June 5, 2008— -- John-Paul Lee, CEO of Tavalon Tea, a premium tea company based in New York, recently interviewed a job candidate he's not likely to forget.
"The first two minutes were great," Lee says of the recent MBA grad. Then Lee asked the candidate who he believed Tavalon's biggest competitors were. To which the candidate replied, "I think Tavalon Tea is a formidable one."
"I assumed he was nervous and had blurted out the wrong company," Lee says, "so I played along and asked him, 'Why?'"
The candidate's answer? "I don't think they have the right management in place. I know the CEO of the company and he is a real jerk."
Rather than let on right away, Lee asked the interviewee if the two had met before, and if the grad knew where, exactly, he was interviewing.
The candidate, who finally noticed the Tavalon Tea logo on the wall, realized he was in hot water: "Oh my god, I'm sorry," he fumbled. "I know this is no excuse, but I partied a bit too hard last night."
It was too late -- the MBA was stepping in it.
"He didn't get the job," Lee says. "But he definitely made me laugh."
Ask any hiring manager about the worst job applicants they've interviewed, and you're bound to get an earful. Candidates have waltzed in an hour late, some of them clad in cutoff shorts and flip-flops, some even drunk.
With the class of 2008 getting ready to pound the pavement in search of its first big gig -- and many of the parents also making the interview rounds in the wake of a layoff -- I thought it fitting to present a few exhibits from the Interviewee Hall of Shame.
Edward Collins, president of Collins Wealth Management, a financial planning practice in Parsippany, N.J., soured on a promising candidate he'd been interviewing for an administrative assistant position when her cell phone rang.
"Not only did she answer it," Collins says, "she proceeded to have a 2½ minute conversation with the caller."
Collins would have understood if the call had been about a family emergency. But it wasn't.
"The conversation was about the previous night's episode of some television program and what was on the agenda for the coming weekend," he says. "I ended the interview when she ended the call." (Ouch!)
Of course, there's an easy way to avoid such cell phone flubs. It's called the Off button.
"I interviewed with the wrong department at a huge insurance company because I didn't remember the name of my HR recruiter," says Sean Flannery, who's now a software developer for a Chicago advertising firm.
Both interviews were scheduled for the same time, and both had similar job descriptions. Since Flannery couldn't remember the name of the person he was meeting, the receptionist sent him to the wrong appointment.
Twenty minutes into the interview -- his first out of college -- Flannery realized he was not interviewing for the Y2K developer job he had applied for but for an anti-virus developer job (something he wasn't qualified to do).
"I was so embarrassed that I told them I had to go to the bathroom and didn't come back," he says. "Now whenever I set up an interview, the first question I ask is, 'Who am I meeting with and where do I need to be?'"
"I had a candidate who brought his mom to the interview," says Lee, the Tavalon CEO.
Evidently, the candidate's mother, a businesswoman herself, was her son's mentor, and junior wanted Mama to sit in on the interview. Unimpressed, Lee pulled the plug on the interview before it even began, informing the candidate, "I can tell you right now that this is not going to work out."
It may seem obvious, but you don't want to give a potential employer reason to think you can't stand on your own two feet. Leave your next of kin, pet poodle or life coach at home. (I kid you not -- these are all actual "guests" brought to interviews by job candidates.)
I'll spare you the details of the would-be temp who peed in the interview chair or the hopeful summer intern who showed up to the interview with a bad stomach flu and repeatedly retched in the hiring manager's recycling bin. Instead, let's dissect every interviewer's most dreaded physical malady: Super-Sweaty Guy.
Marie VanAssendelft-Baker, a communications professional in Hoboken, N.J., encountered a perspiring prospect while trying to find an assistant during the summer. Although the guy was 90 minutes late, he offered no explanation.
"He was completely drenched in sweat, and the entire interview, was sweating nonstop all over the place," VanAssendelft-Baker says. "He wasn't even trying to brush it off."
I realize some people have health issues that cause them to perspire profusely, and that others bead up under pressure. To help you stay dry and appear confident, tuck a towel in your briefcase and mop up in the restroom right before your interview. For severe sweating problems, consider consulting a doctor. Like the commercial says, never let them see you sweat.
"How long before I get your job?" is a perfect example of what not to ask.
So is "If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be?" which is what one prospective hire asked Laura Grimmer, CEO of Articulate Communications, a New York public relations firm.
"When we asked if she had any questions of us, she pulled out a sheet of paper and started quizzing us with queries that included 'Who is your favorite president and why?'" Grimmer says.
Forget the inane '70s game show questions. Instead, impress your potential employer by asking about something substantial: the team you'll be working with, the department's biggest obstacles or the company's plans for growth.
Although most of the aforementioned interviews weren't salvageable -- after all, how does one recover after making a play for the boss's job or bringing a pet ferret to the interview? -- the average interview gaffe won't necessarily cost you the position.
If you butcher an answer or lose your train of thought, pause until you regain your bearings. Ask the interviewer to elaborate on any unclear questions if need be. Don't guess and don't ramble; interviewers can see right through such shenanigans.
If you accidentally call your interviewer by the wrong name or pull out a pen with their competitor's logo on it, issue a quick apology, defuse the situation with humor ("Blasted trade show swag!") and then move on. Interviewers know you may be nervous, and they know you're human. Many of them will give you the benefit of the doubt. Remind them on your way out the door that you're extremely interested in the job, and send a prompt thank-you note when you get home. With any luck, your faux pas will be pardoned.
If you do flub the interview beyond repair, take solace in knowing that at least you won't make the same mistake twice -- and that the experience wasn't a total loss. After all, you gave a bored hiring manager a juicy story she'll enjoy retelling around the water cooler for years to come.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com