The New Job Is in the Details

With so many qualified professionals still seeking work, even the slightest misstep can cause you the job. During the screening process, it’s best to pay attention to even the smallest details – think through potential cultural differences, be aware of eye contact, and avoid rambling replies. Keep in mind that anxiety about being out of a job for a long period of time can also add to the potential mistakes.

Here’s an important message for job hunters: Sweat the small stuff.

Minor missteps can derail your search. With the economy still hurting, numerous hiring managers are knocking applicants out of the running over the slightest mistake.

That’s what sporting-goods sales executive Daniel Obergfell did while seeking a marketing manager last winter. He rejected one contender for mispronouncing his surname four times—after correcting her thrice. (His last name actually is pronounced “Oberfell,” with a silent “g.”) She was among 40 people he interviewed for the $80,000 (U.S.) post, which attracted more than 400 prospects from one online listing.

“Your nerves cause you to do things you would not normally do when you must vie against many people for a job,” Mr. Obergfell says. Despite such sentiments, he explains, he “couldn’t get past” his disappointment over the woman’s failure to pronounce his name right. “Given she never really got it right—even after being corrected, told me it was probably started with nervousness, but the issue more than likely ran deeper than that,” he says.

Small interview errors are becoming more common. “Compared with two years ago, about 20% more candidates interviewed by our clients are not getting offers because of gaffes made due to their high anxiety,” says Dave Campeas, president and chief executive officer of PrincetonOne, an executive-search firm in Skillman, N.J.

The incidence of nervous job candidates has doubled since 2006, causing some to commit careless mistakes that “ruin their chances because they didn’t present themselves well,” says David Mezzapelle, director of marketing and development for Goliath Jobs Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

He bases his estimate on several thousand calls from job seekers, who use a free phone service provided by his firm’s two employment Web sites. The 39-person concern grew from 28 staffers a year ago.

The best solution? Prepare better for interviews. Added legwork should include extensive role playing, thorough homework about a possible employer’s culture and an empathetic sense of how your skills match its needs. “Turn your dial up on sensitivity,” suggests Gerard Roche, senior chairman of recruiters Heidrick & Struggles International Inc. “The little stuff counts.”

Here are five danger zones where small slip-ups could damage your chances:

Your attire.  A middle-aged executive with an impressive résumé wore a slightly low-cut blouse during her interview with the head of a hospital in a small Texas town. Leaning across his desk, she revealed a black panther tattoo on her breast.

The CEO nixed her for the finance chief’s role. The large tattoo “would not fly with the board members and the community for someone in that position,” he told Bradley G. Richardson, a partner at recruiters Kaye/Bassman International Corp., which handled the search.

Extra preparation helped Mr. Obergfell avoid a sartorial misstep. After losing his job last September, he hoped to become national sales manager for Mahco Inc., a sporting-goods importer in Bentonville, Ark.. The night before his final interviews, he asked a Mahco vice president he previously worked for elsewhere whether donning a suit might intimidate potential colleagues.

“Don’t wear a tie,” the former boss replied. Less worried about looking overdressed, Mr. Obergfell says he concentrated harder on selling himself. He began his new job in late December.

Your meal etiquette. Most job seekers know not to order messy food. Your timing matters, too. Hoping to join a big Midwestern bank, a recent college graduate arrived late for a group interview at a restaurant. Officials and fellow candidates already were seated.

The latecomer “ordered the most expensive item on the menu, ate and finished his meal before others were served,” recalls Barbara Pachter, a business-etiquette specialist who advised the bank. She learned about the young man from a successful attendee at the group dinner who participated in an etiquette class that Ms. Pachter led for the bank. She says poor manners were the main reason the bank spurned the latecomer for its management-training program.

Your tactfulness. As an executive vice president of a technology management consultancy, Dan Burns often asked promising prospects when they could start work before he made an offer. They often said they weren’t available for weeks because they needed to give notice.

“That’s the last thing a hiring manager wants to hear,” says Mr. Burns, a recent retiree and author of “The First 60 Seconds: Win the Job Interview Before It Begins.” You risk killing your candidacy unless you tell an interested employer that you’re equally interested in the job, he cautions. Once you get an offer, you’re in a better position to negotiate your arrival date.

Your sweat. A project manager hired by Mr. Burns a few summers ago jogged 12 blocks from a train station to the office of a client that was considering the recruit for a consulting gig. “Overheated and soaked, he asked if the company had shower facilities that he might use before the interview started,” remembers Mr. Burns, who met the project manager in the lobby of the client’s building before the interview. “You could see the sweat stain on his white shirt.”

The company lacked showers and executives refused Mr. Burns’s request to reschedule the meeting. They chose a different consultancy for their project.

“Plan ahead,” Mr. Burns warned the project manager afterward. He arrived an hour early for his next client interview, “and he wasn’t sweating,” adds Mr. Burns.

Arriving early also lets you practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, that may dry your sweaty palms before shaking hands with a hiring manager, says Gail Golden, a Chicago leadership coach.

Your deportment. Inappropriate behavior can cause problems. Ms. Golden, who helps companies screen top-level candidates, dislikes male ones who put a hand on her shoulder following an interview. The patronizing touch comes across as “‘Thanks for your time, sweetheart,’” she complains.

During a July interview at Goliath Jobs, an aspiring marketing manager waved his hands wildly to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the job. The gesturing prospect knocked over his sealed water bottle twice. An intern soon served coffee. Extending his arm to show how far he’d go for a sale, the man toppled the mug. Coffee covered the conference table. “He was very passionate, but way too much,” Mr. Mezzapelle says.

The man nevertheless landed the job—thanks to strong references. But he quit in November, frustrated by his scant commissions.

“He could not handle sales in an industry he knew nothing about,” Mr. Mezzapelle says. In hindsight, Mr. Mezzapelle realizes the anxious hand waving “displayed a lack of confidence in his abilities.” He regrets hiring the unemployed man.

This article was written by Wall Street Journal’s Joann S. Lublin.