7 Unspoken Job Interview Rules That Everyone Needs To Know

Want to ace your next interview? Follow these secret rules.
There are unspoken job interview rules that give candidates an advantage in hiring.
PixelsEffect via Getty Images
There are unspoken job interview rules that give candidates an advantage in hiring.

As a candidate, it often feels like you are in the dark when a job interview ends. What do hiring managers really think about how well you did? What does that radio silence after an interview mean?

To demystify the hiring process, we asked a mix of career experts to reveal the biggest unspoken job interview rules they know of. Although they aren’t often shared with job candidates, they’re truths everyone ought to know.

Rule #1: Interviewers want a highlight reel, not an exhaustive list of everything you have done.

Job candidates are guaranteed to be asked some version of “Tell us about yourself” and “Why are you interested in our company/role?” said Anyelis Cordero, founder of Propel on Purpose Coaching, a career coaching service designed for first-generation professionals.

You may think you can just repeat what your resume says. But that would be a mistake.

“Interviewers are going to expect [you] to be able to concisely walk them through your career. This is an area many experienced professionals struggle with, especially first-gen professionals, because the unspoken rule here is that the interview wants the highlight reel,” Cordero said.

“Since most interviews are 30 minutes, if you don’t practice, you’ll make the mistake of spending too much time on this answer and not leave enough time to answer other questions.”

Other job interview questions come with silent subtext and expectations, too.

The job search is all about demonstrating your competence, commitment, and compatibility, said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and the author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.”

“The interview question ‘Tell us about a time when…?’ is really a competence question of ‘Have you done a similar job before?’ and ‘Do you have a good head on your shoulders?’ The interview question ‘Do you have any questions for me?’ is really a commitment question of ‘Do you care enough about us to do enough research to ask a question that you couldn’t have found the answer to on Google?’ And the interview question ‘Tell us about yourself’ is really a competence, commitment, and compatibility question,” Ng said.

Rule #2: To be a stronger candidate, you need to understand the role of each person you interview with.

Tailoring your questions and answers based on the roles that individual interviewers hold is one of the best unwritten rules to a successful interview, said Daniel Space, a senior human resources business partner for large tech companies.

“The way I answer what a peer is going to ask me in an interview is going to be a little different than what I tell a manager,” he said. “I know what the peer wants is: ‘Can Daniel do his job? Can he hold up the team? Is he good for collaboration?’ What the manager wants to know is ‘Can Daniel do his job without a lot of interference from me? Can I trust him to make tough decisions? What level of support do I need to provide him?’”

“It’s important to go into a job search process knowing how to tell the story of your career. But if you want to be an even stronger candidate, you need more than one story to tell interviewers, because often, they debrief each other.”

Sharai Johnson, a sourcer for Latinx and Black engineering talent for a large tech company, said she wants job candidates to understand the differences between a sourcer, a recruiter and a hiring manager. Johnson said a sourcer’s job is to gain the interest of passive talent; sourcers may schedule the first interview, then pass off duties to a recruiter, who will be in contact with candidates through the end of the hiring process but doesn’t make final hiring decisions.

“A recruiter and a sourcer can advocate on behalf of a candidate, but at the end of the day, the hiring manager is the one that actually can get the budget approval and send the ‘yes’ or the ‘no,’” Johnson said. “It’s just important to understand those moving parts and those people, so you know who to reach out to and who to direct questions to.”

Rule #3: Your body language makes a big difference.

Laura Hunting, CEO of Found By Inc., a talent agency and executive search firm specializing in design, said one unspoken job interview rule is that a candidate’s body language can speak just as loudly as the words they actually say.

“Be aware of how you’re sitting, what you’re doing with your hands, your facial expression, your eye contact,” Hunting said. “Your body language sends signals and impacts your success in an interview whether your interviewer is aware of its impact on their feedback or not.“

Hunting recommends giving facial cues and eye contact to show you are being an active listener. It’s a small step, but it can make a big difference.

Rule #4: You need to be prepared with more than one career story to tell.

It’s important to go into a job search process knowing how to tell the story of your career. But if you want to be an even stronger candidate, you need more than one story to tell interviewers, because often, they debrief each other.

Space said that ideally, you should have three or four success stories that you can rotate between interviewers because he has seen hiring panels in which it counted against candidates if they told the same story to every person they talked with.

“If they have that one amazing story of how they sold that really difficult client, if all five people were told that story, sometimes it helps them because it helps reinforce it,” he said. “But in other cases, it actually helps to have different stories.”

Rule #5: Following up is not going to speed up an offer.

Hearing nothing back after an interview you thought went amazingly well is frustrating to deal with. “Am I being ghosted?” you may huff. The good news is that the silence is usually not personal, and likely due to other interviews being conducted or internal bureaucracy.

But the bad news is that those nudges and “Just following up!” emails are not going to speed up the process. If you have followed up and held people accountable to their deadlines and you are still hearing radio silence, that’s your signal to move on.

“I have yet to see a candidate send an email to a recruiter and all of a sudden, a recruiter being like, ‘Oh, I totally forgot about you. Yes, they want to make you an offer.’”

- Daniel Space, senior human resources business partner

Space said when to follow up depends on your situation, but if you have reached out, understand that your nudges are not going to change interviewers’ minds about their decision.

“Nobody likes hearing this,” he said. “But I have yet to see a candidate send an email to a recruiter and all of a sudden, a recruiter being like, ‘Oh, I totally forgot about you. Yes, they want to make you an offer.’ They know who you are and who you are in the placement.”

What actually can speed up a job offer is having another one in hand. If you are hearing silence after a job interview, you may be waitlisted. That silence may mean “they liked you, but didn’t like you enough to give you an offer immediately, so are interviewing other candidates,” Ng said.

“This is your cue to increase your market value and leverage to prove to this company, ‘Hey, if I’m good enough for this other company, I must be good enough for you,’” Ng said. “If you get another offer and are up against a deadline to accept, let this company know and see if they can accelerate your decision.”

Rule #6: A thank-you note can be a networking opportunity, but it will not get you the job.

Thank-you notes can be a way to connect with someone after a job interview. If you are in a traditional job environment, they may be expected or desired, so you should double-check with your recruiter if you aren’t sure whether to send one after an interview.

Just understand that it will very rarely make a pivotal difference between getting hired or not. “If you make a decision based on that, that is poor leadership, because someone just did an extra step of administrative homework versus demonstrating their skill or value,” Space said.

“Never, ever, ever, in 20 years of sitting with leaders across eight different companies doing mass hiring, has a manager ever said, ‘Well, we should go with this person because they sent a thank-you,’” he said.

Rule #7: No matter how great the interview makes you feel about a prospective employer, check with people who actually work there.

Bernadette Pawlik, a career strategist with 25 years of executive recruiting experience, said one of her unspoken rules is to “Never take a job without speaking with your peers.”

Talking with colleagues who have worked with your potential new boss is going to give you a much clearer picture of what the management and company culture is like than whatever careful response you are given in a job interview.

“No one is going to say: ‘Yes, I am a dreadful manager’... But if you ask your potential peers how work gets done and they don’t mention the manager’s support, that tells you that this potential boss may be a dreadful manager,” Pawlik said.

“It’s the day-to-day reality which makes a difference between whether you go into work eagerly or whether you go into work thinking, ’Oh, God, so many more days until Friday,” she added.

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