Topics to avoid during job interviews

Don’t let nervous energy ruin your chances of making a great impression.
By Teri Saylor

Interviews are your time to shine. Don't let a bad case of nerves steer you into taboo topics that could mean the difference between landing that job and starting the job hunt over.

While most candidates know better than to discuss religion or politics, there are plenty of mundane subjects that seem harmless at first glance but can easily derail your prospects of landing your dream job.

Two career experts shared subjects you should handle with care or avoid altogether in your next job interview.

Bad relationships with past employers. If a hiring professional asks why you left your last job, it's easy to slip up and criticize your previous boss, your co-workers, or your workplace in general, said Penny Locey, vice president of Keystone Associates, a Boston-based organization that helps people navigate career changes. "Don't act defensive. Remain positive and take the high road," she said. "Think of a good, honest reason for your move, and talk about it in a way that does not disparage your previous employer or boss."

Personal information. Interviewers must steer clear of illegal or discriminatory topics during their questioning. If you bring up personal issues in an interview, such as your marital status, child care arrangements, chronic illnesses and disabilities, or religious views, it could make the interview awkward and difficult, according to Jane Tredgett, founder and director of Results Through Training, a UK consultancy that provides clients with customized solutions for training and development. "Discussing your personal circumstances and needs can put interviewers into a difficult position, and it is best to have these discussions after you have been appointed," she said.

Salary and benefits. Avoid bringing up salary discussions early in the process. "When it comes to negotiating salary, let the interviewer bring it up first," Locey said. "You don't want to make this job opportunity all about money right away." Even more important than avoiding discussions about your salary expectations is not asking about paid time off and benefits. "The time to negotiate these terms is after receiving a job offer," Locey added.

Past failures. Preparation is key if you have had some serious personal or professional problems in your past, Locey said. "If you have skeletons in your closet, plan how to address them in advance and be prepared in case the interviewer brings them up," she said.

You may have dropped out of college, been fired from a job, committed a misdemeanor, or had some social media missteps in your younger days. "Don't volunteer the information, but if the interviewer asks, be prepared to respond truthfully," she said.

Gaps in your résumé. While there is no need to volunteer reasons for having a gap in your work history, you do need to be prepared to explain if your interviewer asks about it, according to Tredgett. "A good interviewer will go through your résumé and ask specific questions about your experience," she said. Maybe you took a sabbatical to recharge, do research, or further your education.

Maybe you took time out to travel or to care for a sick or aging loved one. "Don't get caught by surprise and do be prepared to explain those gaps," Tredgett said.

Role-playing is a good way to prepare, she added. "Pass along your résumé to a trusted friend and have them do a mock interview so you can gain a level of comfort in forming your responses," she said.

Your side job. If you maintain part-time work on the side, the interview is not the time to bring it up, according to Locey. "But if your home-marketing scheme, pet-sitting service, ride-sharing gig, consulting business, or other job is on your résumé, the interviewer likely will ask about it," she said. "If you must explain your other job, make sure the hiring manager knows it won't interfere with the job you are interviewing for."

Nervous chatter. Silence is one tactic interviewers employ to encourage job applicants to talk. Job candidates are often brimming with nervous energy, which is made more intense with long silences. "Don't fill those gaps of silence by saying too much," Tredgett warned. "Rather than dig yourself into a hole by chattering away, fill those gaps with thoughtful questions about the company, the job for which you are interviewing, or the hiring process."

Your dearth of experience. Don't volunteer the pieces of a job description you don't have. Instead, lead with what you do have. "If the interviewer asks you about a bit of work experience you don't have, or your familiarity with software you have never used, be honest and say you don't have that specific experience, then describe the proficiencies you do have that are comparable," Locey said.

Lack of questions for interviewer. There's usually an opportunity at the end of an interview for the job candidate to ask questions. Tredgett recommended asking one or two, rather than stating you have no questions.

"A couple of well-thought out questions will go a long way toward building chemistry with the interviewer," she said. "As in other aspects of your interview, preparation is key. Plan for every possibility."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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