Jake Cashman is an MBA candidate at Roosevelt University. In this article, Jake discusses how you should respond when a job interview takes a bad turn.
When searching for a job, one of the most rigorous and closely-analyzed parts of the process is the interview. A whole industry — interview coaches, resume writers, personal growth coaches, and so forth— bases its livelihood on the potential interviewee (you), taking advantage of your lack of confidence in interviews. Job aspirants need to know that the interview is as much a learning process for the company as it is for you.
In many cases, the interviewer has no idea what they are doing, and I’ve compiled a short list of my experiences in which the interviewer may have been more nervous that the interviewee. Here are a few bad turns that a job interview can take, and what you can do in response.
My Panel Interview at a University
I once interviewed for an administrative position at a world-renowned university in the Chicago area. The position was in the university’s grants department, and the aim was to compile huge amounts of data so that the university could continue to properly apply for scientific research funding.
When I walked into the interview door, there were eight interviewers, mostly aged 25-35, seated around a large conference table, chatting about whatever. As the interview went on, they took turns asking the most basic questions of me. Only two of the eight seemed to pay attention to what I had to say. A pair of them kept talking over me the whole time. Safe to say, I walked out there wondering how they thought they were going to get a qualified candidate, and how such a prestigious institution could think that was an interview.
If you find yourself in this situation, respond with patience and respect, even if you're not given enough in return. Focus on the people who are genuinely taking the time to hear you out. At the end of the day, they're the ones that will have the most to say about you. Make a positive impression on them, and even if you're soured by the job, chances are you'll land a second interview with a hiring manager who will give you the time of day.
The Generic Under-interview
In a few of the positions I interviewed for, I went into the interview needing a job and was more or less immediately handed one. In a situation in which you need some source of income, this is great: maximum reward for minimum effort. However, when the person does so little to analyze how you might fulfill the position, that itself should raise flags.
Not analyzing your ability to do the work at interview stage means the interviewer will likely under- or over-estimate the needs of a task later on. As a result, you will often be left confused, overburdened, or lacking work when you start the job.
If you need to take a position like this, after you are hired, be prepared to ask a ton of questions, because the supervisor will almost never give you what you need. But even before you do so, make the effort to ask questions during the interview stage. If you notice that the interviewer just wants to funnel you straight into a job, it's your responsibility to know what you're signing up for.
Flip the table and interview the interviewer. Find out as much as you can about the company, role, and team from them. Because a job interview isn't just a way for a company to evaluate you. It's also an opportunity for you to find out if you truly want to work at that company.
The Cultish Interview
On a couple of occasions, I went into a company thinking I was getting interviewed and left thinking the company either was trying to get me to buy their product or maybe even trying to brainwash me. The most recent occasion was for a company that sold sales self-improvement advice.
While that certainly can be a serious business sector, the panel of rotating interviewers kept repeating the name of the company's founder over and over. The first interviewer said it just a few times, the second interviewer repeated it consistently, and when the third interviewer came in, the first question he asked me before he even sat down was “What do you know about [founder's name]?” I wished I had stayed home. Whether it was a Ponzi scheme or an actual cult, I never bothered to find out.
When you're stuck in this kind of situation, just do your best to make it through the interview. If you spent the time researching the company ahead of time, use that knowledge to your benefit, but if you're uncomfortable with the conversation, just use short, pointed answers that leave little room for discussion. And if you're turned off by the job and the company afterwards, just move on to the next one.
The Therapy Session
I cannot recall an instance in which this happened to me specifically, but several colleagues have recalled interviews in which the questions were intensely personal. For example, when I worked under the worst boss I ever had, coworkers and I would regularly commiserate, and one of them shared that my boss confided a past history of paternal abuse during my coworker’s interview.
While my coworker took the position because she would not have to directly report to this tortured supervisor, I wish I had a glimpse of that before I took the position, because my tenure ended when I went to the Equal Employment Opportunity commission to see if several instances qualified as sexual harassment. Sometimes, the interviewer is incredibly unstable, and, given the chance, they will show you that side.
Be very careful when responding in these kinds of interviews. Reserve judgment and get through it without getting too involved in the interviewer's personal issues. Where possible, try to steer the conversation towards the role by asking directed questions. If you get called back for a second interview, decline politely and move on.
The Casual Chat
If ever an interview feels like you are chatting with a friend and not a potential employer, you can go ahead and assume you aren’t really even being considered. Signs of this include: talking about the requirements of the job more than your qualifications, conversing about a shared history, or even talking about the weather or news too much.
Much like this entry, the casual chat interview will leave you pleasant and happy, but totally uninformed, lacking in a sense of accomplishment, and unconcerned about following up. Which is why you should take the opportunity to drive the casual chat towards a conversation about how you're a great candidate for the role.
As responsibilities are brought up, point out how your experience is relevant. Bring up your own ideas on what projects you could do on the job. Ask in-depth questions about the team's recent successes or failures. If you've done your research ahead of time, you'll have plenty to talk about. And in the end, you'll not only show why you're a great candidate, but you'll also develop interpersonal rapport with the interviewer. That will help them more easily imagine you as a potential valued teammate.