did I blow my chances in this phone interview?

A reader writes:

I received an email on one of my job applications around 4:45pm. The HR Manager asked that I called back to her in regards to the position because she would like to “discuss the position and my qualifications.” As I applied through a generic job board, I had not left a phone number for her to call back.

I was at a very busy coffeeshop, but looking at the time-constraint in the evening, I called her back immediately anticipating that we would schedule an interview at the company sometime the next day.

The call did not go to the voicemail and she picked up the phone immediately. She asked me if I have time for a few question, which I said yes to. Minutes into the conversation, I realized she was giving me a full-blown interview, asking me questions like “Why do I like this industry?”, “When was the last time you turn a customer’s experience around?”

I was so taken back that my answers were less than impressive. Furthermore, everyone around me sitting at their laptops were looking and listening to me, causing me unnecessary stress by these personal questions.

I apologized and told her I was not prepared and not in the correct state of mind for the questions, suggesting that I would much prefer to meet face-to-face. She seemed very annoyed, saying “You were the one who called me” and “You said you have time for questions”. She also stressed that this was not an interview but only a few questions to know me better.

In the end she said she would take my call again the next day. Although I did the best I could for her questions, admitted mistake, learned from the experience yesterday and apologized repeatedly, I have a feeling she would not call back. When asked the time frame I would get a hear back, she said she could not tell, and there is a chance I won’t hear back at all.

I had read all about stress interviews – getting seated in a broken chair, pretending to be completely uninterested, etc. Yet, I feel that I should have a right to be prepared to better connect my strengths and ability to the job.

This struck me as a very bad experience. Any chances of recovery? Should I give up or avoid this company altogether?

I’d move on. It’s clear that there was a miscommunication here, but I can understand why she expected you to be ready to answer questions when you called her back; it sounds like she had asked you to call to talk about the position, not to schedule an in-person interview. (Many employers, myself included, do phone screens first and don’t want to spend time on an in-person interview until that initial screening has indicated it would be worth the time.)

I don’t think this was a stress interview (although it clearly ended up having that effect, unintentionally!). Rather, she assumed that if you were returning the call, you were prepared to talk. At that point, the best thing to do — if you didn’t feel you could proceed with the phone interview — would have been to apologize and say that you had misunderstood, thought that she was calling to schedule an interview, and that you weren’t currently somewhere where you could talk for long.

You said you feel that you “should have a right to be prepared to better connect your strengths and ability to the job.” In hiring, you don’t really have a right to anything, other than to not be subjected to illegal discrimination. Aside from that, employers can be as fair or unfair as they want (assuming they’re non-union, non-government). But in this case, I don’t even think that you even confronted unfairness — just a misunderstanding. And as I’ve written before, little things necessarily take on disproportionate importance during these screenings, because the employer has so little information to go on.

The best thing you can do here is to move on with a better understanding of how to handle this in the future. Good luck!

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    This seems like a great cautionary tale about when and where to make important phone calls, and our gut reaction in this mobile-enabled world to "respond right away" without qualification.

  2. De Minimis*

    Yikes, reminds me of something that happened to me years ago. I was responding to a newspaper ad by phone only to have the person begin to interview me. Of course I was unprepared and the person ended the interview after a few questions.

    That type of situation is not as common these days due to the Internet, but I always try to be prepared on those rare occasions where I'm calling about a job. It would probably pay to have some kind of plan or outline ready just in case what you think will be a quick phone call to set up a meeting ends up being the meeting itself.

  3. Anonymous*

    I would need to see the email to really see what message I'd get if I received such an email. The line the OP quoted out of it does give a sense that the employer wanted to talk right then and there. However, I have had employers call to set up a face-to-face interview using that phrase while leaving a voicemail. But usually the employer will say "I like to set up an interview with you to discuss your qualifications…" Did the employer say the word "interview" at all in this email?

  4. Anonymous*

    I agree with most of AAM's response, except this one:

    "In hiring, you don't really have a right to anything, other than to not be subjected to illegal discrimination."

    Even if were only talking about employment law, employers do have more obligations than just not discriminating.

    Beyond just legalities, AAM's blog entries (as well as the 'about' page) have always espoused setting a higher standard for employer conduct, so I'm perplexed by the sudden about-face.

  5. Anonymous*

    Anon #3

    I agree. When I read that, I felt like giving up in this "real world" of working. It seems to me, not just reading here at times, but with certain things I deal with in my job, that the employer can get away with a ton of stuff while the employee can't misunderstand or make a mistake (or in this case, interviewee). It surely seems that the employer can't be inconvienced but definitely not the employee.

  6. Ask a Manager*

    Are you guys really saying that you think the employer should be obligated to interview anyone who thinks it's only fair that they get an interview?

  7. fposte*

    Later anons: I'm not seeing what's unfair here. This was a fairly common step of communication, and the OP made a mistake–not a large one, not an unreasonable one, but a mistake. That happens in applications, and if the employer decides that they prefer the candidates who didn't make the mistake, that's perfectly fair. This isn't a case of AAM advocating that companies do only the bare minimum of legality; of course companies should hold themselves to higher standards than the law requires. But I don't see where those standards require making sure candidates have a chance to recover from their mistakes, or get the best opportunity to avoid them.

    OP, I'd say the answer to "Did I blow my chances?" is "It depends." You may otherwise be a strong candidate and a good fit and remain in consideration; if you were already a questionable candidate and they need to weed, that's another matter. So don't assume it's over, but don't put everything else on hold for it.

  8. Anonymous*

    AAM: Where is anyone saying the employer should be obliged to interview everyone?

    I don't see anyone saying that. Just that one person screwing up one interview doesn't equate to every job seeker surrendering all rights to anything, legal or ethical, in the hiring process–which is what you said.

  9. Patiricia*

    You should always be ready for an interview. In this economy, when you get the chance of an interview, you can't waste even if it springs itself upon you.

  10. TheLabRat*

    While I get what AAM is saying here and don't disagree that this boils down to a misunderstanding, I find I'm very put off of this potential employer by the "you're the one who called me" line. That's something you say when a wrong number calls your cell phone and asks who YOU are, not something you say to a job seeker who seems to be making an attempt to follow your instructions during the application process. I can't really explain it; there's something wrong with it that is making me bristle.

    OP, though AAM noted some good things you could have said to extricate yourself from this error, you aren't the only one who made an error here and my guess is that you should count your blessings if this botched your chances of getting this job.

  11. fposte*

    "Just that one person screwing up one interview doesn't equate to every job seeker surrendering all rights to anything, legal or ethical, in the hiring process–which is what you said."

    I didn't read her as saying anything like that, though. She pointed out that the only rights that are legally safeguarded in this situation–which, functionally speaking, is what makes them relevant–are the rights involving your freedom from certain kinds of discrimination. She's not saying you give up any other rights–there's no general legal right of freedom from unfairness or even rudeness (I agree with Lab Rat that the woman's response wasn't great); accepting unfair treatment in a job search doesn't mean that a right has been suspended because of the jobseeker's status, because the right never actually existed. If you're talking "rights" in a philosophical rather than a legal sense, that's another matter, but there's no enforcement of philosophical rights.

    In my experience with young jobseekers, a lot of them think that the law has a lot more to say about prospective employer treatment than it really does, and it wasn't clear to me that the OP knew that.

  12. Anonymous*

    Much in the same way that every interaction a customer has with your company is important, every interaction you have during the hiring process is part of the job interview. I get the feeling that this has less to do with the fact that the interviewee wasn't prepared to talk in that moment (although it strikes me as a little green to call unprepared), than it does with how he/she handled it. If you are not available to talk, but want to be responsive, it's professional to let them know that at the beginning of the call, just as if you were responding to a client about something you were not able to handle right away.

  13. Anonymous*

    I had a similar situation last week. HR emailed me, but when I contacted her the following day, it was too late. She'd closed the job req because she'd gotten more than enough respondents to move forward with to the next stage.

    Part of the problem is the job market we are currently in. It's very competitive. HR is being hit with hundreds of resumes for a single job req and their goal at the phone interview stage is to go through a set of questions and develop a candidate pool, those that will move forward. And they are probably trying to do this quickly, so will forego the process of scheduling a time to talk (not all companies though).

    And yes, some employers can be impatient and rude, but these days if we are not prepared and ready to talk, somebody else is. I learned this last week.

  14. Justin*

    What bothers me is that the interviewer said "she would like to 'discuss the position and my qualifications'", which is a little vague. She should have said, "I want to interview you on the phone, when can you do this?" That would have been more specific and to the point. When I was younger and less experienced in the job world, I was caught off guard by a voicemail from a hiring manager asking me to call "so we can chat a bit". Not knowing that she was going to interview me on the phone, I hardly prepared and needless to say, the phone interview was short and nothing happened after that. Not sure why someone in charge of hiring and firing personnel would beat around the bush like that.

  15. TheLabRat*

    Yes, Justin thanks for that. It's exactly what was bugging me that I couldn't place before. Boss person is unclear about her intentions and then blames the interviewee for it. That's crap. Run.

  16. Anonymous*

    It may be reality that there is a power imbalance between employers and employees (or potential employees) in this economy, but that doesn't mean it is right.

    There are lots of little rules that job seekers need to know about and follow that have nothing whatsoever to do with ability to perform in a role, only their ability to follow the herd and hit the fake goal posts that many interviewers have come to expect and use as a substitute for actual thought.

    In this case, the interviewer seemed to have an unspoken fake goal post that if someone calls her back, they had better be prepared to answer screening questions and/or conduct a phone interview.

    Is that a reasonable assumption? For an interviewer's perspective, it probably seems reasonable. From a job seeker's perspective, not so much. It's just another fake goal post one has to hit (Always be prepared for a phone screen/interview when making phone contact with HR – check)

    Reality, yes. Fair, no.

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