In an ideal world, all job interviews would be conducted by individuals who are skilled at asking relevant questions and ensuring that candidates gain a solid understanding of the position, the company, and the culture. Unfortunately, in reality, many interviewers are inexperienced, unskilled, and otherwise unable to conduct effective interviews. But if handled correctly, encountering a bad interviewer doesn’t need to derail your interview.
Here are some of the most common types of bad interviewers you might encounter and how you can effectively navigate each.
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1. The no-questions interviewer. This interviewer talks on and on about her job, her professional background, the company’s culture, the free bagels the company provides every Tuesday–but barely asks you any questions about yourself. This might seem like an easy interview, but in fact it can be an especially tricky one, because it leaves you without opportunities to demonstrate that you’d excel at the job.
What to do: Steer the conversation back to the job opening and your qualifications. Say something like, “Would it be OK to take a minute and lead you through my professional background? I think it’ll tie in with what you were just saying about the job.”
2. The unprepared interviewer. It’s clear that she hasn’t read your resume and has no familiarity with your background.
What to do: Don’t show you’re annoyed by the lack of preparation, even if you are. Instead, offer to tell this interviewer about yourself. Say something like, “I’d love to tell you about my background and talk about some of the ways I think this job might be a great fit.”
3. The distracted interviewer. She’s checking her email, answering texts, and generally doing everything but engaging directly with you.
What to do: Don’t take it personally. Be as friendly as possible, and try to block out the lack of attention. But if the interruptions get really bad, you can nicely ask, “Is this still a good time for us to meet? I’d be glad to reschedule if it’s more convenient.” And if this person would be your boss, give serious thought to whether you’d want to work for someone who won’t give you her full attention.
4. The inept interviewer. Her questions bear little relation to the work you’d be doing on the job. This is the type who uses questions like “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” and “What would I find in your refrigerator right now?”
What to do: Answer the questions, but then steer the conversation back to what’s really important. Weave examples of your professional achievements into the conversation, ask questions about the job itself and the challenges the team is facing, and then talk about how you’d approach those challenges. In other words, do the interviewer’s job for him or her.
5. The law-averse interviewer. This interviewer asks if you’re married, whether you plan to get pregnant in the near future, what church you go to, and other inappropriate questions that skirt the law.
What to do: While it’s illegal to base a hiring decision on answers to these questions, some interviewers plunge forward with them anyway. Often these interviewers are simply making small talk and don’t realize that they’re treading on risky ground. If you attempt to educate them on employment law, you can ruin the rapport that’s key to a successful interview. But you’re also entitled not to get into topics that most people consider off-limits. A good option is to figure out what the interviewer is getting at with the question, and answer that instead. For instance, if you think the interviewer is worried that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance, speak directly to that: “There’s nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed to get the job done.”
6. The hostile interviewer. Perhaps the worst type of interviewer are those who are rude or outright hostile—denigrating your qualifications or your answers, or acting bored or dismissive. Interviewers who behave this way are either jerks and/or are inflicting a “stress interview” on you, which is where the interviewer deliberately antagonizes you to find out how you respond to stressful situations. (Whether stress interviews should be used at all is up for debate, but if they are, there’s no point in using them unless functioning under extreme stress is relevant to the job: litigator, say, or air traffic controller.)
What to do: Don’t get flustered. Remember that the interviewer’s attitude likely isn’t about you, and continue to answer questions calmly and with confidence. And be glad for the opportunity to learn that this is how this manager operates before you’ve accepted a job working for her!
As always, remember that interviews are a two-way street. If something smells bad in an interview, that’s something you can use in making an employment decision, too.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.