A graduate guide to NOT impressing employers

With over 15 years’ HR and graduate recruitment experience, I have met many candidates during the recruitment process. Some have been amazing, and it has been a real thrill to see some of my best hires go on to do great things. With the typical graduate recruitment process involving an online application, tests, video interview and then assessment centre and interview, I’ve seen a real range of candidates at each stage. Some more memorable than others. Like the guy who turned up to an assessment centre looking like he had just rolled out of bed, complete with nightclub stamp on his hand. He didn’t create a great first impression but was actually amazing and ended up being one of my top hires. I joked about that first impression with him years later and he told me he had been to a club the weekend before, but not washed it off – not sure that was better to be honest!

I recently invited employers to share stories of real things they had seen candidates do at various stages of the recruitment process, so I could share with students and graduates what not to do.

First Impressions 

First impressions count and inappropriate email addresses don’t cut it with employers so bigco*k1996@gmail.com didn’t create the best first impression. Save it for Tinder...

My M&S friend told me about a candidate who sent in their CV to be a buyer all packaged in and around a shoe box complete with a pair of shoes – great idea with so much potential - except the shoes were Primark.

I’ve seen so many candidates complain when they fail at the online test stage, but this example is priceless – “one of the candidates failed his verbal and numerical reasoning, he said that he was burgled, and it was the burglar who took the test!”

TOP TIP: Be professional in line with your industry, this doesn’t always mean a suit and a formal tone – creative industries usually dress more casually and use more relaxed language but bide your time to suss out what is acceptable before going too far. 

ThE Video/telephone interview 

After the online application and test stage, candidates are likely to be asked to complete a telephone or more commonly these days, video interview to ensure that only the very best candidates move through to assessment centre. The video interview in particular prompted a lot of funny stories from my recruiter friends.  I heard about the candidate who had their Skype account profile image as a bum – whether it was their own or someone else’s is unknown....

Another recruiter told of one candidate who could clearly hear a family member in another room (not audible on the video interview), who proceeded to get up (revealing they were wearing PJs from the waist down), open the door and yell expletives for the offending person to “f’ing shut up” before coming back and realising the whole thing had been recorded. 

One of the worst was the guy who clearly had his girlfriend/sister on speakerphone feeding him answers - the last few seconds of her speaking were recorded for each question, and the poor chap proceeded to repeat her answers word for word. They were good answers too – leaving the recruiter wishing they could have hired the girl.

Video interview company Shine shared an example from one of their clients who told them of a candidate who ended up swearing at their mum on video. The candidate apparently answered the question they were asked, then their mum (who was sitting in the room while the candidate recorded their interview) helpfully chimed in with "well I wouldn't have said that" before the candidate had stopped the recording.  The candidate's reaction, while still recording, was to call their mum a few things that you'd certainly not expect someone to call their mother!

My friend Paul watched a video interview where the candidate's webcam falls to a 90 degree angle. Instead of taking a few seconds to adjust the camera, the candidate just tilted his head to the side and continued that way for the rest of the recording.

It isn’t just the UK graduate population providing classics. Phillipa, an HR Director based in the Middle East, had someone who was having technical issues with their video, so called their housemate in - who came in naked. “there was me and two other assessors on the call, least it broke the ice between me and my colleagues. In case you were wondering - (when he realised) the naked guy tried to protect his dignity with the curtain!”

Changing outfits during the interview is something many recruiters have seen. One girl  changed her outfit during every question on the video interview – so started in a suit and finished wearing a snorkel and swim suit.

TOP TIP: Take the video interview in a quiet area where you are unlikely to be interrupted by naked housemates or your Mum. Prepare well so you are wearing something that is appropriate for the role and swot up on likely questions so you can answer them confidently yourself.

Assessment centre/interview

After getting through the online stages, the assessment centre provides an excellent opportunity for candidates to impress the assessors in person and land a job offer. I remember one girl who disappeared at lunchtime following a disastrous group exercise. I found her in the car park on the phone to her mum, crying and asking her to come and collect her. I managed to persuade her to come back in. It’s worth noting that someone else in the same group exercise handled the poor task outcome much better and left with a job offer.  

Be sure to keep language clean and professional. Its good to be relaxed but not too much.  Laura had one applicant who clearly saw nothing wrong in dropping the F bomb repeatedly throughout a group exercise - “it mesmerised me and not in a good way! I had another who was really angry when he arrived, he wasn’t happy at all and when I pointed out that his behaviour was a little aggressive and confrontational, he stood up and shouted at me to tell me it wasn’t at all.” 

Candidates are encouraged to provide unique responses and I’m pretty sure they don’t come much more unique than this from Martin who asked a student about a time when he had convinced someone to do something they did not want to. “He really struggled for an answer and then said. 'I recently got a pet ferret' He asked his girlfriend to touch his pet ferret and she wouldn't. Over time he broke down barriers, understood what issues she had and offered solutions. He said all of this with a dead straight face. Martin and the other interviewer were really struggling to contain themselves.  Apparently, she now touches his ferret on very regular occasions!” 

TOP TIP: If an exercise doesn’t go well during the assessment centre, don’t get hung up on the result – use it as an opportunity to reflect on what you would do differently next time or to motivate the rest of the team if a group exercise. 

Leaving a lasting impression/sealing the deal 

One recruiterhad a candidate in an interview whose parting comment was "I fail most things so I'm pretty sure I will fail this one too". Very honest and probably an issue with his confidence but certainly not leaving a lasting impression for an interview.

Professional Services recruiter Matt had a situation where a candidate they had offered a full-time grad role to, returned his signed offer letter. Issue was that it was his signed offer letter for one of their competitors - a novel way of letting them know he was declining them. 

TOP TIP: Be confident and professional, ensuring you accept the right job offer in a timely manner and start trying to impress them in the lead up to your start date by getting involved in any of the keep warm events and building relationships with your graduate cohort.