How can you tell?How well will a job candidate suit your job vacancy? How well will an employer suit your career? People and companies can look good on paper, but what if they’re less impressive in person? How can you reconcile the inconsistencies to know if it’s a good hire?

Good question.

When you buy a house, the sale is contingent upon a building inspection. When you hire an employee or start a new job, there’s no such safeguard in place. Which means you just have to gamble sometimes, which can lead to costly mistakes.

So how can you reduce your odds of making a mistake before the new hire takes place?

By using a new tool I’ve developed called the Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. It’s an acronym for five nonverbal clues that tell you what the resume (or company brochure) doesn’t. Think of it like the building inspection step, a way of catching serious issues before you plunk down your money (or change jobs).

When considering a candidate (or employer), look at her resume (or company history), listen to her interview answers (or questions), and then look at her:

  • Hair
  • Attire
  • Behavior
  • Interactions
  • Table Manners

Because believe it or not, these will tell you everything you need to know – regardless of which side of the hiring table you’re on.

The Interview Inspection Habit

Let’s look at them in detail.  This is written from an employer’s perspective, but use these same criteria to size up your prospective boss and co-workers.  We’ll look at it from a candidate’s viewpoint in just a moment.  Meanwhile, think about how well you would rate with a prospective employer in each of these areas:


Hair and makeup styles, like clothing and accessory styles, change every six months. So does technology. So if your candidate’s hair style is stuck in the 80’s, chances are, her skill set is too – regardless of what proficiencies she claims on her C.V. People who don’t like change don’t change – and it shows in their appearance. Expect training to be slow and your new hire to be resistant. The only industry exception I’ve found to this is I.T. If your candidate’s hairstyle is current, chances are, her skill set is too.


There are specific “uniforms” required for every industry, like suits for banking, a jacket for architecture, a collar for teaching, etc. If your candidate doesn’t wear appropriate attire to the interview – when he’s supposed to be at his best and most polished – it means he doesn’t know the industry uniform or he doesn’t care. Or both. Either way, it’s a big gap in his professional training. Proceed with caution.


There are basic behaviors required in polite society, like shaking hands, holding doors, and saying “please” and “thank you.” If your candidate can’t manage them, that’s a problem. If she does things like bounce a leg nervously, chew on her nails, or shift around constantly in her seat, that’s a bigger problem. Rifle through your mail? Taste the potpourri? Offer to give you a tarot reading? All problems. If she makes you feel uncomfortable during the interview, she’s going to make you dread coming to work if you hire her. So don’t.


How your candidate interacts with others at the interview tells you how he’ll treat them once he’s hired. If he ignores the maintenance guy, flirts with the secretary, and acts like he’s smarter than anyone in the room, watch out.  George Clooney once said he learned long ago that before he signs on to do a movie with a director, he’ll take him to lunch at a restaurant. If the director treats the waitstaff poorly, he’ll probably treat the movie crew the same way. If he treats them well, George can expect the same behavior on set. So can you. Watch how your candidate interacts with the receptionist, peers, and bosses. If it’s anything less than utmost respect, you can expect 40+ hours per week of the same.

Table Manners

Hold utensils correctly, chew with your mouth closed, keep elbows off the table. Most people have this drilled into them by age 10, to the point that like typing and driving, it becomes automatic. So if you see an adult with bad table manners, it means she’s missing a key part of her social training. Which is precisely why for middle management positions and above, employers often include a meal in the interview process. They want to see a candidate’s table etiquette, to determine the extent of her savoir faire. Because good manners and bad manners tend to come as packaged sets. If you know how to eat properly, chances are you’ll also know to send a thank you note to a client, flowers to a grieving colleague, or get a birthday cake for your boss. If you don’t, you won’t. Many a promising candidate has been eliminated by the appetizer.

See how easy it is to spot problems once you know what to look for? The resume tells you the skill set and work history; these five non-verbals tells you how he acts at work. Together they give you an accurate picture of how likely the candidate will suit your position.

Here are some examples of how this Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. could have prevented these bad hires:

College Professor Bad HireA man interviewed for an assistant professor spot at a university. On paper, he looked good. His C.V., publications, and speaking engagements were all impressive. In person…not so much. He was loud and boisterous, dressed outrageously, and had terrible table manners. After much debate – and careful verification of his recommendations – he was hired.


He burned through his two year start-up budget in six months and published nothing. He accepted an award from the governor on behalf of the university dressed in an orange t-shirt, camouflage shorts, and hiking boots. When he was denied promotion, he threatened a lawsuit. Turns out his previous boss had “padded” the man’s C.V. to get rid of him; his current boss is thinking of doing the same.

Had the university used this Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T., they would have seen four out of the five red flags: inappropriate attire, loud behavior, disrespectful interactions, and bad table manners. They let the C.V. – a work of fiction, it turns out – override their “gut” feelings that it was a bad hire. They’ve been paying the price ever since.

Southern BelleA woman interviewed for a secretarial position wearing a wide brimmed sun hat and floral dress – summer garden party attire – in February. On paper, she had all the required skills. In person, she seemed eccentric and out of date – old hairstyle, old clothes, old jokes. But she was charming and got the job.


Her skill set was as outdated as her hairstyle, and her behavior turned out to be as inappropriate as her attire. She HAD to be the center of attention at all times. When she fell behind on her deadlines – which was often, because she spent more time flirting than working, “I can’t help it y’all, I’m a Southern Belle!” (from Chicago) – she blamed everyone else. Constant drama.

Again, had her employer used the H.A.B.I.T. technique, she would have been eliminated from consideration. Her hair, attire, and behavior were eccentric, her interactions forced. It was all right there in the interview, but her boss allowed himself to be charmed and glossed over the problem. Big mistake.

Now think about the most troublesome employees on your team right now. How many of them would fail the Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. ? Chances are, all of them.

So how can you use this technique when you’re looking for a job? Just use the exact same five non-verbals.

If the hair and attire of the managers are out of date, the systems and equipment will likely be also. If the behavior and interactions are inappropriate or make you feel uncomfortable, expect more of the same. Bad table manners? Little savoir faire. Use all five criteria to determine if the people and place will be a step up or step back for you.

Let me give you an example from the candidate’s point of view:

Years ago, I interviewed for a management position. The first interview went well; so did the second. I had lunch with several department heads and got excited about the position. Then I met the group I would be supervising. Most of them had been there 20+ years, and most dressed 20+ years out of style. They were rude and prided themselves on “eating managers for lunch.” My position had turned over four times in as many years. “I give you six months,” said one of them.

I lasted two and a half years.

The problem was simple: the head department wanted to overhaul the antiquated methods in our division. But the people with the antiquated skills in our division didn’t want to change – including the division boss. Why he was never replaced is still unclear. Regardless, I started with high hopes. But I was younger than most of my staff and initially, they ignored me. Until I demanded higher productivity and fewer errors, that is. Apparently I expected too much, and like my four predecessors, it was time for me to go. I was taken off email lists so I wasn’t notified of important meetings. Crucial files mysteriously disappeared from my office. Court ordered documents that I signed off on were never returned to court. It was a battle EVERY day – against my own staff. Exhausting. Stressful. Soul-crushing. In the end, they wore me down. I threw in the towel and quit.

I fought with my staff every day

Had I figured out the Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. back then, I would never have taken the job. Because that group interview with my future staff – where I noted how outdated their hair and attire were and how disrespectful their behavior and interactions were when they predicted my 6 month demise – foreshadowed all the trouble they put me through. Four out of the five red flags were waving furiously that day.

Then there was the biggest red flag of all:  the cluttered office.

The head department’s offices were neat and tidy.  The division offices were a fire chief’s worst nightmare. Storage boxes stacked to the ceiling, desks squeezed too close together, stacks of paper everywhere, mice and paper mites – OSHA would have shut them down.

Dirty office = poor management

You expect one or two people in an office to be messy. But the whole department? Or company? That’s leadership by example. The director’s office was SO cluttered there was no place to sit down.  I interviewed with him in a conference room.  BIG red flag.

If you’re being hired to clean up a predecessor’s mess or to organize and run a messy office, that’s one thing; but if you’re expected to work IN someone else’s mess, alarm bells should sound. Loudly.  Because if they can’t find a place for you to sit down, chances are, they can’t find the electric bill, they don’t know their bank balance, they have accounts past due, and your paycheck may bounce.  Depending on the situation – a startup, a takeover, a family member – you may be willing to take the chance.  Then again, you may not. Tight ship or sinking ship, it speaks to the behavior of the management. Listen carefully.

In my case, the clutter was just another sign of apathy. Nobody cared. They did the absolute minimum required to get a paycheck.  When I came in, all fired up and ready to blaze new trails, they just grabbed a bucket of water and doused me.  End of fire.  I’d tackle the challenge differently today – more charm, less muscle – but hindsight’s always 20/20.

Like all the warning signs.  They were there, but I ignored them – and it cost me 2.5 years of stress and frustration.

So…what was the worst job YOU ever had? What was your boss like? Your co-workers? Your staff? See any of the Interview H.A.B.I.T. red flags? My guess is three or more.

See how effective this is?

People give us ample clues as to what they’re like to work with. To date. To socialize with. We just have to pay attention.

The problem is, we tend to spackle over the ugly parts. To believe the C.V. instead of our gut. To deny the Jekyll/Hyde behavior. To ignore the glaring inconsistencies.

But you can’t fix foundation problems with spackle. If candidates don’t have the skills they claim, they’re unqualified. If they treat the receptionist poorly, it creates ill will. If they don’t know how to dress or hold a fork correctly, they will embarrass you. I’ve seen it too many times to count.

So am I saying never hire anyone with outdated hair or attire?

Of course not!

If you want a task done the same way every time, hire someone with an outdated hairstyle. They will do it the same way for years because they don’t like change. Stagnant positions require people who like set routines.

But dynamic positions – technology, creativity, social media, public relations – call for ambitious, hungry people. Look for innovative, socially savvy candidates with current hair and appropriate attire.

Dynamic jobs call for ever-changing situations

Just don’t try to switch them. Stagnant workers can’t handle dynamic positions any more than dynamic workers can deal with stagnant positions. They’ll both quit in frustration.

Similarly, when you’re looking for a job, seek one that suits your temperament, either stagnant or dynamic. Then, apply the Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. tool to see if the situation is really how it seems.

That management ad I answered called for a motivated person looking to make a difference. It was written by the people in the head department who wanted to overhaul that one division.  But the people in the division weren’t interested in change.  Everything about them and their office said as much.  Since the head department didn’t fire the division director and bring me on to clean up his mess, it meant they expected me to work IN his mess while trying to clean it up.  Yet my four predecessors already proved that didn’t work.  What’s that saying about doing the same thing but expecting a different result?  SO many red flags. I spackled them all.

Stop spackling.

From this day forward, use the Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. to vet your potential candidates, employers, sweethearts, and friends. Look at hair, attire, behavior, interactions, and table manners to see if you’re going to be able to “play nicely” with these people and spend long hours with them.

True, you may not always have the luxury of multiple candidates or multiple job offers; but if you vet what do you have with this 5-step process, at least you’ll know their weaknesses up front. Better to know now than be surprised later.

So…what was your worst hire that could have been avoided had you used this tool? Tell us about it in the comments below.

And if this article hit a nerve for you, please share it with your friends and colleagues. The more people who get into the Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T., the better the hires will be.


Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Business Wear Magic, the business wear ebook that has helped thousands of women dress better, make more, and get the business attention they deserve.  Come see why colleges and recruitment agencies call Business Wear Magic a “must read.”

[content_box_red width=”50%”]


    12 replies to "The Interview Inspection H.A.B.I.T. – The Ultimate Vetting Tool?"

    • Joyce Garcia

      What an informative and insightful article! I can clearly see how the acronym HABIT reveals the interior of a person and what you can expect based upon the objective observation of HABIT displayed in a person. As a job seeker, I have placed these tools in my quiver. Thank you.

      • Diana

        Hi Joyce,

        You’re welcome! Yes, it’s the unspoken things you have to worry about. When you’ll be spending 40+ hours per week with these people, you want to make sure you choose wisely. Otherwise everyone will be unhappy. Good luck on the job search!

    • stacy

      Wish I had seen this 8 months ago. The jib itself is great…its some of the people in the organization that would have failed the test. Will keep this handy for transitioning to my next position.

      • Diana

        Hi Stacy,

        Isn’t it crazy how obvious it is once you know what to look for? Good thing you’re on an upwardly mobile track and can leave some of these people behind… 😉

    • Shelly

      I LOVE the HABIT! Yes, indeed! It would have saved me a ton of frustration with jobs and subordinates alike. Going forward, what a tool!

      It seems more difficult with men since a classic men’s clothing style from 10-15 years ago can still look current (white button down shirt, dress trousers, loafers.) And men-over-30 hairstyles don’t seem to change, either. Maybe in that case, as long as the clothes look like they fit and don’t look 15 years old, it’ll be OK as long as all the other items check out?

      • Diana

        Hi Shelly,

        Glad you liked it! Yep – once you know what to look for it, the red flags become obvious.

        To test the skill set of middle age men in classic business attire, ask them about industry-specific technology they should know about and use, like lab equipment, scanners, computers, etc. Also check their social media profiles on Linked In, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. They may not be on all of them, but if they’re not on ANY of them, ask them why. I know a 50-something woman who found herself back in the job market after many years who nearly fell apart setting up a Linked In profile. When she discovered most of her industry had switched to online applications instead of mailed-in resumes, she switched industries rather than deal with the new technology.

        Your goal is to weed out any potential problems up front. Observe, question, and evaluate. It will save you a world of frustration.

    • Anonymous

      Brilliant article as usual, Diana. I am afraid many people and many organisations would fail this test – especially nowadays since manners have been consigned to ideological idealism – which is also handy, because destructive behaviour is now more obvious, if you know the signs.

      • Diana

        Thanks! Glad you liked it!

        People HAVE become so lax these days that those who know how to dress and behave properly are as rare as unicorns. They’re also paid well and treated like rock stars. If that isn’t incentive to sit up straight and hold your fork properly, I don’t know what is. As for those who think manners and business attire are old fashioned, use the Interview Inspection HABIT to find the most professional candidates from among your choices. Then, train them to dress and behave properly – particularly if they work with the public or will act as a company spokesperson.

        ALWAYS be on the lookout for destructive behavior. “One bad apple” can bring down moral or even a company if left unchecked. Don’t hire them if you can help it and get rid of them as soon as they cause trouble. That 90 day probationary period is there for a reason. Make the most of it.

    • Janet

      A headhunter called me and I agreed to meet with the company for an initial conversation. They convinced me to travel to corporate headquarters to meet the CEO and vice presidents. I have three children. To a one the senior executives tried to convince me they were a very family friendly organization. However, I was very suspicious and did not accept the position despite an offer that would have been a 45 percent raise. Why? First, every executive that had children had a stay-at-home spouse. I didn’t think there expectations of family friendly would be the same as mine. Two, I asked each executive to describe their typical day. The answers revealed an expectation of a typical 12-hour day and “of course we work additional hours during budget season. “ – not very family friendly in my book. Three, their idea of family friendly was the ability to go to their kid’s ball game as long as they came back in the evening to make up for the time out. The last I heard that position has been filled and vacated by three women with school-age children. If the canned rhetoric does not match actual practice, walk away.

      • Diana


        Girl, you were smart, smart, smart to pass on this one! It sounds like it was “family friendly” as long as you have a spouse at home, watching the kids. Not everyone does.

        One of my mentors described it perfectly: “There will always be occasional overtime required for special projects or end of year. But if you have overtime ALL THE TIME, something’s WRONG. Either you have the wrong person for the job, or you have the wrong job description for the position. Either way, it needs review if it regularly requires more than 40 hours per week to complete.”

    • timberland ???????

      Have you ever thought about publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my readers would appreciate your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an email.
      timberland ???????

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Security Code: