Salvaging the “Bad” Interview

My book has a lot of information about interviewing strategies (Tips 42-47 and appendices A & J all contain suggestions for preparing for the interview), but a fascinating article crossed my desk last week that approached interviewing in a way I hadn’t thought about before: Hannah Morgan, writing for U.S. News & World Report, makes suggestions for how to salvage an interview that has gone wrong. She provides excellent advice for identifying problems during the interview and turning what could be a negative into a positive. The article, “You Know Your Interview Was a Flop If. . .,” is organized around those moments during an interview when you see the situation going bad.

“You asked when you should follow up, and the interviewer said, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’” Morgan says this can mean one of two things: they never want anyone to follow up, or they aren’t interested in you. She suggests that you respond to this by asking about their process for contacting interviewees, where they currently are in the hiring process, and when you can expect to hear from them.

“The interviewer leaned back in his chair and stared out the window.” When this happens during a conversation, it usually means that the other person isn’t really listening. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t interested in you; it could be that you have gone off track, that something else is distracting them, or that you have just talked for too long in response to a question. Morgan suggests asking a job-related question, using the person’s name, or even asking how they feel the interview is going. While this last suggestion may be a dangerous ploy, it will keep both of you from wasting time if they’re not interested and help the interviewer refocus if they are.

“You tried to crack a joke and no one laughed.” Everyone’s sense of humor is unique, and you have no way of knowing ahead of time what the interviewer will think is funny. Most jokes have the potential to be offensive to someone, so just don’t try to be funny. Save it for open mic night at the comedy club.

“Despite all your attempts to build rapport, the interviewer continued to look at her computer.” Many years ago, when I worked in television, I heard a network executive say that studies had been done that proved that if a television was on, most people can’t stop themselves from looking at it. The same is true of a computer—or a smart phone or other hand-held device. If the interviewer is distracted by technology, use the same strategies as suggested above for the interviewer staring out the window. Or you can ask if the interviewer would like to reschedule the appointment. If nothing else, asking that question will make the interviewer aware that of not paying attention to you, and that you recognize that there may be other pressing business.

“The interviewer talked during the entire interview and you didn’t ask a single question.” This one doesn’t really make sense to me, as the whole idea of an interview is to have a conversation—they ask you questions, you ask them questions, they learn more about you, and you learn more about the organization and the job. I can’t quite picture an interview where “the interviewer talked during the entire interview. . . .” If this does happen, Morgan suggests that you just ask if you can follow up with some questions. I would say that perhaps the interviewer is new at the job, and may not realize what is happening. You may be able to take a bit of control and help the meeting get on track so that the interviewer learns about you and what you have to offer the organization. If the interviewer is new, he or she will appreciate you providing them with information to report back to management.

“The interviewer moves and rolls his or her hands in an attempt to speed you along.” Morgan suggests you keep your answers to two minutes to avoid the interviewer feeling the need to speed you up, but I think that you can probably answer most questions in about 30 seconds—this is especially true for recent college graduates who don’t have years and years of experience to talk about. If the interviewer does try to speed you up, don’t talk faster. . .be more concise. And apologize for talking too much!

“When asked if you had any questions, you quickly replied, ‘No.’” You should always prepare a list of questions, so I would hope this would never happen to you. Tip 42 (Learn how to interview) provides some ideas to get you started with your list of questions.

“The interviewer asked about skills you don’t have, and that you didn’t know were part of the job.” If you’ve done your homework, you should have a pretty good idea of what the job is all about and what skills are required. If the interviewer brings up something unfamiliar, make sure that you are being interviewed for the right job. The interviewer may be talking with people about several different positions, and he or she may have made a mistake. If the unfamiliar skill is in fact part of the job you’re applying for, be sure to ask questions about how the skill would be used in the position, demonstrating your understanding of what the job is all about and learning if the position description has changed.

“The interviewer rolled his eyes when you told him what your salary requirements were.” Again, your research should have put you in the ballpark with a salary suggestion. If you were unable to find good data about an appropriate salary for this position, Morgan suggests that you “ask how much they have budgeted for the position.” They may give you a range, and you can gauge your response based on an honest evaluation of how your skills and experience match the position. You may also want to take a look at some earlier posts in this blog (June 20 – July 4) that focused on how to handle questions about salary.

“Fifteen minutes into the interview, the interviewer stood up and thanked you for your time.” Morgan says this means you’re not a contender, and you should ask “Does this mean you won’t be inviting me back for a second interview?” My suggestion would be to ask, “Can you tell me what skills or experience I’m lacking that make me an inappropriate candidate for this position?” I think Morgan’s question could make you look like a smart aleck and won’t give you any useful information. The interviewer may not take the time to answer the question I suggest, but if he or she does, you will have learned something useful about how your resume is viewed and areas where it could be strengthened.