the ethics of a “courtesy interview” when you realize the candidate isn’t right

A colleague and I were debating this question today: Near the start of an interview, if you pretty quickly realize that the candidate is not going to be selected for the position, what is the most courteous way to proceed?

We both agreed that we tend to do a “courtesy interview” at that point (meaning that since the candidate prepared and made time to talk with you, you proceed with the interview), but we differed on how long to spend on it — I argued 30-40 minutes is polite, and my colleague argued for 20 minutes (assuming the candidate didn’t come from out of town, in which case he’d spend more time).

I think 20 minutes feels rudely abrupt. On the other hand, there’s a strong argument to be made that going beyond that is wasting the candidate’s time (and our own) if you know you’re not going to hire her.

In phone interviews, if I realize a candidate isn’t quite right, I’ll often tell them during the call itself, as an explanation for cutting it short. But that’s when the reason is easily explainable — we’re looking for someone with more of a background in ___, we’d need you to start months before you’re available, or whatever. By the time they get to the in-person interview, they’ve been through a phone screen and thus any reason that would be quickly noticeable would be of a different sort — for instance, the position requires great people skills but you’re mumbling and can’t make eye contact, or something else that I’m just not inclined to explain as part of an on-the-spot rejection.

So what do you think? What’s the most polite way to handle it when you realize close to the start of an interview that a candidate isn’t right?

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    As a job seeker myself I find that 20 minutes is abrupt, but on the other hand I don’t want to be lead on by the interviewer. If there isn’t any chemistry at all and you have a hunch that it won’t work out – just tell the job seeker. I know I would be thankful to know why the hiring manager didn’t like what I had to offer and I could use that information to tailor my search.

  2. Megan Reilly*

    I think 20 minutes would be fine.

    What about when the job seeker realizes that there’s no way it would work? Courtesy interview, or just end it there?

  3. Anonymous*

    Isn’t this what a phone screen is for? I would hope that the person/people conducting a phone screen and then perhaps a phone interview would be qualified enough and have enough skill to be able to determine that level of fit without wasting more time with an in-person interview.

    Frankly, I think the inverse is more common. The employer has no clue what they want and they use interviews – DOZENS of interviews in some cases – to try and define it. I’m in this process right now with a large company. They went through an initial phone screen… then an interview with “the team” and if I’m lucky, next will be with the hiring manager.

    If I talk with the hiring manager at this stage and get the 20min brush-off, that would really piss me off and simply confirm that they had no idea as to what they were looking for.

    Likewise with firms that BELIEVE they know what they’re looking for – but aren’t willing to accept the situational aspects of a qualified candidate (ie: the requisite salary, job history, or other issues that go along with someone of a certain level of professional background). Meanwhile, they yank the chains of every candidate they’re talking to.

  4. bg*

    Continuing an interview as a “courtesy interview” after you’ve decided the candidate will not be hired does a disservice to both the candidate and your company.

    Either end the interview, regardless of how abrupt it may seem, or go through everything you had planned to do with the candidate before you learned he or she was unsuitable.

    If there is truly no way in this lifetime or the next that you would hire this candidate — something you were surprised to learn at this point, because everything pointed the other way before you met the candidate —
    ** Continuing the interview gives the candidate false hope.
    ** It also wastes your time, something your company probably cannot afford.

    This is a “lose-lose” proposition; a “courtesy interview” is discourtious to all concerned.

    The alternative is to continue the interview as originally planned. There may be benefits to this option.
    ** You leave yourself the option of hiring the candidate later if you discover that future candidates are no better.
    ** You can also do the candidate the service of interviewing them more intensely in those areas in which you find them lacking. (Remember, unless the candidate totally shocks you in person, this is a person you thought was bright enough to merit an in-person interview, so most likely they do have some positive points.)

    So, do it all, or do none of it. Don’t humor the candidate falsely by giving them a “courtesy interview.”

  5. Anonymous*

    Anonymous #2, the phone screen only gets you so far, lots of candidates who did well on the phone bomb in the real interview.

    Speaking both as an interviewer and an applicant, I would want the courtesy interview. I don’t want to walk out with the sickening feeling I just bombed, I want to save a little face and not spend the rest of my day obsessing about how the interviewer only thought I was worth 10 minutes.

  6. Kelly O*

    The interviewer may realize it’s not going to be a good fit, but the interviewee may not quite realize it yet. In my experience on both sides of the conference room table, it’s good to at least acknowledge the time both parties *should* have spent preparing for the interview and finish it up in a half hour or so.

    And who knows? You might initially think “nope, no way this is working out” but by the time you get through talking with the person, you might see potential. You might even talk to a friend or other manager about the interview that wasn’t so great for you, and they realize that person might be great for them.

    Although honestly saying “we’re really looking for someone with more experience in ABC software, or more (or less) whatever” would help everyone involved. And vice versa, the job-seeker who may realize it’s not right for them could say “I was really looking for something with more (or less) whatever” might realize s/he knows someone else looking who would be a better fit.

    I know we have all this legal stuff to worry about, and people are obsessed with time and hurrying and all that, but being courteous and as honest as you can be works out in the end. Valuing the person you’re putting in face-time with enough to make the most of the time you’ve set aside.

  7. Evil HR Lady*

    I think this is difficult only because we think it’s kinder to lead someone on then it is to let them know immediately that it’s not a fit.

    I once worked in a department where potential new hires interviewed with about 6 people. If any one of the 6 objected the person didn’t get hired. While this seems harsh, I’ll tell you that I have never before nor since worked with such an intelligent, hard working group of people.

    Anyway, since all 6 had veto power, we probably should have sent the candidate home as soon as an interviewer knew she would object. But we didn’t. Which made the poor person spend an entire day in fruitless interviews.

    But that seems heartless. I guess I think it’s nicer to let the person think that someone else just barely edged in ahead of him, rather than we knew in the first 5 minutes you weren’t a fit.

  8. humanresourcespufnstuf*

    I agree that 20 minutes is sufficient. It may be dissapointing to the candidate, but in the end it is the right thing to do. I equate recruiting to dating. We all know how bad it feels for everyone involved when we drag out a bad first date.

  9. Krista Francis*

    I have done courtesy interviews and I have also cut the interview short, i.e. let them know I don’t see it working. But in that case, I usually try to throw in a freebie, such as referrals to other organizations that might be a better fit. The person leaves feeling grateful rather than inconvenienced.

    As far a Megan Reilly’s comment, I WISH candidates would feel comfortable not to courtesy interview if they come to realize the opportunity is not for them. Won’t hurt my feelings and I’ll be grateful for the exra time.

  10. Ask a Manager*

    For people who say to cut it as short as 20 minutes or less, are you simply wrapping up early without explanation, or are you telling them why?

    I have no problem saying “we’re looking for more experience with __” but if they’ve made it to the interview already, that’s not going to be the reason. At that point, the reason is more likely to be something I’m just not comfortable announcing outright, like:

    – “You seemed great on the phone, but in person your answers are vague, lackluster, and show zero insight.”
    – “You have an arrogant personality that would clash terribly with the manager in this role.”
    – “Your appearance is so wildly unkempt that we could never send you to meet with major donors.”

    Or whatever the situation may be.

    So that leaves us with either cutting it short early with no explanation (certainly possible) or saying something vague like “I don’t think this is the right fit,” which many candidates will want to debate (as everyone who’s done rejections knows).

    I’m curious how those of you advocating for ending as soon as you know have handled it.

  11. Rebecca*

    Normally I would agree with the ruthless approach… but I have been on interviews where I was back out on the sidewalk after 5 or 10 minutes. Both times, I was angry because my time and energy HAD been wasted already (I blocked out the time in my day for the interview, planned what I was going to wear, mentally rehearsed for questions, etc); I was upset because I felt like I wasn’t even given a chance; I wondered if the interviewer had even read my resume or cover letter; and I felt like I’d been considered as a commodity, not as an employee.

    It’d be different if I had behaved rudely, dressed completely inappropriately, brought my mom or my kid, answered my cellphone, or something egregious like that. Then I would have deserved to get punted right back out.

    20 or 30 minutes of chat would have been enough to make me feel like they at least respected me as a human being and respected the effort I’d made for the interview. And when my friends asked how it went, I would have said “It went OK, they were nice but I don’t think it’s gonna happen,” not “Those @#$%!! hardly even asked me my name before they threw me back out on the street!” And my friends would have said “Oh well, that’s a shame,” not “Wow, what a bunch of @#$%!!”

  12. Rebecca*

    To answer Megan’s question: There are ways to signal that you’re done without overtly saying so, using body language, facial expression, and intonation. Simply be a little less animated, interested, and active than you were earlier. In my experience, the interviewers will quickly pick up that something’s gone south, and will either investigate or start wrapping things up.

  13. HRD*

    My personal approach is to stop whenever I think its not worthwhile continuing. It just wastes everyones time to continue. So I would say something like, “I’m sorry but everything you have already told me or the evidence I have seen is sufficient to tell you I’m not going to progress with your application for this role. Thanks for your time”. But I’m a Brit, so is there a cultural difference?

  14. humanresourcespufnstuf*

    I always tell them why we are cutting it short. The reasons vary, but usually I do it in terms of not the right match and respecting their time. 99% of the candidates are very appreciative of my honesty.

  15. George Guajardo*

    I am not an HR person, so I can’t offer insight from that perspective. However, I have been a candidate on a number of occasions. I don’t mind you cutting the interview short, but at that point I want you to be clear with me about why. I won’t ask for an additional 20 minutes of your time to try to convince you that you are wrong. Just tell me, honestly, why I am not to be considered for the next round.

    And this is the tricky part; if your reasons for knocking me out of consideration is some gut feeling, or many years of experience, you need to re-think your selection process. Experience is typically not validated. Many people (even HR professionals) think they can predict human behavior from a think slice of observations. Research says they are wrong. Do your organization a favor and use scientific measures for selection purposes. The results (and reduction in liability) are worth the expense.

  16. Kelly O*

    I just have to come back and add that I think using your body language to try and signal “I’m not interested” by being less animated or whatever is not a good way to handle the situation. It just comes off as rude, and you never ever know what might happen six months down the road with the same company (or the friend of your interviewer or whomever) when that body language might come back to haunt you.

    I would hate to know I’d used negative body language to express my disinterest in a position only to come back for something else and have that person think “oh yeah, this was the girl who slumped in her chair/gave me no feedback/ kept checking her watch/ (insert whatever here.)”

  17. Suzy*

    I had an interview similar to Rebecca’s. I could tell they weren’t interested in me the moment I walked in the door. They didn’t even ask me the “Tell us about yourself.” question. This was the only time something like this has ever happened to me so I don’t think it was my appearance or bad breath or whatever.

    I would have felt better if they would have cancelled the interview altogether. The only reason I can think of for not cancelling is that they had already chosen another candidate but the company has a policy that they have to interview X many people before they can make an offer.

  18. Rebecca*

    Kelly O: If you were interviewing someone and realized they weren’t going to work out, I’m sure you wouldn’t slump in your chair or check your watch, but I’m also sure you wouldn’t pretend to still be enthusiastic about the candidate. That is the idea I’m going for — shifting slightly from “interested” toward “neutral.”

  19. Kerry*

    I almost never cut an interview short, unless the reason is something I can tell the candidate (like, we need some who speaks Swedish and you don’t). When I set up interviews, I always tell people exactly what to expect–how long they’ll be here, who they’ll meet with, etc. So if I cut it short, it would be obvious as to why.

    I also feel that even a no-hire candidate is still a potential customer, and will tell others about his/her experience. For that reason, I am careful to try to give people a positive experience, no matter what.

    The same is true when I’m the candidate, and I see that it’s not a fit. If it’s something I can tell them there, I do, but when it’s something like, “These people are whack,” I go through the interview just as if I were still interested. Then I send them a thank-you note that says how much I appreciate their time, but that I don’t think the job is a good fit.

    I live in Milwaukee, which is not all that big…so you have to be careful how you treat people.

  20. Anonymous*

    As a candidate I would probably appreciate the honesty of just cutting it short after 15-20 minutes, although I might feel differently if I’ve traveled quite a ways, etc.

    I do think that any interview experience is valuable, regardless of the outcome.

  21. Anonymous*

    As an applicant i would love some interviewer were honest and say that one is not suitable for the position and why.

  22. Charles*

    I am not an HR person so most of my interviewing experience is as the job candidate. So, let me give you another job seekers two-cents worth:

    Yes, I did spend a lot of time preparing for this interview. Since you choose to bring me in for an interview I feel that you “owe” me more than a “courtesy interview” To not pay attention or to not keep an open mind to whatever I have to say will be noticed by me. (Must be those observation and assessment skills that I use as a trainer.)

    To cut the interview short also leaves me with a bad feeling, not just about you as a person, but your entire organization. At the very least you should find out the most basic about me that you would want from all candidates. Why are you putting a time limit on it? I will notice that too.

    And, Yes, Kerry is right about this – I have interviewed over the years with many organizations where I did not get the job offer. Do I remember them all? No. But I do remember the bad interviewers. I did, and still do tell everyone I know about what a horrible, horrible companies they are.

    The worst was where I showed up for a 4:30 appointment (after cooling my heels with a wasted vacation day all day) only to be told that there will be no interview as they offered the job to another candidate. And that is why there is a certain home builder that I tell everyone not to buy from. If they are that rude with a job seeker how do you think they will treat you if you have building problems AFTER they have taken your money.

  23. Gene*

    HRD said: “But I’m a Brit, so is there a cultural difference?”

    Oh Yeah! Just watch American Idol. Simon gets a lot of flack for being rude and condecending when he’s only saying the truth. Contestant A truly CAN’T sing, but the American judges have to assuage their little ego whle Simon doesn’t mess about.

  24. Anonymous*

    Companies are looking for the youngest kids they can find, so I get rejected EVERYWHERE. I find thirty seconds is the usual time limit for an interview. The first time I thought I was being led to a conference room. In fact, I was being shown the door. With 650,000 people a month being fired amd with that process projected to go on and on and on until the whole country has been shipped overseas or all the domestic jobs staffed with immigrants brought in for the purpose, there is no reason for an interview to last more than a few seconds. Put their names in your internal blacklist and get rid of htem. There is no reason for ceremony.

  25. Anonymous*

    If the candidate isn’t right just revisit what they’re looking for vs. what you have to offer. 9 of 10 times the interviewee will end the interview there and thank me for my time. Totally cool ~ no harm no foul, we both move forward and no, I don’t blacklist them.

    If they stick around I carry on a ‘regular interview’ out of respect. In this *gasp* economy the employer seems to be holding the cards but it wasn’t always that way, nor do I expect this trend to last. Times may change but respect makes a lasting impression and I might need that person at a later date.

  26. Just Another HR Lady*

    We would still go through our normal questions as we rate candidates on a formal point system during our process (should we ever have a complaint about the process, legal or otherwise). As a result, we have to ask every candidate the same questions.

    However, I find that interviews where the person is not the right candidate just naturally end up being shorter…they can’t answer some of your questions, or their answers are very short, or there is simply no rapport there, making all of the discussion fairly short and stilted. I have gone through a full-fledged interview, questions and all, in 20-30 minutes.

    I have also told more than one candidate right after the interview that they didn’t have the right experience (they usually know by that point after not being able to answer some of the questions) for that particular role, but that I enjoyed meeting them and would like to keep their information on file should something come up that is more of a fit. I’ve never had anyone get ticked off about that yet.

  27. Anonymous*

    To jump in this question from an interviewee perspective:

    I think it is extremely helpful if any of both sides who think it might be a not so good fit would end the interview at that point ASAP.

    I was in both positions, and at one time had to cut the interview short from my point, which felt really awkward.

    You as recruiters can help applicants a lot if you take this into your hands. Be frank, be clear but be fair. Tell them why you want to stop the interview at that point, but be fair in telling them.

    This can be very helpful. You are not as nervous as the applicants, you are more experienced with these situations, and it can even help if you admit your error.

    I once sat in an interview where I was later unsure why I was invited at all — after three questions by the technical interviewer it was clear I did not fit there. However, we continued exchanging pleasantries for almost another hour, where they offered me consideration for different positions etc. At the end I felt awkward telling them to stop the interview now, since I saw there was no point going on.

    However not all applicants will go that far telling their interviewers that it’s not worthwhile after all, and I think many will feel fooled by such inane courtesy prolongation of the interview.


    — Omar

  28. Anonymous*

    Speaking as an interviewee, the courtesy inteview can go both ways. Often it feels like I am being interviewed so the hiring agent can justify hiring the internal candidate they've already selected while maintaining the pretense that the job is still open. That happened to me and I was more qualified than the person who got it and didn't even have a college degree. That type of charade is cruel to job seekers.

    Another courtesy interview error is misleading information about the interview. I went to one that was a group interview but in reality was an information session with the oppurtunity to answer one question. I don't think any decent HR person could make a qualified judgment from one q&a oppurtunity with a candidate.

  29. Battleship Turner*

    How do you get someone in who’s such an obvious non-fit?

    If the person’s resume doesn’t seem to fit well, you don’t invite them in. Now, on the other hand, if they seem to fit on paper, but not in person, I would want to explore what value they can bring in another role. And I’d be up-front about it – you don’t seem to fit the role we’re trying to fit (and explain why), but your experience may be useful to us in another capacity.

    Of course, then you should follow up. I’ve had these exploratory interviews before – they do raise your hopes once you’ve realized you’re not a fit.

  30. Anonymous*

    A question for AAM and other interviewers: has continuing with a courtesy interview ever caused you to change your opinion about a candidate?

    I’m in a field which requires strong sales/pitching skills, which I have, but I am sometimes inarticulate and shy when describing my own contributions. This tends to happen more when I am interviewed by recruiters, who in my industry tend to be far more formal than the hiring managers and the people I’d work with. I am sure this must raise red flags, but I’ve been lucky enough to get hired for jobs I don’t think I interviewed particularly well for. Once I’m in a position, I get excellent reviews and generally exceed expectations.

    So, I’m wondering about this from the interviewer’s point of view. Has continuing with a courtesy interview ever helped you reverse your initial opinion and lead to an offer?

  31. John S*

    I know these comments are little old, but I have to say as someone who has been unemployed/under employed for almost a year now I wish interviewers would be more frank if it needs to come to an end early. For all the resumes I send out I can expect to get only a few interviews so there is a natural tendency to want to make the most of that face time. The downside seems to be that courtesy interviews only lead to a false sense of hope. I no longer tell my wife how interviews went or trust my feelings about how I did. Even though I’ve convinced myself that I am completely anesthetized to hope it isn’t true. Each rejection letter seems more crushing the longer we spent interviewing together. Interviewers could save me the heartache and angst by ending interviews that they don’t think are going anywhere and telling my why. At this point I would very much appreciate their honesty much more than being led on and hoping afterwards.

  32. Anonymous*

    I would be very appreciative if the interviewer just cut it short as soon as they realized I wasn’t a good fit, and told me exactly why. Especially if it was because of those reasons AAM listed:
    – “You seemed great on the phone, but in person your answers are vague, lackluster, and show zero insight.”
    – “You have an arrogant personality that would clash terribly with the manager in this role.”
    – “Your appearance is so wildly unkempt that we could never send you to meet with major donors.”

  33. Michelle L.*

    I had a strange and dreadful experience once with an interview that was cut short. We’re not talking 20 minutes. We’re not even talking 5 minutes. I wasn’t there for more than a minute before I was pushed out the door.

    The position was as a receptionist for a salon. Typical business hours, as far as I knew, 9 to 5 or thereabouts.

    I came in for the interview and the first question was “Can you work nights?” Well, no, I couldn’t. I was in graduate school and taking evening classes. I explained this and the woman said (with a distinct sniff!) that she was sorry but they were really looking for someone who could work nights, but thanks for coming in.

    I actually muttered “What the fuck?” to myself as I walked out the door. I was disgusted with my experience, my interviewer, and the company as a result. Not only did I feel disrespected, I found myself questioning their competence. Working nights is not typical for a receptionist position; if they want someone who works evenings, would it not make a great deal more sense to clarify that in the job posting or to confirm availability before setting up interviews? I never had such a feeling of outrage and wasted time as I did leaving that interview.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Seriously, there’s no excuse for that. If they had any simple black & white deal-breakers like that, they should have done phone screens first.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Alison, rereading your posts about interview questions, and had to comment on this. I just got laid off and I’m not looking forward to replicating my job search from six years ago. Sooo many postings that weren’t clear about hours, qualifications I didn’t fit, etc. I had a couple of interviews like that too, but not quite so abrupt. I wish they HAD called me first; it would have saved us both time and aggravation.

  34. LondonAHP*

    I’d rather an interviewer politely and frankly called time when they were sure I wasn’t right for them, explaining the reason in a manner that doesn’t destroy the person being interviewed (there’s really no need, after all, you don’t want to hire them, but someone will). I had a dreadful interview experience where despite having been sent my CV the two interviewers expressed surprise that I didn’t have years of experience (!). During my interview they made childish faces to each other following certain of my (sensible and respectful) replies and the Director of the company actually yawned in my face (if she’d have done that in an interview I was conducting, she’d be out of the door before her mouth closed). I retrained after working in another industry for nearly 30 years and this was the most discourteous interview behaviour I have ever experienced.

Comments are closed.