Most job seekers are perceptive enough to know when an interview isn’t going well. So if you arrive late, can’t answer a question or totally botch a response, you’re not exactly surprised when you don’t receive an invite to move forward. But every once in a while, you’ll have an interview that you think went great only to get rejected (or worse, ghosted) by the recruiter.
You might wonder if the interviewers deemed you unqualified, or if the position went to an internal candidate instead. But one common disqualifier you may not have considered is that you came off as too negative in your interview.
“Negativity in any form automatically taints the interview,” says Wemi Opakunle, Recruiter at Netflix and author of the upcoming book Thank God It’s Monday: 52 Weekly Inspirational Messages to Blast Away Your Monday Blues. “The focus of the interview is to get to know you and see how you can contribute to and elevate the company. A candidate’s approach should be focused on presenting yourself as a solution. The moment you become a problem or present yourself as anything other than a solution, the interviewer puts up a mental red flag.”
So how can you tell if you’re guilty of excessive negativity, and what can you do to fix it? We turned to the experts for answers.
When Negativity Strikes
To be clear, you don’t have to be a negative person in general to come off the wrong way in a job interview. Even the most cheerful and optimistic among us fall victim to negativity from time to time, particularly in response to certain topics, such as why you want to leave your current position or company.
Often, candidates “feel the best answer to this question is to cite the shortcomings of their previous employer,” which “can quickly lead to a tangential description of the faults [of] managers or a list of a company’s shortcomings,” explains Mollie Moric, Career Advisor and Hiring Manager at Resume Genius. “The main purpose of a job interview is to sell yourself, your ability to complete a role, fit in with a company and be a positive addition to a team. Your interviewer isn’t concerned with how much of a jerk your previous manager was or how poorly the company was run.”
Besides wasting valuable time that could be used to highlight how great you are, these rants reflect poorly on your character. Career coach Lisa Lewis shares that those who complain about former employers “often come across as someone stuck in the past or feeling like a victim,” while Opakunle points out that “any employer who hears you speaking negatively about a past company in a first meeting will assume you’ll do the same about them.”
It’s also easy to sound overly cynical and/or self-critical when you talk about weaknesses and mistakes, given that they are an inherently negative topic.
“The appropriate answer to this question requires a candidate to provide a list of weaknesses accompanied by examples of how they’ve overcome each one. However, an unprepared candidate may opt to divulge a list of their greatest weaknesses and how they’ve affected their life instead of a more appropriate response,” Moric says.
Talking about past employers and weaknesses or mistakes aren’t the only situations in which negativity can slip through, though. Other indications your conversation has taken a turn for the worse include “sighing, breaking eye contact, seeing fewer smiles or head nods, noticing longer pauses in between their questions, ending an interview earlier than the scheduled time or getting the feeling that the tone of the conversation has taken on a slow, heavy energy,” Lewis says.
How to Change Your Tone
Experts recommended several key strategies to avoid excess negativity. For example, don’t talk about why you want to leave your current job — instead, try “describing the traits of the work and workplace you’re seeking for your next move,” Lewis suggests. “When you focus on your own agency and the positive attributes you want, you can take a potentially very negative situation and turn it into a positive opportunity.”
Similarly, if asked to bring up an example of a mistake you’ve made or a challenge you’ve encountered, “follow each negative comment with a way in which you were able to make the situation positive in the end,” Moric advises. “For example, if you experienced a significant period of unemployment, explain how you took online courses to update your skills or spent time volunteering to give back to the community.”
You can also try “talking about the lessons you learned from a challenging situation and mentioning all the resources you now use to handle similar issues differently to find a better resolution,” Lewis adds.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do is practice answering common interview questions aloud before your interview takes place.
“If you know that you have residual negative feelings about a point in your career that might come up in your interview, prepare your answers for those topics beforehand. Instead of getting triggered by a negative feeling and botching an important interview question, you’ll be able to provide well-thought-out answers that offer a positive perspective on an otherwise difficult topic,” Moric says.
Of course, life is always going to be full of both positives and negatives, so you don’t need to pretend that nothing bad has ever happened to you. But there’s a big difference between experiencing something negative and dwelling on it.
“If you’ve had something negative happen, don’t ignore it completely or pretend it didn’t happen. Interviewers want transparency and authenticity from you in the interview to be able to feel like they can trust you,” Lewis says. “But ensure that as you reflect, you show signs of separation and growth from the situation rather than coming across as still entrenched in the thick of the emotional consequences.”