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When leaving is not an option: How to handle a bad interview

I’m a true believer of candidate empowerment, fully supporting the idea that candidates should feel comfortable leaving an interview when it’s conducted in a disrespectful, unacceptable manner.  While I don’t dispute the fact that these ugly situations happen, I believe it’s far more common for candidates to feel an interview is going very poorly due to reasons other than […]

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I’m a true believer of candidate empowerment, fully supporting the idea that candidates should feel comfortable leaving an interview when it’s conducted in a disrespectful, unacceptable manner.  While I don’t dispute the fact that these ugly situations happen, I believe it’s far more common for candidates to feel an interview is going very poorly due to reasons other than extreme conditions.  

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably been in a bad interview at some point in life. It doesn’t have to be a case where the person across the table is cursing at you, nor are they looking to violate your privacy rights by demanding to rummage through your purse. What might have felt like a great interview a few days ago can quickly disappear because the person asking the questions today doesn’t seem to gel with you as the person you met initially had. Or, perhaps, your future colleagues seem to fire a never-ending list of questions to your responses, citing they don’t fully get what you mean with your examples.

You might wonder if there is anything you can do in the heat of the moment. What can you do to save what might feel like you’re on a fast-sinking ship?

If you feel your interviewer has taken a challenging and unengaging approach while assessing you for a role, don’t panic. There are a few things to keep in mind if you find yourself in the hot seat, and when leaving the interview is not an option: 

  • Remain calm. Yes, it can be hard to keep your cool when the person across the table seems to be treating you like a hostile witness, or even, to be giving you the cold shoulder. Keep in mind that a range of interviewing styles exist, with an aggressive or unfriendly approach used more often than you realize. For example, the interviewer might be testing how you deal with a difficult situation common to the role, and will be looking at how you react. As some environments regularly interact with tough customers or circumstances, an interviewer may adopt a challenging style to see how you do with such criticism on the spot. It’s best to stay steady and unphased by the chaos, refraining from showing any obvious signs of anger or annoyance.
  • Don’t take things personally. Regardless of the interviewer’s intent, you must remind yourself that the interview is a test. Tests are meant to be challenging – and in professional settings, companies are in the right to query a prospect’s ability to perform under pressure-filled or uncomfortable situations. In general, remember that a test of your professional poise, judgment, and behavior is on display, and how you respond is under close observation. 
  • Be a proactive participant. They might be throwing jabs at you to keep you off balance, but keep in mind that you are not a victim. Engage in the conversation; don’t appear down nor upset about the aggressive or unfriendly nature of the conversation. Instead, take this as an opportunity to move the discussion forward on a challenging topic. After all, the interview is a two-way conversation. You can show your poise under pressure and that you are there in the interview to equally engage by asking follow-up questions that don’t back down from the heat. For example, while another might provide a concise response to tricky questions hoping for it to be enough to conclude the dialogue, you may choose to show you’re not afraid to go ‘there’ and discuss the complicated topic. You may find yourself continuing the topic by asking the interviewer to clarify the company’s expectations around team management and performance after she drilled you on your past success to keep junior associates motivated.
  • Keep your energy level upbeat and confident. Similar to being a proactive participant, you want to match the energy level of your interviewer. If the person across the table doesn’t seem to miss a beat when asking you for your opinions or comments, make sure you return the same abundance of enthusiasm and interest in your response. In many cases, the interviewer is trying to gauge your physical demeanor as well as how you interact conversationally. Will you become discouraged? Angry? Agitated? Frightened? It’s best to show that you can handle any curveball with confidence.
  • Show social grace. Yes, it might have been an hour of your time that you’ve wished to have back. But as you’ve decided to commit to the interview anyway, show that you’re a candidate of character and of your word, without worrying about what other people do. Your actions alone contribute to your professional reputation. While others may fail to show you respect and integrity, you always have control over how you show up.

    How have you handled a bad interview? What things have served you well when in the interviewing hot seat? Share your thoughts here.
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