“Why can’t we ask about salary?” and other questions about job interview behavior

There are many behaviors and “norms” that are taken for granted about the interviewing process. Whether you’re new to the interviewing process or your career field in general, have different cultural experiences than what is considered “the norm” in the working world, or experience different ways of thinking affiliated with neurodivergence or mental health conditions, there can be a steep learning curve with behavioral and communication expectations. Here’s a quick guide to help answer some questions and alleviate some struggles you might have regarding interviewing.

Please note: We at the Strommen Center do not necessarily endorse the trends and expectations of all companies in their interviewing process. As DEI becomes a larger, more vital part at work, interviewing processes will change and become more accepting of differences in behavior that do not necessarily connect with ability to do a job. Until then, we want to share these insights with you to make you aware of the expectations that exist in the work world so you can prepare for them and question them.

Why should I avoid embellishment and arrogance?

While an interview is about showcasing your abilities, skills, and experiences, there’s a delicate balance between stating your qualifications and boasting. Too much pride may make it sound like you’re talking down to your interviewer and if you’re aggrandizing your work in a way that’s dishonest, interviewers may be able to see through this or discover the truth after the fact. Make sure to discuss your accomplishments in ways that connect with how they can help the company in a straightforward manner.

Why will an employer be upset if I’m late?

If you’re taking public transit or a ride service to an interview, or are driving somewhere you’ve never been before, it may be difficult to get where you need to in time. Though some places may be more understanding, some organizations will see being late to an interview as a sign of disinterest in the position or consider it rude to waste their time waiting for you. Give yourself extra time to get where you need to go and/or map out your route ahead of time. Being early also gives you a chance to compose yourself, grab some water, and introduce yourself on your own terms.

Why should I make lots of eye contact?

This is a tough one – for a lot of people, making eye contact is difficult during an interview. Whether it’s due to cultural norms, neurodivergence, or general interview jitters, making eye contact may feel wrong. Unfortunately, Western white culture – which continues to make up the majority of the business world – perceives a lack of eye contact as rude, disinterested, not engaged, and/or not trustworthy. Do your best to talk with the interviewer as you might a friend or classmate and try this trick – look somewhere between their eyes or glance up at their forehead occasionally. That way you don’t feel like you’re staring at them but have your focus and attention on them. And know that it’s okay if you look away occasionally – no one is asking you to have a staring contest with the interviewer!

Why shouldn’t I ask about salary?

Wait until you have a better understanding of the job responsibilities and they know more about your qualifications to ask this question. Asking it too early – at the end of a first interview (or even a second interview, depending on the organization) – may come off as rude or give the impression you’re only in on it for the money. And even if you are just looking for a summer job to pay the bills, employers don’t like to be told this. It’s too honest and they’re likely entering the interview with the belief that money is not a good enough incentive to work hard. More and more companies post the salary range during the application process but not all do (despite the fact that this increases trust, transparency, and pay equity). Do what research you can to be prepared for the salary range of your position when you go in for the interview.

If they ask a question that my resume answers, why can’t I just tell them it’s on my resume?

We hear you – during a job application you may be asked to list what is also on your resume, or asked during an interview to repeat that information again. Keep this in mind – different organizations collect information from job applications in different ways and having you manually type in what is on your resume may be a failsafe in case something happens to your document when it’s uploaded and they’re unable to view it. Asking during the interview likely means the interviewer wants to know more beyond what your writing is like and rather how you communicate and how you talk about your work. Not answering it may seem avoidant. See it as another opportunity to state your work and show your unique experience.

I know I’m not supposed to embellish or lie, but what am I supposed to say in the “What is your greatest weakness?” question?

Okay. Let’s be real. This question is overused and not always helpful in getting to know a candidate. A job interview is a very vulnerable experience already and very few people are going to feel encouraged to share what their actual weakness is. I’ve been given a lot of advice regarding this questions – I’ve been told to flat out lie, to frame it so my weakness is actually a strength, or to share something I’m personally working on that can show I’m growing as a person. That last one is the best option, in my opinion, but it’s going to depend on who you’re interviewing with. In some places, I know that I can say I’m a recovering perfectionist and give examples of how I’m working to change my expectations for myself, and this will be well-received. However, if I were to use that response in a interview for a company that prides itself on perfection, that’s probably not going to go over very well.

Answering this question requires a lot of preparation – knowledge about yourself, knowledge about the workplace you’re interviewing at and its culture, and how you strategize your interview overall. If your greatest weakness is that you need to work on communication, but you just answered the previous question saying how great of a communicator you are, that’s not going to work. Sometimes I like to use other answers in the interview in how I approach this question. What am I working on or growing in at this moment? What is something that I struggle with that I know I can be better at and supported by this company in resolving?

Also consider how you’ll communicate this weakness. Can you frame it it’s not as a deal breaker? Is there a way to frame this so you can show that you are capable AND will need support in the workplace? Remember that you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you and how they respond to this question can tell you a lot about the work place you’re considering becoming a part of.

If all else fails, a white lie might be necessary. Sometimes our greatest weakness really is perfectionism or overthinking – and just because it’s overused doesn’t make it less true. A level of authenticity is necessary and, unless we get a lot more cool about talking about trauma in the workplace, weaknesses are going to be impossible to approach with 100% honesty.

So, like, I use the word like, like, a lot – is that a problem?

Let’s take a moment to consider how better off we’d all be if filler words were widely accepted in the US. We all use them. Linguists recognize we use them. I would love to tell you that most people in the workplace are on board with the fact that using “um” or “like” does not show a lack of ability, confidence, or communication skill. But sadly, that day has yet to be fully reached. Until then, be conscious of how much you’re using them, pause to collect your thoughts, and do your best to avoid them in the interview (but don’t be harsh on yourself if you do).

What if I don’t know how to answer a question? Can I just say I don’t know?

Here in the world of higher ed, we embrace “I don’t know” in the hopes that it leads to curiosity to want to know. In the work world, that curiosity is assumed. Very rarely, if ever, will “I don’t know” be a satisfactory answer to a question. Instead, take a moment to gather your thoughts, repeat the question, and continue along the lines of, “That’s a great question. I’d have to say…” If you’re still stumped, ask for what you need – a pen and paper, a glass of water, a quick minute to think. If they are not willing to accommodate those needs, this may inform you about what type of employer they are.

I tend to fidget when I talk but people tell me I shouldn’t do that during interviews. Is that true?

It is a common recommendation I see. With more knowledge and resources regarding stimming, employers will hopefully have have less concern with repeated movements during interviews. As is a running theme here, not all employers will respond that way. I’m not going to tell you to not move – I gesture a lot with my hands when I talk and that is something I cannot stop doing. Be aware of and manager your movements in a way that does not distract from the conversation. However, let’s hope that interviewers more widely believe that repeating movements are not caused by boredom or disinterest but instead as a way to manage emotions.

My last supervisor was really bad and I’m worried about ending up in the same situation again. How much can I share about my previous employer during the interview?

Generally, it’s best to err on the side of caution and lean more positive with past experiences than negative. Sharing grievances at this stage may cause employers to assume that you aren’t accountable for your actions or have a bad attitude. You can hint at past concerns without explicitly saying them. For example, if you’re asked how your view leadership, you can discuss vaguely what you don’t like that you’ve experienced and how it’s informed a leadership style you better appreciate. Wrap the negativity around a positive outcome or learning moment and you may be able to address your concerns without being seen as a negative person.

All of this interview advice says I should dress professionally. What does that even mean?

Okay. Let’s address the elephant in the room of professionalism. This term is loaded – it has been used and continues to be used to express bias by numerous employers and employees. “Professionalism” becomes coded to refer to attire such as burqas and saris, natural hair styles, and accents.

Under no circumstances should anyone ever hold you to standards of professionalism that are full of bias and bigotry. In an effort to recalibrate the word, the National Association of Colleges and employers defines professionalism as:

Knowing work environments differ greatly, understand and demonstrate effective work habits, and act in the interest of the larger community and workplace.

NACE – Career Readiness Defined

In this definition, the focus is on how you interact with and treat others rather than appearance and how you carry yourself and perform at work. Keeping in this mind, use your attire to express how you view your work. Researching the company you want to work for can also help you decide what to wear. Are you interviewing with a Fortune 500 company or a prestigious law firm? Lean into more formal attire, such as a suit, dress, or pantsuit. Is the company more business casual? A nice shirt and trousers or blouse and pants will do. Is you company a little eclectic and you want to stand out? Add in pops of color or unique prints. For a more in-depth look at interview, dress, we recommend reviewing this resource.

At the end of the day, knowing that your interviewers for an IT position may dress in jeans and sweatshirts means you can keep it casual versus knowing that your company expects certain dress code expectations can go a long way in terms of “dressing professionally.” And such dress expectations may also help you decide if that position is right for you.

Ending Thoughts

Interviewing is a bit like a strategy game – there are certain rules and protocols you need to follow and the more you practice, the better you’ll be. You’re always welcome to set up a mock interview with us in the Strommen Center and we’re willing to keep answering any and all questions you have about interview norms and expectations!

Sources and Further Reading

ADHD Career Advice – Acing the Job Interview

Indeed Career Guide: 17 Things to Avoid Doing in a Job Interview

The Muse – 30 Things You should Never Say in a Job Interview

By Gina Musto
Gina Musto Career Services Manager