Poisonous Chatter: What Not to Say During a Remote Job Interview

Tech Career Hub
Written by:
Gregory Sherrow
Published on:
November 20, 2018
man looking at a laptop on a desk

Discover the phrases that could potentially harm your chances in a remote job interview. Learn what not to say to increase your chances of success.

The interview had been going well even though the video quality was mediocre. Suddenly everything went glitchy. Maybe it was just temporary. It happens. When the digital storm cleared, the anxious candidate’s grainy image croaked, “Sorry. My Internet connection is always terrible.” In my head, a lightning bolt crackled, vaporizing his resume. In real-life, the interview zombied on for a few more minutes, politely wrapping up, but the candidate’s chances perished with those words.

In a crowded field of excellent applicants for the best remote work positions, just a few words can kill your prospects. Remote job interviewers rely heavily on the right words and how well someone presents themselves over voice and video. Applicants often sweat over infinitesimal details in their resume and cover letter but fail to prepare themselves for an interview where the employer will be scrutinizing every utterance. In a situation where two people may never be in the same city, let alone the same office, words mean everything.

That jokey comment you made about having to constantly reboot your computer might be remembered thusly “He has unreliable equipment that he doesn’t take time to manage.”

Pick your words carefully.

As you prepare for a video or phone interview, weed out prepared responses to common remote interview questions that could sow doubt in the interviewer’s mind and watch out for spontaneous banter that might send the wrong message. Remember, people listen more attentively to your words when speaking with you by phone or video. Responses delivered by video conference can leave the interviewer with a different impression than the same ones spoken face-to-face.

Fortunately, common sense will keep many from blurting out the most obviously gaga responses to remote interview questions. But  inexperienced candidates often respond before thinking. “I just don’t like working with people” is a poor choice when answering the ubiquitous question, “Why do you want to work from home?” Even seemingly innocuous or mundane responses can ruin your chances of landing your dream remote job.

I want to stay home to take care of my mom/dog/cat/chickens.

Honesty is admirable and so is caring for a family member. Contrary to some evidence, managers are human, and we have problems too. We are especially empathetic about issues concerning family life. But your personal problems are never good selling points in an interview.

It’s true circumstances requiring you to spend more time at home are a legitimate reason to seek out remote work. But saying you’re looking for a remote job so you can take care of your elderly dad sends a message you’d gladly just stuff envelopes if it meant you could make money at home. It also advertises you’ll probably head back to the office once that responsibility is removed. No manager would dare mention that such a situation is an obstacle to employment but you probably won’t get a second interview. Managers assume you have a handle on your own problems enough to tackle theirs.

I/my partner just had a baby.

Congratulations! I’ve got kids too and have raised them while working at home full-time. I know what it’s like to have a colicky baby under the age of two in the house while conducting conference calls with little sleep. To say it’s difficult is like referring to running a 100-mile ultramarathon as a bit of a jog.

If you think having children at home while working is going to be such a challenge you feel compelled to come clean about it during a remote interview, then you’re telling the interviewer she should be concerned too.

If your commitments outside of work are manageable… there is no point in mentioning them in your job interview.

Liz Ryan, CEO/founder of Human Workplace

To be clear, I am not advising that anyone with a newborn or toddler should avoid applying for remote positions. In fact, I encourage you to do so. An improved work/life balance is a hallmark of working from home. But you need to have a support plan ready.

Among the tasks you need to do is reach out for help from relatives or babysitters before interviewing. Knowing you have it sorted out will give you the confidence to keep the discussion focused on why you are the best candidate. It will also help you avoid bringing up a topic that is irrelevant to the employer.

Do you mind if I cheat on you?

You wouldn’t want to hear those words from your partner. So why would you say them to an employer? Professional remote positions aren’t second jobs you can dip into from cubicleland or manage when you get home. Asking a remote employer if they mind you continuing to work for BoringDayjob, Inc. after you’re hired is like asking for permission to have an affair.

Beyond not mentioning it, I implore you to  not do it. If you are planning on double-dipping in the remote job market, know you aren’t the first to try. Foolhardy noob remote employees now and again assume remote positions are magically less involved than office positions, making it possible to double up. Here’s a prediction from my crystal ball: it will catch up with you. You risk losing both jobs while making enemies. Why chance it?

Along the same lines, if you have time-consuming, non-employment commitments such as running a side business, nonprofit or obtaining a doctoral degree, seriously consider if you can handle both. If the answer is yes, then you can  feel smug and keep it to yourself. Focus your efforts on convincing your future remote employer you are the best fit and will give everything you can to the job. No matter how proud you feel of your alternate endeavors, mentioning major competing commitments may plant the seed that you have less than 100% to offer.

I’m going to travel the world.

Ah, yes. The dream of the wide-eyed nomad. There is no denying that traveling or moving frequently while holding down a full-time remote job is possible and can be a phenomenal lifestyle. But put yourself in a remote manager’s position for a moment. She has two first-rate candidates in front of her and must decide today. In the final interviews this morning one candidate discusses how excited he is to head off to Columbia next month after living in Indonesia for the last 3 months.

Everything was perfect but suddenly the manager has a doubt. Can this person stay connected reliably? What if he heads off somewhere new and goes dark for a week during a critical period?

If you have been successfully working remotely from multiple locations and past employers were happy with your work then don’t raise your nomadic tendencies in the interview. Managers don’t need more to worry about them. Typically, once you are hired, it’s a different story. Hearing, “I’ll be offline for a couple of days while I get my internet sorted out in Belize” is acceptable coming from a proven remote employee already on staff. The same words in an interview plant a giant red flag flapping in a hurricane.

Stick to the message.

No matter what the title is of your ideal remote job, handling problems is a required skill. The best remote candidates understand that childcare, family commitments, health issues and technology hurdles are their problems to solve, not an employer’s. The candidate who brings solutions to a remote interview instead of baggage is the one who receives the coveted offer email that eludes so many.

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