Professional interview red flags and green lights for 2021: An employers’ guide

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

As hiring ramps up, employers are back in the position of assessing candidates and, sometimes, competing to hire the best ones. Urgently needing to hire someone for a specialized position can lead to errors in evaluating candidates. Whether you are hoping that THIS may be the one and brushing aside niggling concerns, or are scarred by hiring mistakes in the past that make you too cautious, the hiring process is fraught.

To increase the odds of hiring success, smart employers keep up with trends even as they maintain their conventional knowledge of skills and character needs for candidates. In 2021, here are a few of the newer factors to consider:

– Candidates should be eager to show you their skills. Today, in technical interviews, this may include an element of problem solving during an interview. (Companies like Karat specialize in technical candidate assessments at the enterprise level, and problem-solving is a key component of the process.) A friend in tech just related to me the story of one candidate who responded with indignation to the request to solve a coding problem. “How dare you ask me to do that? Can’t you see how experienced I am?” Why no, no you can’t see that without first-hand evidence. Red flag, candidate dismissed. Any time a candidate becomes offended or resistant over an ordinary part of the interview process, you are looking at trouble.

– Similarly, you should be able to get a reference from nearly anyone a candidate has worked with. I spoke with a sales candidate a couple of years ago, and when I asked if I could talk with his former business partner (with whom he claimed to have an amicable relationship) the candidate freaked out, sent me a nasty email, and said we weren’t a match. I agreed, and still do. Crimson flag.

– On the other hand, the workplace has changed and savvy employers are changing with it. A candidate may prefer to work remotely, which is easier for some positions now than ever (and which, as a work option, has been pretty well vetted by the COVID pandemic). It used to be a red flag, in my book, if a candidate didn’t want to be in the office. Now, it can be not only workable, but an advantage, allowing employers to hire a geographically remote candidate without relocating them.

– Also thanks to the pandemic, a recent gap in a candidate’s work history is not necessarily a red flag. Company cutbacks, the need to care for children at home or doing remote schooling last year, or concern about contracting COVID were legitimate reasons for being out of work during 2020 an/or 2021. Just make sure that’s what you’re looking at.

– The pandemic has also caused a shift in thinking about work/life balance, and a strong candidate may have non-traditional requests for number of or specific hours worked, time away, or other options to the typical daily schedule. This is a legitimate concern among thinking people, is particularly common among younger candidates, and does not indicate that the candidate is not a diligent worker.

– If you are not in your 20s or 30s, you may also need to adjust to major changes in fashion. Lots of piercings and body art (tattoos), hair treatments you’re unused to, casual interview outfits and more, are common and generally are not indicative of character, work ethic, or suitability. Your facility may have a dress code, and that’s best discussed prior to hiring, but don’t dismiss a candidate because of changing styles.

Not everything has changed, however. My own longtime adage is that “Anything you see in an interview – good or bad – will be magnified 10X when you hire the person.” Or as Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Watch for signs of competence or its inverse, character or lack thereof.

And expect that, despite your every effort, you may make a hiring error now and then. See Tear off the bandage and fire that problem employee on the Succeeding in Small Business blog.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc.  of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.


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