what to do when your interviewer is terrible at interviewing

A reader writes:

Recently I went to an interview where they only really asked me two questions: “Tell me about yourself” and “What computer software are you familiar with.” Now, the job is very similar to the role that I am currently doing at the organization that I work for now and I know that was clear from my resume and cover letter (in fact before I even read the job description some of the phrases of my job responsibilities of my current job almost matched there’s because that is the experience that I have). But when they didn’t ask me a lot of questions, I did not know what to think of it. Was my resume that on point that there was nothing to ask?

They told me all about the position and I was sure to ask them questions in return, but it got to a point where I felt like I was reaching for questions to ask because there were times where they were quiet and not saying anything and I didn’t want to just throw in random things about myself from no where. It was just awkward.

What do you do in these situations to fill the dead spaces?

I’d ask, “What else can I tell you about me to help you figure out if this is the right fit?” And if that still doesn’t get them asking reasonable questions, I’d follow it up with, “Tell me more about the role and what’s most important to you in the person you’re hiring.” And other things designed to help you both figure out if this is the right fit — “How will you measure the success of this person six months in?” and so forth.

You can also try steering the conversation back to the job opening and your qualifications by saying 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.”

Should you have to basically conduct the interview for them? No. But bad interviewers aren’t necessarily abysmal managers 100% of the time (often, but not always), and it’s worth doing some digging to help you both figure it out if it might be the right fit.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. The Other Dawn

    My interview for my current job was much the same: hardly any questions and some awkward silence. I asked many questions about the job and the bank’s customer base, etc., Not only because I was curious, but I hoped it would get them talking more. It did, but I had to do all the work. I was thrown off by that. I expected there to be lots of tough questions, but there wasn’t. It made me think back to all the times I’ve read on this blog (in the comments) that it’s probably a terrible place to work for, they make bad hires, etc. I started worrying that it would be an awful place to work, even though I felt good vibes throughout the whole process. Well, I’ve been here for almost three months and couldn’t be happier. It’s a fantastic place to work, I never hear anyone say anything negative about the company, my manager and coworkers are awesome, and people are very thoughtful about their work.

    What I’m trying to say is even though your interviewers aren’t doing a great job, it doesn’t always mean it’s a bad place to work for or they make bad hires. They might suck at interviewing, but they may be good at reading people and making good hires.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger

      So now you have me curious. If you don’t mind me asking, is your current manager the one who interviewed you? Do they seem to have everything else down, and interviewing is the only place they seem a little inexperienced and lost?

      1. OP

        Thanks for the response. No, the interview was at a completely different organization but in the same field that I’m in now at my current company. Actually, the person who interviewed me knew about the organization that I’m currently working at and the way he framed his question about computer software was “what software do they use over at the organization I’m currently at” and then he told me about what they used at that organization. The people who interviewed me are professionals in their field. I should mention that its like an arts organization so the hiring managers work in the arts field as well as at the organization, so interviewing others is probably not something they do all the time.

      2. The Other Dawn

        Yes, he is my boss. It was him and another department member. Yes, they have everything else down. I’ve learned that he’s pretty laid back and although he’s sometimes a man of few words, he can definitely drill down and get to the heart of the matter, so to speak, when warranted. He’s a great boss. Not a yeller, almost always on an even keel.

    2. Cara

      Yeah, ditto. I like my job and it’s a great fit, but I was really uncomfortable with the way they interviewed me. They pretty much just asked basic questions about my computer skills, asked if the schedule worked for me, and told me that it was really important that whoever they hired be reliable. I was like, um ok? I tried to ask some questions about the job and the culture, but they gave vague answers and hinted that no one is here to make friends.

      Then they offered me the position on the spot, which threw me off even more. Luckily it worked out ok – I had been laid off already and was able to start immediately, and it doesn’t seem like that’s typical here. Most people have been with the company for 10+ years, and they were blindsided by my predecessor quitting without notice. It seems like a really good company, they just don’t interview well.

      1. The Other Dawn

        I think part of it for me could have been that I worked my way up in a very small bank, just like both of my interviewers did, so they already knew that I had a lot of diverse experience that almost exactly matched both their backgrounds. Plus I asked a lot of questions and maybe that was their strategy: just let me talk and then they could supplement with a couple questions. I don’t know. But this place, and my team, definitely has it going on. :)

    3. Ck

      Put the situation the other way round. You do a bad interview. They don’t hire you as a result. Why is it ok for an employer to be bad at interviews but not candidates. It’s a two way process. You’re interviewing the employer too. They should be as committed to the interview as you.

  2. Lisa

    This might be the fault of someone other than your interviewer, if they were told to interview you but nobody bothered to actually prep them to conduct interviews. I’ve been in environments where people were told “just test them for cultural fit” and weren’t told anything beyond that, so they just figure out if they like you or not as a person within a few minutes of chit-chat, and don’t know what to do after that. I’m working with a really passionate recruiter/HR manager for the first time now, and he actually conducts interview training for employees before they’re required to do any interviewing–even if they have hired before! People who don’t want it don’t have to take it, but most people embrace it. I think very few people are trained to perform a good interview, most just muddle through and some muddle better than others.

    1. Michele

      That is a good point. I was never trained on how to interview anyone. It was just “meet with candidate x at this time”. I did some research online to find what kinds of questions to ask, but I am sure the first couple interviews were clumsy. It is one of those practice makes perfect things, though. I have done enough interviews that I can make someone think I am their best friend then ask really difficult questions that result in squirming and nervous laughter.

      It could also be that the interviewer was told at the last minute that they would have to meet with the person, either because someone called in sick, or like our HR department, didn’t bother to communicate the appointment.

    2. Mephyle

      Moreover, “test them for cultural fit” vs. “they just figure out if they like you or not as a person” – it would take a fairly self-aware person to be able to disentangle “does this person fit our culture” from “do I personally like this candidate”.

    3. Revanche

      This this this. In 15 years, most of the interviewers I’ve encountered didn’t really have any training and it showed. The questions were often meandering and didn’t elicit useful information. There were absolutely times when the hiring manager let someone on the team participate in the interviews and the candidate ended up interviewing that person for lack of having any real questions to answer.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius

    Two words: internal candidate.

    Took me about two years to figure this out. I’d get interviews that only lasted 10-15 minutes with two questions– the ones you listed. Frustrating.

    These were all government jobs with an internal candidate. They had a quota of interviews to fill. Annoying!

    1. some1

      This is along the lines of what I was thinking — they have already decided who they want to hire and are just going through the motions.

    2. AW

      Not to mention that it defeats the whole purpose of having a quota in the first place. You’re not really an equal opportunity employer if you’ve picked your candidate prior to having interviews!

    3. INTP

      It does sound like a situation where they’re going through the interview motions. However, it can go either way – in one interview I was getting a bunch of “bad” interview questions and the interviewer didn’t seem terribly engaged, but it turns out that it was because he had basically already decided to hire me based on the previous interviewers’ recommendations and I was only going to lose the job if I totally bombed that interview.

  4. De Minimis

    Had some terrible ones over the years, one was a campus interview where I think they had decided early on they weren’t interested in hiring anyone at my school that year and were just phoning it in. A classmate interviewed with the same person and said he was horrible. Just a lot of unfocused conversation and lack of interest.

    Think all my bad interviewers had that common element, lack of focus and a tendency to just turn into meandering conversation because the interviewer either doesn’t know or care how I would fit into what they’re looking for, and a general avoidance of answering any questions.

  5. Amelia

    I interviewed for a small company with no HR department that hardly ever hires anyone. I was interviewed by the president of the company, who openly admitted he doesn’t often interview people. He asked me pretty basic questions and didn’t probe too deeply. In fact, I think I asked him more questions than he asked me. I filled in the dead spaces and awkward pauses with more info on me and my experience. Still haven’t heard back one way or the other, so I don’t know if that’s the right course of action or not.

  6. Traveler

    I had an interview not too long ago that was a day long affair with various people at various levels of the organization. One of them was the recruiter – who clearly knew nothing about the job, and just kept prompting me to ask questions. They couldn’t answer any of my thoughtful questions that I actually cared about knowing the answer to – specifics of the role, how they framed certain aspects of responsibility, etc. because they had no idea and kept telling me to ask other people. It was so awkward and painful. I just kept wishing the clock would go faster but it assured me I didn’t want the job. Sometimes those awkward silences are just as telling as something they could say.

    1. NP

      But in that case, the recruiter’s role isn’t to answer specific questions about the job – the hiring manager or the other interviewers (presumably your potential colleagues in the actual department) would answer those questions. The recruiter’s role in those long interviews is to answer general questions about the company, benefits, salary, the schedule for next steps, etc. I’d never expect an HR person to know the specifics of the teapot engineering job, just HR stuff. That said, it sounds like they scheduled you for too much time with that interviewer.

      1. Traveler

        I did ask the general “what’s the company like, what are benefits, etc.” but they just handed me a packet of paper and told me to read it later so that was over in about 60 seconds. I knew better than to ask follow ups on the job, because when they conducted my initial phone interview it was obvious they had no idea what a teapot engineer actually did. But in an interview situation, when they ask you to ask repeatedly, and you keep saying “I think thats all my questions besides ones that are specific to the role” and they keep prompting you, what do you do really? All I knew to do was what they were asking- by asking the only questions I did have. I have no idea if it was some sort of weird test on their part or if they were just inept at scheduling or what exactly.

        1. NP

          Sounds like they were inept at scheduling. That sort of interview should have been at the end of the day, so you could leave whenever it was done. And if it wasn’t, 15 minutes should have been sufficient.

        2. Colette

          Assuming the recruiter was someone in HR, I’d ask questions about the company – for example, “What do you like about working for this company?”, “What benefits do you offer that differentiate you from your competitors?”, “How satisfied are most of your employees with their jobS?”

  7. Artemesia

    When I watch Project Runway I am always astonished when they ask someone to make a ball gown, or sportswear for a man or something and someone running on adrenaline and fear whines that they have never done this before and tanks the task. Wouldn’t you have 20 designs in your head before you ever showed up that could be tweaked? And wouldn’t they include a runway dress, ball gown, sportswear etc?

    Interviews are like that I think. Lots of people don’t do it for a living and are terrible interviewers, so the task is to haul out your pre-set pattern for a runway dress and tweak it and figure out how to insert it into the proceedings.

    Or as someone else noted, maybe they are just doing faux interviews because someone else has a lock on this anyway. But I’d still come with the message I wanted to get across and figure out ways to get it in, like ‘let me tell you how I see my experience with CCA is a good fit for managing teapot glazers at CTInc.

    1. JB

      Not to derail, but omg, if I was applying to be on PR, the first thing I’d do is make a bathing suit, something out of paper, and a suit. If you can’t do that and you aren’t a ratings draw, you won’t make it.

    2. Petrichor

      I love Project Runway, and I have always wondered the same thing. Every time someone on the show whines or does something against the rules (unconventional challenge anyone) and then gets into trouble, all I can think is “have you even seen this show?”. It really really bothers me actually because I know that if I were to ever participate in such a difficult competition, the first thing I would do is replicate all of the challenges (except for maybe the team aspect) and make sure that I could execute them with my hands tied behind my back. I would study and prepare and make sure that, if nothing else, my basic skills are rock solid. My creativity and journaling ideas is a very close second. Studying the works of the many people whose styles and techniques I admire a close third. ALL of these things I would make sure is done before ever going on the show.

      But then again, that’s just the kind of person I am.

        1. Petrichor

          Nah, art is hard work, no matter what area you specialize or focus on. Practice, time, and dedication are all pretty important. Being exceptional means working on your craft until it is like breathing. Sure, natural talent is a nice booster, but that isn’t where these things end.

          At a minimum these are the skills you should have mastered coming out of fashion design school (or aspired to learn if self taught) and there have been plenty of spectacular designers with rock solid skills who have been on the show. There have also been plenty of people who, at least via editing of the show, come across as completely oversold. Speed, time constraints, limited sleep are major factors on the show. Wasting time on construction issues because you didn’t bother learning the basics and then turning out a crap design not because you didn’t have a good idea, but because you just don’t know how it’s done is kind of a waste. You are just shooting yourself in the foot.

  8. Holly

    At my last interview, they asked me “what would you say would make you a better choice for the position than someone with over a decade of experience?” (I have 4 years; the ad for the position was for 4-5 years.)

    I was pretty taken aback. Uhhh…

    1. Artemesia

      Does that person have 10 years experience or one year’s experience ten times? There comes a point in which knowing how to do something well is not entirely a matter of time served and there are many qualifications for this job more important than having marched in place for 10 years. For example . . . .

    2. Amelia

      You won’t have as many bad habit to break as someone that’s been doing this forever. You’re not set in your ways and can be moldable to whatever the position’s demands are.

      Try saying that with a straight face. ;)

  9. Not Here or There

    The very worst interview I ever had was scheduled to be a half day interview. I was recommended for a job there by someone in the company and that apparently ruffled the feathers of the local HR person in charge of recruitment (who was not the hiring manager). I went through the phone interview with the national recruitment person, who said she felt I was a very good fit for the position. I took all the assessment tests and was told I scored the highest out of all the candidates.

    When it came time to setting the in-person interview at the actual location is where it became apparent that there were some issues. The local recruiter kept changing the dates several times and often at the last minute. When a date was finally set (again at the last minute), she didn’t tell me the names of any of the people I was supposed to be meeting with, which the national recruiter told me she would give me the list of people prior to the interview.

    I went to the interview and the local recruiter was the first person I met. She talked at me for all of 2 minutes. She told me she had other meetings she needed to go to, that I was all wrong for the position (despite the fact that she hadn’t actually talked to me or asked me any questions) and that she doubted I would be offered the job. She then left me to sit there for 20 minutes until the next person came to talk to me. I met with 4 other people, none of whom were in the department or had anything to do with the job. So, I didn’t meet with the hiring manager, potential co-workers, anyone who had any stake in the position. All the people I interviewed with were really confused as to why they were there, none of them had seen my resume or had any clue what to ask me. In the end, she was supposed to have met with me to go over things and walk me out. My last interviewer and I sat there for 10 minutes until she finally walked me out of the building and wished me luck. Needless to say, I never heard from the company again.

  10. Not Today Satan

    I had an interview like this once.. except she did ask one other question: “Is the da Vinci Code real?” (I studied religion as an undergrad.) The worst part was I actually gave an earnest answer.

    1. Traveler

      Has there ever been a thread on here along the lines of “stupid questions you were asked because of your line of work”? Because if not, there should be. I feel like we all have these kinds of stories to share and I bet they would be hilarious.

  11. louise

    When that happened to me (and in my case, they actually only had one question), I had a ton of questions for them. I knew the job was a no-go for me when I asked “has there been any turnover in this role?” The interviewer (a lawyer–you’d think they would know how to interview since it’s like a deposition?!) stopped for a moment to count and then said, “Yes, seven people in a year or so.”

    That was already weird, but for fun, I followed up with “Why do you think they didn’t stick around?” He said a few just ended up getting other offers and left within their first few days, but one had been there a few months when her mom died several states away. She told the attorneys she didn’t have the money to get there and her car wasn’t up to the trip, so they rented one for her.

    She never returned the car, or any phone calls.

    1. fposte

      That’s just a narratively beautiful thing–not only this weird story, but the fact that the guy at your interview couldn’t resist unburdening himself to you about it.

      In my head movie, you end up working with this woman. She still has the car.

    2. Merry and Bright

      Yes, I like this question when I see red flags. My other favourite is to ask the interviewer(s) what s/he likes best about working there. The responses (or lack) can tell you everything.

  12. HR Manager

    If they don’t fill in the time with good questions, you can also take this time to interview the interviewer. Ask “Would you mind telling me how you ended up in this position and why you thought this was a good fit for you?” That can open up tons of topics for questions, if the interviewer is forthcoming and honest.

    1. De Minimis

      Sometimes that can work, but if you go that route be sure to lead it back toward you and your suitability for the position. Otherwise it can devolve into a lot of storytelling which doesn’t go anywhere[which was the case with two of my bad interviewers…]

  13. Episkey

    Sometimes I feel like I could write a book on all the odd/bad interview experiences I’ve had. Alison, maybe that’s a suggestion for you? I bet you could get some real stories from people here.

    One of the oddest ones I’ve had was with a non-profit health clinic where the Executive Director interviewed me and was completely running the hiring process for this position, even though the org did have an entire HR department (I thought that was a little odd right from the start).

    I had been laid off from my previous job and had been unemployed for maybe 2 months at the time of this interview. He basically asked me point blank why no one had hired me yet, like 2 months was some outrageous amount of time to be job searching.

    The other oddball part of it was that he kept making ME contact him back at each step in the process to tell him I was still interested. So first we had a screening phone call…he insisted I contact him back after the phone call to let him know I was interested. Then we had a phone interview…again, I had to contact him to reiterate interest…then an in-person interview…same cycle, etc. It was so bizarre! I really wanted to ask him why he wasn’t utilizing his HR dept for this!

    1. Swedish Tekanna

      That is bizarre. Still, at least he got to meet you. I am currently coming to the end of a contract in an organization where it is company policy for HR to do all the recruiting from beginning to end, and the managers don’t get any say in the process and only meet their reports and new team members on the first day of employment.

      I went to an interview yesterday where the employer chose an interview time of 1 pm. As we were sitting down she said it would only be a very quick meeting because it was lunch time. Bad interviewer, rude interviewer. I was on time, smartly dressed, polite etc so hadn’t had a chance to make a bad impression. Another one for the bad interviewer thread.

  14. HappySnail

    I’ve found that some interviewers do this on purpose as a kind of a “test” just to see how you would react. They could very well be bad interviewers but truthfully, I don’t think it means anything. If they invited you to the interview, they thought it at least good enough to sit with you for some length of time.

  15. Bob

    I’ve been to two interviews where they didn’t ask me any questions at all. They just told me what the position was like, showed me around some, and then asked me if I had any questions. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job at both of them. I can’t help wonder if they were terrible at interviewing or already decided for whatever reason before hand not to hire me.

  16. long time reader first time poster

    I worked for a digital services agency where everyone was overworked to the bone. It was the kind of place where you’d get triple booked for meetings as a matter of fact, 60 hour weeks were easy, it was typical to get 200+ emails in my in box per day, etc. Just crazy.

    So, when it came time to interview candidates, the process was always the same. The hiring manager and his/her boss would be scheduled for individual meetings with the candidate, as well as someone from HR and then someone that would be a peer. The candidate would be scheduled for a good two hours. And then, the day of the interview, every single person that was supposed to interview the candidate (except for HR) would have some sort of fire to put out and would be unavailable to interview. So, HR would just randomly grab live bodies at the last second to interview the candidate.

    I wound up interviewing SO many people whose resumes I’d just seen two minutes ago. I’d do my best, and I consider myself a decent interviewer, but many people just aren’t good at this, especially at the last minute.

    I should have seen the red flags when I interviewed there myself, because I sat for twenty minutes in an empty office at one point before a guy was ushered in to interview me. He was not from the department I was interviewing for, he was eating his lunch, and it was his first day! He turned out to be a nice guy and we hit it off, but… wow.

    After that place I have zero faith in any organization’s ability to interview.

  17. Gene

    The Worst Interview In History is what got me started in my profession in Phoenix. I knew none of the answers to the few job related questions he asked at the beginning, so we spent most of the interview shooting the breeze about being in the Navy in the Puget Sound area. I had recently gotten discharged while on a carrier in the yards at Bremerton and, as it was the Reagan Depression, I was applying for anything I was remotely qualified for, and the qualification was REALLY remote for this one. He had been on a PT boat out of Oak Harbor in WWII.

    I was gobsmacked when I got the offer, but pounced on it anyway. And here I am, 35 years later, doing the same thing, just in a different place, back near the Puget Sound.


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