A reader writes:
I’ve read your “run, don’t walk” advice when you find yourself in a job interview with someone you would never work with in a million years. But I still look back in anguish at an incident that happened a few years ago.
I had flown to another state for a job interview with the VP of HR for an automotive parts maker. The only fllight I could get was for mid-morning, and the VP couldn’t meet me till after 6 pm at a restaurant. So I flew to Detroit, rented a car, and poked around in a small town for hours (turned out to be her hometown–not where the facility was located) and met her at the restaurant as instructed. She arrived with a rep from the executive recruiting firm (not the recruiter I had talked to on the phone), and they largely ignored me and smirked together as I put forth my earnest answers to the few questions she asked and sat patiently listening while she spent the majority of the time telling me about what a big shot she was. It was so bad that at one point I felt tearful and had to hide it. I felt trapped and couldn’t think how to end it gracefully and waited for her to bring it to an end. The whole experience–flying in, driving to a strange town, being treated disrespectfully, sleeping in a budget hotel, etc.–was traumatizing. I obviously called the recruiter I had originally talked with the next day and told him it was not going to be a fit on either side, but I still wonder how to extricate oneself from a bad interview situation that lasts for hours.
That one was particularly horrifying because I had been flown in, but I recently had an interview I had driven to that was excruciatingly painful, and I knew within an hour that the company was not going to be a good fit for me. In this situation, I met with the owner of a small business who asked questions like, “You say these are your strengths, so tell me which ones you are really bad at.” I told him I wouldn’t have listed them as my strengths if I weren’t fully capable and experienced in all of them, and I could give him examples of each. He sat there and stared at me and waited and waited. I felt as if I were 10 years old. I was ready to leave then, but I didn’t want to be rude. However, the interview went on and on. I didn’t even get the feeling the owner liked me; he was making up his interview questions as he went along and this was some type of weird entertainment for him.
I am currently well-employed but I would be open to another opportunity should the right one come along. But the thought of getting into another unpleasant situation like one of these makes me gun shy to even agree to an interview. I am not a rude person, but I sometimes think the best thing to do is to just say, “Thank you for your time, but I’m sure you will agree that this is not going to be a good fit,” and end the misery. Thoughts?
I’d divide this into two categories: interviews that are truly excruciating and miserable (which I think are rare) and interviews where you realize partway through that this just isn’t a job you’d take (which are more common).
In the latter case, I recommend staying and seeing it through. Even though you don’t want this job, they might have an opening in the future that you do want, or your interviewer might later move to a company that you’d love to work at, or they might refer you to an acquaintance who’s hiring for a job you’d be interested in. So it pays to build the relationship, and you don’t want to be remembered as “the person who awkwardly short-circuited the interview.” Instead, think of it as networking. (You can follow up with a note later thanking them for their time and letting them know that this isn’t quite the right fit.)
The exception to this is if it’s something like an all-day interview or other significant investment in you. In that case, I’d argue that it’s more polite not to allow them to spend that kind of time on you when you already know you’re not interested, and in that case you should politely bow out with an explanation.
Now, let’s move on to the excruciating interviews. If the interview is really intolerable — the interviewer is abusive or something like that — well, frankly I’d still recommend trying to stick it out for the reasons above. (Try to focus on the good story you’re going to have later. And then you can come here and tell it to us!) But if it’s truly unbearable, then it’s certainly an option to politely say, “You know, I really appreciate your time, but as we’re talking I’m realizing that this isn’t quite the fit that I’m looking for.” Ideally, you’d add, “I’m looking for something more ____” just to make it less abrupt.
Of course, often the people who conduct the sort of interview that would make you want to end it early are exactly the people who are likeliest not to react to that well (because they believe they are in control, not you), so you want to factor that in. These types can be unreasonable enough that you may be burning a bridge with that company — which you might not care about, but if it’s a small enough industry, it could potentially have further-reaching consequences … so I’d discourage doing it unless you’re willing to risk that trade-off.
Really, I’d say your best bet is to stay and be entertained by the bad behavior, but I realize not everyone finds that as entertaining as I do.
By the way, you can read about this from the other side in this old post (and the comments are especially interesting).