How to avoid the pitfalls of job interviews

A new study shows that an employer’s gut feelings often decide who gets a job. Researchers were flies on the wall as five companies recruited staff.

For the first time researchers have monitored and observed job interviews at five Norwegian firms that were hiring new employees. They watched as bosses sought to select the best qualified persons among a host of applicants.

In this phase there is plenty of leeway for management to play their hunches and make decisions at their own discretion. An applicant’s so-called individual suitability can be a major factor.

Employers say it can comprise 80 percent of the basis for a decision. The companies participating were a hotel, a radio station, a hospital, a special interest organisation and an altruistic non-governmental organisation (NGO). 

“Serendipity plays a role too. Employers want applicants who will fit in and be satisfied. They often choose their favourites on the basis of which person they think will match the other employees,” says Research Erika Braanen Sterri.

“Many employers tout ideals involving diversity at the workplace. But when it comes right down to it, they choose people who they think will fit in. In this way they can be excluding lots of fine candidates,” says Researcher Erika Braanen Sterri at Fafo. (Photo: Fafo)
“Many employers tout ideals involving diversity at the workplace. But when it comes right down to it, they choose people who they think will fit in. In this way they can be excluding lots of fine candidates,” says Researcher Erika Braanen Sterri at Fafo. (Photo: Fafo)

She carried out the new study along with Jon Rogstad at Norway’s Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research.

“It’s clearly an advantage if you share similar characteristics with the employer or the employees,” says Braanen Sterri.

Consider themselves good judges of character

The point of the job interview is to reveal whether you will be a resource and tackle your work assignments. Your appearance and performance will result in a ranking and a weighty decision: Either you get the job or you don’t.

“You can never know for sure whether you have made a fabulous or a lousy impression. Unlike an exam, where you usually know pretty much how things went, your impression can be completely off target after a job interview,” says Braanen Sterri.

Some employers thought they could find the person who fit in best by questioning the job-seekers. Others felt they could perceive this though the applicant’s behaviour and appearance.

“Many of them who were conducting the interviews had solid faith in their own gut feelings,” says the researcher.

Put rather simply, employers try to find out four things about you from a general impression – things that cannot be truly surmised from an application or a CV:

• Whether you fit in, and will you get along with the rest of the staff.
• Whether you are a stable worker.
• Whether you will be able to tackle the assignments.
• Whether your values match those of the firm or institution

These criteria are relative traits among the applicants. Your attractiveness depends on how the interviewers envision the work the firm is involved in, their opinion of those who already work there and of you as an applicant.

“Considerations of how a candidate fits in can diverge from reflections on the applicant’s other qualities,” says Braanen Sterri.

Social musicality

Often the employer will lack a clear, defined picture of the person he or she is looking for. The researchers found such expectations to be rather diffuse.

Earlier studies have shown that employers look for people who are a lot like themselves. This study, however, shows employers to be assessing the applicants in relation to the existing work environment.

This also means an applicant’s suitability will vary from place to place. On the whole, employers were looking to see if the candidate exhibited a sort of social musicality.

“You can be as different as you like, as long as you resemble me’, to put it another way,” Sterri says.

Light and relaxed mood

The substance of the interview is not the only important factor. Key elements in the ranking of applicants are the appearance of the candidate, the mood in the room, how the conversation flows and the chemistry between the two parties.

It will be interpreted in the applicant’s favour if the atmosphere was light and easy. Employers blame it on the job-seeker if the conversation plods along awkwardly. This is interpreted as a sign of the applicant’s personality and lack of social intelligence.

The researchers advise job-seekers to learn as much as they can about a firm if they are invited to an interview.

“Whatever you do, don’t speak negatively about your present or former places of work. That counts against you. They are more interested in finding out how well you will work in their firm,” says Jon Rogstad, a research manager at Fafo.

Assertive, but humble

“The interviewers in our selection found it hard to explain why they chose the particular persons,” says Braanen Sterri.

Despite that, the researcher found common traits which the five places of employment looked for in candidates, even though the positions were completely different:

The ideal employee is confident, yet humble. Independent, but aware of his or her limitations.

“We are looking for a person who is socially gifted, affable, who possesses a certain authority, but who is not too emphatic or crass,” explained an employer.

Various interviewers from the same firm can judge a candidate in diverging ways. While some think the candidate is nerdy, others interpret the same traits as culturally conditioned or examples of natural modesty.

While some are more attracted to dynamic job-seekers, others see warning lights blinking. One employer revealed being wary of such energetic candidates, as their best experiences had been with persons who were more cautious.

Don’t be too frank

You should watch your tongue if asked to come up with an evaluation of the work place. In two of the interviews, none of the candidates who expressed criticism were awarded a job.

One of the candidates queried why the company didn’t pursue a specific area of activity. When they informed that the firm lacked certain strategic elements, the applicant made a poor impression by claiming to have this particular competence.

Another job-seeker criticised a special interest organisation for its overall strategy and suggested an alternative approach. This was not fortunate either.

“His way of asserting himself did not convey that it was a humble, inquisitive query,” says Braanen Sterri.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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