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Simple Truths About Handling the 5 Toughest Challenges in a Job Interview

Challenge #1: The Incompetent Interviewer

There are many possible explanations for an interviewer's incompetence, but there are no acceptable excuses. Rather than whine and complain, rage against the Fates, or harshly judge a fellow human being, let's keep our eyes on the goal: determining if the position and organization are a good fit for you and, ultimately, getting the job offer. The more skilled you are at identifying and understanding incompetents, the more likely you'll have a positive outcome in spite of the interviewer's failings.

Most often, an incompetent interviewer simply has not been properly trained in effective interview techniques, and lacks the natural ability and intellectual prowess to perform appropriately in this context. Generally, to be a skilled and effective interviewer requires high-quality training and a fair amount of experience. In some cases, employees with superb capabilities in their respective areas of expertise are given interviewing responsibilities for which they are simply ill-prepared. Whatever the cause, it's vital to know how to recognize and then redirect such circumstances to your benefit, to the greatest extent possible. Essentially, this will require your taking control of the interview without the interviewer being aware of it.

Irrelevant questions

One manifestation of an incompetent interviewer is irrelevant questions. The interviewer may simply fail to ask you questions that provide you the opportunity to respond with answers that demonstrate your readiness for the position. If you sense this is happening, and it doesn't change as the interview progresses, it's time to call to mind your research and preparation. Thanks to your research, you will already have some information about the organization and the position; as such, you'll have a fair idea of the characteristics and qualifications required to succeed in the position. In this scenario, find a way to gracefully initiate discussion of your own applicable skills and abilities. Ask the interviewer questions to illustrate your readiness to succeed in the position.

For example, if you're interviewing for a position that requires strong attention to detail, you might ask, “Based on my research, it seems that this position really requires a candidate who is highly detail-oriented—would you agree?” Hopefully, the interviewer will pick up on your cue and respond in the affirmative. He or she may even be relieved! This is your opportunity to launch into one of your success stories about a position you held or a situation you faced in which your own attention to detail helped the organization or otherwise saved the day.

The disorganized interviewer

Just about everyone can claim to be overburdened by too much work to accomplish in too little time, with more piling up each day. Even if the interviewer hasn't had the opportunity to comprehensively review your documents, hopefully he or she will have them in hand when you walk through the door. Sometimes, in spite of the best intentions, your documents or some other key item (perhaps an annual report or recent spreadsheet) will be elusively floating somewhere on top of the interviewer's cluttered desk. Stifle showing any indications of your impatience or exasperation. Instead, while the interviewer excavates the archaeological site on his or her desk, gather your thoughts and relax. You have the advantage! This frantic search often serves as an additional icebreaker, and the interviewer's apologies can help you feel as though you are on more of an equal footing, as suddenly your “judge” has proven to be all too human.

If it turns out that the interviewer simply can not locate your documents in spite of searching everywhere, you may gently offer that you have brought additional copies as you produce a fresh set from your portfolio. Thus, you have demonstrated that you are well-organized, and your demeanor is one of humble helpfulness rather than vindictive superiority. If this is handled well, the interviewer will be genuinely appreciative and favorably impressed with your generous spirit.

The distracted interviewer

Ideally, an interviewer will keep the time allotted for your session sacred by rerouting incoming calls directly to voicemail or to another employee, and, certainly, by disallowing other people from walking into the office during the session. In practice, however, both of these interruptions can occur. Fear not! If necessary, jot down on your notepad where you were in the discussion when the interruption occurred. When the interviewer's attention returns to you, calmly carry on the conversation from that point. The interviewer will be favorably impressed with your poise and memory, even if you had to use your notepad.

Note that although both distracted and disorganized interviewers deal with their own respective issues, you have several opportunities:

  • • Carefully observe the office surroundings. You may notice something of mutual interest (perhaps a photograph, sports trophy, book, or magazine) that you may compliment or comment on, thus spurring a positive exchange with the interviewer.
  • • Relax. Take several deep breaths and use this unexpected “space” to calm your nerves and center yourself.
  • • Gather your thoughts. Prepare your response to the question at hand, and, based on how the interview has progressed thus far, determine what points you still need to make and how best to work them into the discussion.

Pronouncements and closed-ended questions

Closed-ended questions require only a yes or no in response. If you allow yourself to fall into this trap, the interviewer will simply check off a list of requirements, and there will be precious little opportunity for you to fully reveal your unique value. This scenario definitely calls for you to take charge—without appearing to wrest control from the interviewer.

One effective approach to mastering this kind of question is to imagine that the interviewer is really asking you for a concise but thorough response. For example, “Have you supervised 35 people?” becomes “Have you supervised 35 people? Tell me about it,” and “Are you detail-oriented?” becomes “Are you detail-oriented? Give me an example.”

Interviewers who ask closed-ended questions often also throw in pronouncements—declarative sentences that seem to require no response from you at all. If there is an adequate pause after one of these pronouncements, use it to your advantage. Agree with the statement (if you do agree) in such a way that it's clear you truly understand the interviewer's point; then, connect it to the position you're targeting. For example, if the interviewer says, “These are tough economic times. Tough, tough times,” you may respond by saying, “Yes, they certainly are—and it seems that this position calls for someone who has a good track record in identifying opportunities for cost savings. While I was at XYZ Corp….”

The dissatisfied and disgruntled interviewer

In this scenario, the interviewer mistakes the interview session for an opportunity to share his or her pain, and proceeds to explain his or her frustrations with various aspects of working at the particular organization. Continue to appear attentive by maintaining eye contact and nodding appropriately, and when there is a pause, be ready to spring into action to refocus the conversation. State that you appreciate hearing the background on the organization because it helps you visualize how this position contributes to the big picture. This information also helps clarify how valuable your attention to detail (or your excellent communication skills, or your proven supervisory experience—whatever skill or experience is most relevant) would be for success in the position. Then, ask if the interviewer could identify some of the other key aspects of the job. This approach refocuses the discussion to what should be the matter at hand (your qualifications for the position) while also appearing to be responsive to the interviewer's comments (by characterizing the interviewer's personal complaints as “background”).

Sharing too much

I believe that most people are honest and ethical at heart. As such, our instincts direct us to be naturally truthful in responding to questions. And it is absolutely my belief that it is never acceptable to state a falsehood. However, there may be times during an interview when you feel compelled to share personal information that is really not appropriate or required at this stage in the process. For example, perhaps the interviewer shares highly personal information about him- or herself, either in a deliberate attempt to elicit analogous information from you or simply because he or she customarily shares such information freely and without regard to propriety. Or, perhaps the interviewer arrived extremely late for your appointment, and by way of explanation, launches into an extended description of a highly personal situation. Whatever the cause, be mindful that it is neither required nor wise for you to reciprocate by revealing information that may impact your future job performance.

None of us can predict the future with 100-percent accuracy, and even my own crystal ball shrouds itself in mist when it comes to the following examples, which should not be shared with interviewers. Although they are not speculative regarding the future, the first two examples imply that you are unwilling or unable to effectively manage household operations, and so are also best left unsaid.

  • • “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Our babysitter is late all the time, and it's so irritating.”
  • • “Oh, yeah, my car quits all the time, too. Just last week, we had to be towed twice!”
  • • “My husband and I plan to start a family in the next five years or so.”
  • • “When our kids get a little older, we'd love to move back to Madison, where my family still lives.”
  • • “My wife's job may require that we relocate to D.C. sometime in the next three years.”
  • • “I may need knee surgery if my physical therapy regimen doesn't work.”

The best prevention for falling into these kinds of traps is to begin a job search only when you're truly ready. Take all necessary steps to ensure that you have reliable transportation and dependable childcare arrangements in advance of your job search. As for the rest, if you know for certain that you will have surgery or some other medical treatment that will require recuperation, wait until you're back in action to initiate your search for a permanent, full-time position. Your partner may not get that promotion requiring possible relocation, and you may not move back home in the foreseeable future, after all. In general, refrain from mentioning something that may not even come to pass, as it may unnecessarily weaken your candidacy.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesJob Search, Job Interview Questions, & Job Interview TipsSimple Truths About Handling the 5 Toughest Challenges in a Job Interview - Challenge #1: The Incompetent Interviewer, Tips From The Pros, Challenge #2: Illegal Questions