantal Bechervaise, Take It Personel-ly

There are, of course, good reasons for leaving a job position—career growth, changes at the company, accepting a “dream job” elsewhere, etc.—but refusing to say, or giving the same great reason for every previous position are two big red flags.

6 – Candidate can’t provide a supervisor for a reference.

Job candidates will give all kinds of references, but Bechervaise looks for one in particular:

“The biggest red flag for me is when I ask a candidate for references and they are not able to provide any type of supervisor for a reference, or if they do provide a supervisor it is from a position that was over five years ago.” — Chantal Bechervaise, Take It Personel-ly

Co-worker references are great, but if a candidate can’t provide a recent supervisor: red flag.

“I remember when I was working at one company, and a hiring manager had conducted the initial interview. They really wanted to hire the person, and I was doing a follow-up interview and requested references. I was able to obtain one for a supervisor from a position that was over 10 years earlier. The supervisor barely remembered the candidate, and was not able to provide an accurate reference check. I voiced my concerns to the hiring manager, telling him that this was a ‘red flag’ for me. The hiring manager disregarded my concerns and hired the person. The person lasted two months with the company.” — Chantal Bechervaise, Take It Personel-ly

If he doesn’t want you to talk to his last manager, there’s probably a reason.

7 – Candidate can’t share about learning from a mistake.

JoAnn Corley
JoAnn Corley

Everybody makes mistakes. You should absolutely try to hire the perfect candidate for your job, but he or she will never be a perfect person. Watch out for the candidate who can’t share a mistake and the lesson learned from it.
The Human Sphere is a talent management consultancy, founded and led by JoAnn Corley. Corley puts a high value on this part of an interview:

“Are they able/willing to share mishaps and mistakes, and share them with a sense of humility, framed as “lessons learned” (which can usually be unearthed with behavioral interviewing)? This increases the probability they will be more coachable, collaborative, comfortable with making mistakes/taking risks, and more able to receive feedback than those who do not.” — JoAnn Corley, CEO, The Human Sphere

A candidate who can’t share about a mistake she has made, and what she learned from it, isn’t paying attention and isn’t learning from her mistakes. She’s not flawless, she’s just not attentive.

During the Interview: Other Red Flags

Other hints to watch for during an interview can range from things that are actually said, to nuances that experienced recruiters know how to recognize.

8 – Candidate is more interested in personal benefit.

The person you want to hire is looking for more than a paycheck. If he is not equally excited about contributing to your team, don’t bother. Dave Popple is the President of Psynet Group, a management consulting firm:

“Red flag: the candidate is much more interested in what he/she will get out of the job and less interested in the value he/she could deliver.” —Dave Popple, President, Psynet Group

You’re not looking for someone who will do a job for a paycheck. You’re looking for a new team member who will be excited about helping to take your team to the next level.

9 – Candidate is rude and/or dishonest.

Emily Christensen
Emily Christensen

If someone can’t work with you in the interview, he’ll never work with you in the workplace. Emily Christensen is the Founder of global boutique recruitment agency H3O International, and she cautions recruiters to avoid people who interrupt during an interview.

“One of the biggest red flags is people speaking over you. This indicates the type of personality that is not going to be managed well. I had a very obvious example of this recently where it was ignored in a candidate who appeared to have the skills required. He was fired after four days for being a bully and not following instructions.” — Emily Christensen, Founder, H3O International

Raina Kropp
Raina Kropp

Raina Kropp is an award-winning Human Resources Professional with more than 10 years of experience, and little patience for a candidate who lies in his application.

“A huge red flag is lying—whether that’s about your experience, your level of expertise, or your education. If it becomes apparent that you are lying about any of those, that’s a huge red flag during the interview.” — Raina Kropp, HR Professional

Nerves might cause a candidate to interrupt at the beginning of the interview, and miscommunications have been known to happen, but be wary of rude or dishonest job candidates. There’s no reason to think anything will change if you hire one.

10 – Candidate has a bad attitude.

You don’t want to hire an unqualified candidate just because you like him or her, but neither do you want to hire a qualified candidate that you don’t like. Your next team member needs to be a good fit for your corporate culture as well as your open job position.

Tanmay Vora
Tanmay Vora

Tanmay Vora is a Director at Basware India, and a leading voice in all things leadership at QAspire. He knows the value of a team that works well together, despite their individual skill sets.

“While experience, skills, and qualifications are important baselines to assess capability, they are not sufficient. Hire for attitude, because you can train for skills but not for attitude. When you check the attitude, also check the candidate’s cultural fitment to your organization’s values, work environment and mission.” — Tanmay Vora, QAspire

The most capable employee who doesn’t work well with your team is a worthless employee.

11 – Candidate is too enthusiastic.

Todd Raphael
Todd Raphael

You’re looking for a passionate candidate, but a seasoned recruiter will learn to recognize fake, excessive enthusiasm. Todd Raphael, of the ERE.net recruitment community, is sometimes suspicious of very outgoing extroverts.

“I don’t mean that it’s a red flag to be extroverted. Of course not. But oftentimes you’re tempted to think someone’s “passionate” (a popular recruiting buzzword) because he/she is loud, or talkative, or smiling, or bubbly, or articulate. The problem is that passion is a two-way street. That person you thought was so passionate won’t be that passionate if the company doesn’t pay them well, treat them well, offer them opportunities to move up, appreciate them, and all the other things candidates want. Passion is fleeting.” — Todd Raphael, Editor in Chief, ERE.net

That super-bubbly candidate might not be so enthusiastic after a month on the job, so take a steely-eyed look at what she might be trying to mask or compensate for by being so energetic.

Interview Red Flags

You may not want to completely write off a candidate because of one or two red flags. Everyone has good and bad days, after all.

“People are human. The person tired in the interview, or late to the interview, or not articulate in the interview, and so on—is like all of us: at their best sometimes, and sometimes not.” — Todd Raphael, Editor in Chief, ERE.net

On the other hand, we document the red flags because when they aren’t deal-breakers, they are sometimes so subtle that we don’t otherwise consider them. They may seem like, “little things,” but can have much more important implications. Hiring the right team is the most important thing you can do for both your corporate and your employment brand.

“There is nothing more important to the success of organization and the leader than hiring great colleagues.” — Tanmay Vora, QAspire

The more interviews you conduct the more you will develop your own list of red flags to watch for. What are your red flags?