interviewer had concerns about me from the start

A reader writes:

I’m currently a lawyer with several years of general legal experience and I’m trying to transition to a more specific area where I don’t have too much experience. I recently had an interview with a reputable recruitment agency, which went very well, and which got me the second interview with the hiring company.

The interviewer (a non-lawyer) stated right from the start that she had a serious fear that this position would be too challenging for me. It seemed that without the strong recommendation from the recruitment agency, the company wouldn’t have considered me as a candidate at all. At some point, after explaining my experience so far and providing examples of my ability to learn new things, I asked her how could I relieve her fear that I wouldn’t be capable. She replied that she didn’t know. The interviewer also hinted that they already have a candidate with at least 10 years experience in this field.

It was clear from the outset that the interviewer had serious doubts about my abilities and it seemed to be an uphill battle to communicate how I might be suitable. I realize that there is luck involved in interviewing, but is there anything I can do when the interviewer won’t give me a fair chance?

If the interviewer won’t give you a fair chance? Not really.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here. What’s more likely is that the interviewer didn’t consider you a competitive candidate on the basis of your resume alone. The recruitment agency, however, really liked you, thought that she might like you too if she had the chance to talk with you, and pushed her to give you a chance. The interviewer thought to herself, “Well, there’s no harm in talking to him, and maybe if I give him a chance, I’ll see what they see.”

After all, most experienced interviewers know that a candidate who wasn’t your first choice on paper can become your first choice after an interview. As a result, it’s not uncommon to interview someone who you might have some concerns about but who has enough promise that it’s worth a conversation — because maybe they’ll overcome those concerns in the interview. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s very hard (if not impossible) to predict who will rise to the top of the candidate pool in an interview and who will stay where they are or sink to the bottom. You pretty much only find out by doing the interview.

However, in those situations, it’s up to the candidate to find a way to impress you. And that’s why when you asked your interviewer what you could do to ease her concerns, she said she didn’t know. She really didn’t know — she was waiting to see if the interview changed her mind in some way that she couldn’t predict. For instance, maybe you’d end up being insanely talented in some way that would trump the lack of experience. Maybe she’d decide you were so smart that she was willing to take a chance on you. Maybe you’d just have a really compelling and convincing explanation of why you’d excel in the role. Or maybe none of those. She didn’t know, but she was giving you an opportunity to make your case.

In other words, it wasn’t about not giving you a fair chance — it was about the opposite: giving you a chance and seeing what happened.

Overall, this is a good thing, even if you ultimately didn’t end up her first choice for the job. After all, I’m constantly hearing from job-searchers who are frustrated that no one will give them a chance to interview and show that they could do the job well, even if they’re the underdog. So when you have an interviewer who’s willing to open up the door a little wider and see if an interview turns you into a stronger candidate, that’s a good thing.

Now, I know that you were left feeling like her mind was already made up. And it’s possible that it was, of course, and that she was just wasting your time (and her own). But it’s more likely that she was genuinely giving you a chance to see if something happened in that interview that overcame her concerns … but that ultimately it just didn’t.

Of course, there are other possible explanations here too: maybe the recruitment agency doesn’t know what it’s doing, or maybe the hiring manager is just a jerk or doesn’t know how to say “no” to the recruiters when they push a candidate she’s sure is the wrong fit, or unlimited other possibilities. But if you’re going to draw a broad conclusion from this interview and apply it to future ones, I’d go with the explanation above, because it’s the most common.

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Spekaing from my personal experience, I received a call from a recruiter who said he was impressed with my resume and would forward it to the hiring manager. The hiring manager did not believe I met the qualifications and interviewed other candidates instead. Two months later, I received a call from the same recruiter for the same position who said he wanted to try to forward my resume to the same manager again. I ended up getting the interview this time around, but still not the job. Again, a clash between a recruiter and hiring manager,

  2. Anonymous*

    Can someone define “hiring manager” for me? I’ve been reading it as a “HR person” but I am beginning to realize that’s not the intended meaning. I am sure it’s meant as “manager who is currently hiring”.

    Many places I have worked didn’t have an HR anything, and the ones that did, it was about three people. tops, who place ads and collate resumes. They don’t interview or make hiring decisions.

    Sorry, suddenly the syntax on this blog threw me for a loop. I’ll catch on. Eventually.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      As you started to suspect, “hiring manager” doesn’t mean “manager of hiring.” It means the manager who has the open slot in her department — thus, the person hiring for the open role. HR may be involved in early screenings and logistics, but typically the hiring manager is the person conducting the more substantive interviews and selecting a candidate (and then is that person’s manager once they start).

      1. Jamie*

        Alison’s definition is the correct one and most commonly understood – but when I’m speaking I do use the term hiring manager more loosely. I’m referring to not only the hiring manager for whom I would be working, but also their boss or anyone else involved in the process that has a real say in whether or not you get an offer.

        HR ran the ad and took my resume, did the initial interview to make sure I wasn’t a moron and that I had the social skills to remember to wear pants…but they had no influence in whether or not I was going to be hired, so they were never the hiring manager. When I was interviewing for my current job I needed to clear the current IT, CEO, and CFO – of which any could have killed my candidacy so I thought of them all as the hiring manager.

  3. In-House Counsel*

    Since the OP interviewed with a non-attorney, I’m guessing that s/he applied for a position as an in-house/staff attorney at a company that has a small legal department. Corporate legal departments need to hire experts; they generally don’t have the ability to develop them. This is why corporations–even those with very large legal departments–recruit experienced attorneys from firms, and virtually never hire new law graduates.

  4. Liz*

    I’ve heard some similar interview stories from multiple friends trying to break out of the legal field. I think there might be some sort of an issue with traditional communication in the legal field, and the interview process. Lawyers are trained to hone in on possible challenges, in order to argue them away. It’s not the easiest conversation.

    Thanks for the tips. I’m going to pass on the idea that, “Maybe the interviewer just gave you a chance, and wants to see the wow factor. It’s not an argument, just an opportunity.”

  5. The letter writer*

    I am very grateful that you took my question and I value your advice. I agree with you completely. But I would like to explain one aspect. I didn’t feel that I was treated unfairly. In such situations I don’t have expectations to people. My e-mail was somewhat misleading by accident. (I’m not a native English-speaker and I asked someone else to check my text and somehow that part was added.) What I really wanted to know is what to do in such situations. From your advice I understand that if you are under-qualified, you have to be extra talented or really smart. I have to agree with that. In my situation it would mean that I have to be smarter and more talented than the candidate with 10 years of experience in the field. Assuming that the candidate with 10 years of experience is really interested in the position and is smart and talented, which can be proved by the fact that he has been successful in the field, it’s very hard (if not impossible) to do. I guess I was hoping for a magic key.

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