Recently, a job seeker asked me about an interview experience he’d encountered. The interviewer was really bad. In this particular case, the interviewer started out the interview with “Tell me about yourself. Because the last candidate in here was totally unsuited for the job, and really wasted my time, but not as much the bozo before that…” After an hour and a half of non-stop diatribe, the interviewer suddenly stood up, shook his hand and hustled off to another meeting. The job seeker was baffled — he hadn’t even gotten a chance to answer the first question.
Interview much, and you will encounter a variety of bad interviewers. Without pretending to offer a comprehensive overview, following are some common types, and some ideas for how to deal with them.
Barry Bigmouth. Barry is the type of interviewer encountered by the job seeker profiled above. The best strategy is to gently try to derail the speech — “Excellent point! May I share an experience that relates to that?” This doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to ride this one out and hope that the interviewer will think highly of you, if for no other reason, because you were a good listener.
Tina Timid. Poor Tina is terrified. She doesn’t know how to conduct an interview. She’s afraid you’ll realize she doesn’t know anything about the position in question (maybe she’s an HR person conducting initial interviews for a technical job) and she doesn’t have very good people skills. And she doesn’t have any idea how to interview you. This type of interview can be quite easy, actually. It’s up to you to get it on track and keep it there. Get the ball rolling: “Tina, I’m sure you’re wondering what skills and experience make me the right candidate for this position. Can I tell you about myself?” Be careful, though. Whatever flaws she may have as an interviewer, Tina may be paying close attention and effectively analyzing everything you say!
Frank Friendly. In other situations, Frank has been described as a “yes man,” a toady, insincere and even treacherous. He’s all smiles and sunshine during an interview, and you leave with a sense that the job is yours, but you wouldn’t believe the comments he’s written down! This type of challenge is hard to overcome because there are no clues. All you can do if you think you may be facing this type of interviewer is be careful what you volunteer. If you find yourself sharing stories you shouldn’t share, take a moment to regroup and turn your “filters” up a bit.
Melissa Moody. When you first sat down, Melissa seemed distant. A few minutes later, she seemed to warm up and got very animated. Then she suddenly seemed to be angry about something you said. When confronted with an interviewer who seems to have multiple personalities, one of two things may be going on. He or she may genuinely have a personality disorder. Or, the interviewer may be very skilled, and is testing to see how you cope with a social challenge like this rollercoaster interview. Either way, stay calm and unruffled. Keep the interview flowing and stay as positive as you can.
Peter Unprofessional. After showing up half an hour late, he started the interview by complimenting you a little too effusively on your attire. Later, he asked whether you had a boyfriend/girlfriend. He managed to drop opinionated comments about religion, politics and your favorite sports team during the interview. Be careful: there are a lot of interviewers like this out there, and while some are jerks, others are just carefully goading you to see how you react. You have three choices (more if you count the bad ones). You can politely ignore the comments. You can firmly but politely call the interviewer on his lack of professionalism (“Mr. Unprofessional, I believe that’s an overly personal question, and one that isn’t relevant to my qualifications for this position. Can we focus on my skills and experience? (Note that this can really irk a bad interviewer. However, it will impress other interviewers, because you are demonstrating a valuable ability to be assertive but polite.) The third choice is to simply end the interview.
Obviously, there are many other types of bad interviewers, and you will likely meet some who combine more than one of these over-simplified profiles. There are two things to keep in mind. First, sometimes the bad interviewer is just a gatekeeper — all you need to do is make it past them. Other times, the interviewer is the person you would be working for. (It’s not hard to figure out which the case may be — you can come out and ask who you’d be reporting to.) If the interviewer would be your new boss, think carefully about whether you want to work for him or her!
Second, bear in mind that in the case of a serious personality conflict, you may simply not be able to make the proverbial lemonade out of the situation. You don’t have to cut the meeting short or be upset about that: it’s a great opportunity to practice interviewing in the face of adversity!