double standards: why your interviewer can take interruptions during an interview but you can’t

A reader writes:

I had a phone interview with a company that let me go a month ago, for a position in a different part of the company. During the interview, the interviewing manager put me on hold to discuss a budget question with a director who walked in. I know that it’s rude for the interviewee to do that. Does the same apply to the interviewer? I didn’t get the job, but I was curious about etiquette from that end.

Rightly or wrongly, there’s a higher tolerance for interviewers being interrupted during an interview than there would be for a candidate taking a cell phone call or otherwise interrupting the interview.

The reasoning is that the interviewer is at work, doing their job; interviewing you is part of that, but they might occasionally need to field interruptions, just as might happen if they were meeting with colleagues. On the other hand, you as the candidate have presumably cleared your schedule for the meeting and aren’t on the clock.

You can poke holes in this, of course. For instance, you probably wouldn’t have been put on hold if you were an important customer. But the reality is, you’re not an important customer in the “paying them large amounts of money” sense; you’re more akin to a colleague. And colleagues do sometimes get interrupted.

But yes, this is tied up in the power dynamics that exist in interviews. There’s often a sense that the candidate is there to impress and the interviewer is there to be impressed, resulting in differences in what each can get away with. And even with employers who are pretty good about not buying into that paradigm — employers who recognize that interviews are a two-way conversation, that top candidates will be assessing them right back, and that that’s a good thing — there are still some interviewing conventions most of us have bought into, rightly or wrongly, and different standards for interruptions is one of them.

P.S. Since this is Labor Day, this is the final post for today!

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. Michele

    I will probably be in the minority but it really doesn’t bother me if an interviewer has to stop to field a question quickly from a colleague. I have had it happen a couple of times where the phone has rang and I have actually said if you need to grab that quickly go for it. I turn off my phone when I have interviews so it wouldn’t know till after if I got a call. I don’t think I would ever answer a call if I was the one being interviewed there would have to be some weird circumstances going on in my life that I would even consider doing it and I still don’t think I would.

    1. Jen RO

      I wouldn’t mind either – but I also wouldn’t interrupt a colleague while she is conducting an interview.

    2. tango

      It wouldn’t faze me too much if it was a one time interruption of short duration. Now if a phone interview, you could be just put on hold so wouldn’t know what your interviewer is actually doing. But for an person interview – where the interviewer picks up the phone or discusses for a bit an issue in front of you? It might in some ways be helpful. You can see how the person responding reacts to the interruption, how she treats her co-worker/client in person or on the phone, etc. You also see how to treats you when she is done and resumes the interview. Is she apologetic? Or doesn’t acknowledge the inconvenience at all?

      Now if the interview is interrupted numerous times and she blows you off to tend to those requests, figure that’s how it’d be working for her and thank the job fairies you found out first so you could decide beforehand if this is something you can live with if offered the job. And/or if the one time interruption reveals something negative about how she treats or responds to the person making the request, you’ve also learned something else that’s very important.
      Sure it sucks to be interrupted but rather a sucky 1 hour interview experience than a sucky permanent job.

    3. Ruffingit

      Agreed it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I kind of welcome it because it gives me a moment to have a breather, think about things that have been asked already, things I might need to ask myself, expand on, etc.

      1. Rater Z

        When I applied for the part-time job I now have, it was in the middle of the second interview that she asked me who my best boss was and who my worst boss was, then had to leave for a moment to take a phone call. That gave me a chance to think about it. When she came back, I told her she might not believe it but it was the same person. He was unhappy I had learned additional skills to use in my job and it was something he couldn’t do. He let me keep doing it as long as I was accurate but fought it for two years until I was transferred out of there. He actually forced me to do the things right and not take shortcuts in the process. 30 years later, I was at a different job and introduced to a woman I would be training to do the same thing. I told her I was still learning and my supervisor told me not to sell me short, that “I was one of the best”. And, that was due to a guy who hated my guts and when I was told he has a stroke, I said “Good, I’m glad to hear it”.

  2. Autumn

    Great post, as usual!

    Here’s another thing to keep in mind when interviewing at a company or organization – how you are treated during the interview process is often an indication of how you will be treated as an employee. For example, years ago I interviewed at a well-established advertising agency. I was kept waiting in the receptionist area for nearly two hours past my meeting time and during the course of my interview, it was interrupted no less than 10 times. (I wish I were exagerrating, but I’m not.) It was pretty clear that I wasn’t a priority to them, nor was my time. I was fresh out of college at the time and pretty naive to the interview process, but I knew that surely this wasn’t typical interviewing behavior.

    I didn’t get hired, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Several friends and colleagues of mine have ended up working for this agency over the years and – you guessed it – treated horribly. There is no respect for them, their lives outside of work, or their general wellbeing. Each of them have ended up resigning within a few months of starting at the agency.

    Bottom line: Whether companies want to admit it or not, good candidates typically won’t put up with this kind of behavior and will go somewhere else.

    1. SeekingBetter

      Absolutely agree with this! I had a similar experience not too long ago. I was at a second interview where the interviewer completely forgot my name (even though we met during the first interview) and made me wait an hour for her staff to set up a test station in order for me to take said test on. I was on time and ready, while they were not. After the test, I declined moving forward with my candidacy due to this employer’s behavior.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Labor day is a holiday where some of us don’t have to work. But most of us do have to work, yes, it’s called Labor day. Right.

      I had a company that did quarterly meetings … once a year.

      Names just don’t matter that much, I guess.

      1. Felicia

        In Canada, labour day is a statutory holiday where if you work you have to get paid time and a half, so very few people actually have to work. But otherwise it’s teh same day and thing :)

  3. Dan

    I will poke a little hole :) Presumably the way interviewer has cleared his/her schedule as well.

    Yes, I assume the people interviewing me are more important than me. But I take the interruptions as how they would treat me on the job. If I grab 30 mins on the boss’s calendar, I do it because I need answers to things. If I get constantly interrupted, and can’t get the feedback I need, that helps neither me, the boss, or the company.

    I don’t want to work for someone else who won’t make time for me when I need it.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If it’s constant interruptions, I totally agree. But if it’s just one, that wouldn’t bug me (in an interview or in a meeting with a colleague).

  4. JM in England

    Totally agree Dan.

    Also agree that the interview is a two-way process. Each is there to impress the other and as such should have cleared their schedules so that they can give their undivided attention to the task in hand.

  5. Kate

    I agree with the others before me who said that each of them should’ve cleared up their schedule, plus that I wouldn’t interrupt my colleagues while they’re on the phone.

    It’s disrespectful in any such situation (meetings, interviews, exams!) to the other to interrupt the whole session by taking that call or answering that text, etc. Your attention should be on the other, she/he deserves that much, and you deserve that much, too (so that you can remember the discussion clearly later).

    As for interviews, one of the HR person from my last workplace had usually booked a meeting room to conduct phone interviews, so she 1) wouldn’t be interrupted 2) she wouldn’t bother the others in the same room with her, who were working on other things which required focus.
    So, that might be a solution: go somewhere where people don’t find you for that time you allocated the interview for.

  6. Begins With Kalamazoo

    What about interruptions that are quite obviously not work related?

    I will never forget one of my first interviews as I made a major career transition. The interviewer was dismissive towards me from the outset, and about 15 minutes into the interview took a call from the person who was doing repairs on his refrigerator, whom he spoke to for about 10 minutes, then rather summarily dismissed me with a comment that I “didn’t have the right background” for the job. Much to my delight, I actually got hired by this person’s counterpart a week later and have since done extremely well in my field.

    I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that this particular interview was extremely unprofessional, and I’ve always counted myself lucky that I never ended up working for this particular person.

    1. jag

      I don’t think someone doing an interview has much control over when a repairperson calls, so it doesn’t seem to me that the problem was the interruption per se.

      Seems to me that spending so long on the call and treating you badly were the problems.

      1. Vicki

        You can’t control who calls or when. You can control whether or not you answer.

        A ringing phone is a request, not an order. (And even decades ago, office land lines had an indication of who was calling, outside call or internal.)

  7. Cassie

    While I get that there may be work-related emergencies or urgent matters that need to be taken care of right then and there, I think I’d appreciate an interviewer who did their best to limit said interruptions (if they can). Meaning making it clear to their subordinates that they are in a meeting and will be unavailable for the next 30 minutes or whatever. I can’t remember ever interrupting my boss (who is the head of our univ dept) during a scheduled meeting/interview. Any questions I have (or any questions anyone else stops by with) can wait until after the meeting is over.

    The only time I interrupt is if the meeting runs over and he needs to go to another meeting.

    Unless the building is on fire and we need to evacuate immediately, there’s nothing that urgent in our work that warrants an interruption. Obviously, YMMV in different industries/workplaces.

  8. Justin

    Thanks for the input. There were other warning signs that I wasn’t going to get it afterwards. And @Cassie, from what I gathered from some of my contacts in that company, it’s normal not to interrupt even a phone interview. There’s email and instant messenger. Also, the one other phone interview I had before that, that company( a defense contractor) made the effort to treat it like an actual meeting. Didn’t get a face to face for that one either, but in hindsight, I felt a bit more respect. So I’ll still jump on postings at my old company, but I will be taking stock of the interviewing manager’s behavior. If the defense contractor has another opening, I’ll try again since I had a good first impression.

  9. Susan

    I once had a job interview to manage marketing and public relations for a family entertainment center where the lady kept texting someone else in the middle of our discussion! She said that if business picked up she would be able to hire me, although the reason I approached her was because I knew I could help her improve business! As it turned out, the she hired a manager who embezzled $60K from the organization, the place went bankrupt, and is now closed. Her loss.

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