There are many reasons interviews can go spectacularly wrong — and leave candidates feeling like they're living a nightmare. Often, those failures are more a reflection of the company than the candidate. We built our platform to help companies improve their hiring process for technical candidates — to help reduce these nightmare interviews, and, in kind, give companies a better chance at landing top technical talent.
Understanding why some hiring processes fail was a big driver for us to field our recent survey — where we asked technical job candidates how they felt about the interviewing process. We learned a lot about job candidates’ perspectives on the hiring process – but we learned the most from one specific open-ended question:
“What is the worst engineering interview you’ve ever had and what made it so bad?”
In this post, we’ll cover some of the more nightmarish responses – providing direct quotes from our respondents, some edited slightly for clarity. And we’ll share our perspective on what hiring teams and recruiters can take from these responses.
“I think I have been discriminated against because I'm a woman and I didn't graduate from a top university.”
Bias and discrimination have long plagued the hiring process. Discrimination based on cultural factors, gender, age, or religion can be so blatant that some cases end up in the legal system.
However, discrimination in hiring is more often less obvious, stemming from unconscious bias — where hiring managers may unintentionally give more weight to responses from candidates who are similar to themselves.
“I'm not an English speaker. My first international interview in English was horrible. I knew all the technical stuff, but communication was a total failure”
Some may also judge a candidate based on their background. Hiring teams are often wooed by candidates with big-name companies or well-known colleges on their resumes. And they may overlook candidates who have superior skills that better fit the job at hand.
“There was too much focus on my past than evaluation of my current skills.”
Takeaway: It is essential to recognize and address unconscious bias in the hiring process to ensure that all candidates are evaluated fairly and objectively based on their qualifications and abilities.
This might mean implementing diversity and inclusion training for hiring managers, removing or masking demographic information from hiring systems, and using structured technical assessments and interview formats that emphasize skills. In the end, candidates should be judged solely on their skills and ability as it applies to the open position.
“The coding test was reviewed by an external company with questions that were irrelevant to the position I was applying for.”
One of the clearest insights from our survey was that technical job candidates hate basic coding tests. Too often, candidates are asked to perform trivial challenges that are irrelevant to the job they are applying for — or so simple that it’s easy to find answers and code samples online that candidates can pass off as their own.
“I told the recruiter that I would withdraw if the technical coding interview for this data scientist position was just some stupid coding riddle. He promised that it wouldn't be a stupid coding riddle. On the big day, it was. I withdrew.”
In fact, more than half of respondents in our survey said they or someone they knew had cheated on a code test. Cheating aside, the bigger issue is that top candidates consider these elementary code challenges a waste of their time.
“The very worst was asking me to write down code with pen and paper, but that was a long time ago. More generally, I hate it when tests don't let you work in conditions similar to real life.”
Takeaway: Technical assessments play a crucial role in evaluating a candidate's qualifications for a job.
However, it's important for hiring teams to ensure that the skills-based tests are not only pertinent to the job requirements but also replicate the actual work setting. One effective way to achieve this is through job simulations, which provide candidates with practical experiences by emulating the tasks they may perform on the job.
“I was interviewed by people who don't know anything about engineering.”
Another common theme we heard from our respondents was that company representatives — recruiters and hiring teams — didn’t seem aligned on the job requirements, and lacked an understanding of the necessary skills to do the job. Early in the hiring process, non-technical recruiters often struggle to effectively assess technical talent during phone screens. Unfortunately, a bad phone screen can make a negative impression on qualified/skilled candidates.
“The worst interview I ever had was for a data scientist role. The recruiter was asking completely irrelevant questions, and seemed confused as to what he was looking for.”
Other times, a poorly structured process can lead to communication failures and misunderstandings that surface late in the process. Especially when it comes to key aspects of the job, including salary.
"I went through the entire interview process, 3-4 rounds. In the end, I was offered 50% less salary than what I communicated at the start of the process."
Takeaway: To land the best candidates, recruiting and hiring teams need a structured interview process, and systems in place to capture and share feedback from candidates during all stages.
Having a rigid structure ensures alignment on the job requirements and necessary skills among all stakeholders who may be in contact with candidates. And regarding key issues like salary, as one candidate said, “Companies should have a transparent process with salaries for a given position.”
“The person giving the interview had a checklist and asked me to answer with only yes or no.”
The technical hiring process typically includes some combination of technical assessments and real-time interviews with hiring and recruiting team members. Because it’s a multi-step process that involves many company stakeholders, having a structured and consistent process is crucial to effectively assess candidates.
That said, having too much structure can be a problem, too. When it comes to in-person meetings (or real-time voice/video calls) with candidates, interviewers should be prepared to ask certain questions — but shouldn’t read from a script.
“The interview was only 20 minutes, and I received the same reaction to all of my answers: ‘Great!’ It was like a predefined plot, where you could say anything and always receive the same feedback.”
A rigid script limits the conversation and prevents the interviewer from exploring certain areas of interest or concern. If the interviewer is too focused on following the script, they may miss important details about the candidate's qualifications.
Takeaway: Scripting questions can be helpful for structuring an interview, but it's important for hiring managers to be adaptable during the conversation to ensure they get a well-rounded understanding of the candidate.
And by all means, if there are basic yes-or-no questions to be asked, field those questions offline — prior to any real-time interview. There’s no reason to use up a candidate or hiring manager’s valuable time to go through a checklist.
“The company told me to wait for the news, and then there was no news.”
We get it. Companies make a hire, then put all their energy into welcoming the hire and helping them get acclimated to the job and team. … And they forget to follow up with the other candidates.
Ghosting candidates is bad form on a basic human level. Most of us, at one time or another, have applied for jobs and not gotten an offer. We all know that applying and interviewing for a job takes a lot of effort — candidates deserve at least a basic thank you for their time and to let them know they didn’t get the job.
“I had multiple rounds of in-person interviews, requiring me to travel multiple times to the company offices, all with positive feedback. Then it was complete silence from the company. They never replied to my follow-up email, so I could only assume they did not select me as a candidate — even though no feedback whatsoever was provided.”
Takeaway: It's simple - don’t ghost your job candidates. Even though they didn’t get this job, they may be a good fit for a future job in your company. Going silent ensures they will never work for you — and they may very publicly share negative feelings about your company with others.
Our survey respondents shared several other “worst engineering interview” responses that were similar to what we covered above.
To wrap this up, we wanted to share a few other cringe-worthy responses about obviously awful interviewing circumstances. These nightmare interviews sounded so bad that there’s just one obvious takeaway for hiring teams: Don’t do this!
Still, we thought it would be useful to share these responses for two reasons:
“The interviewer was a direct competitor who wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would have impacted my ability to do my current job.”
“The interviewer mentioned my family, which made me very uncomfortable.”
“I once took a coding test that was a very obvious ploy to get dev work done for free. The ‘test’ was generating a static website for product documentation from a GitHub repo, and the candidates were asked to do all the design and back-end work before even getting a phone call. For no pay, of course. This wasn't a coding test for an interview, this was a lie to get free work out of hungry devs.”
“The interviewer was asking me about my previous job, at a company that was his direct competitor. Seems like he just wanted to get some information on his competitor — and created a fake job opening.”
“The interviewers requested I turn on my camera but kept their cameras off. There were two of them. One asked me a question and, as I was answering, the other asked me something else unrelated to what I was answering. They kept interrupting and it seemed like they weren't listening at all. They asked me personal questions, like if I was married, and they questioned my choice of work. They were extremely condescending.”