ending an interview early when your interviewer is a jerk

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).

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Mikey*

    When I was just out of school and looking for my first job and the economy was the worst it had been since the Depression (it was 1978, surprise!), I had an interview like that. I was a pretty reserved/shy young 22, but I decided right away I would rather starve than work there. The interview/skills test/hazing went on for 8 hours. I decided to have fun and just said whatever I felt like, laughed whenever they were ridiculous, and so on. They made an offer; I declined. Had a good time though. In situations like that, you are totally in control, because only you can control your reactions. Own it! The reality is, they only have ONE CHANCE to impress you. If they fail to put their best foot forward, well, it is their screw-up, not yours.
    Best of luck and happy job hunting….

  2. Anonymous*

    I had an extremely short interview last year with a rather agressive interviewer, who didn’t like the fact I apparently didn’t fit the job description. Mindful that a job description is a wish list (as stated in the previous post) and the advert itself was extremely vague, I explained what about the role interested me, only to be informed those areas would comprise very little of the daily work.

    After it transpired I lacked a particular qualification the interview was terminated. Since my gut reaction was this didn’t seem like a company to work for anyway, I asked why, if I was so unsuitable, had they called me interview? The answer was that they had misinterpreted a phrase in my cover email!

    Thankfully, I got a better job shortly afterwards.

  3. Beth*

    Some 20 years ago I had an interview at a beverage company. The interviewer was fantastic but the job was in the benefits department and not where my primary interests lay. At the end of the interview I thanked her for her time and expressed that while I certainly wished to work for such a fantastic company, the position was not the best fit for me and would be better suited from someone with a real interest in benefits administration. She told me she appreciated my honesty and I thought we parted well. The recruiter that sent me was PISSED. No one turns down jobs at so-and-so she told me. “I’ll never send you out for another interview.” Well, recruiters are a dime a dozen so I went on my merry way. Two weeks later I received a call, the company had an unexpected FMLA opening in public relations, was I interested? Yes, I was. I then started the beginning of six great years with the company.

    1. Anonymous*

      Beth – Did the recruiter who wouldn’t send you on any more interviews still receive his/her 20% of your base salary for the job you did accept? If you’re not sure, there’s a great chance they did and not deserving.

  4. Joey*

    Consider the audience is my advice. In my experience I’ve seen plenty of executives that are no nonsense, to the point, and downright blunt which can come off as rude or condescending. It’s not that they’re trying to be disrespectful it’s just that they’re not used to considering someones feelings when they speak. Yes there are executives that are nice and some are intentionally rude, but a lot are just very driven, demanding leaders that want the best and can’t stand wasting time and aren’t used to changing their style for subordinates.
    Although I’m not convinced that the ops interviews were excruciating. It sounds more like they were perturbed that the interviews were a waste of time.

    1. SME*

      That’s true! I recently had a really tough interview that I thought meant they hated me. It didn’t at all – they were just approaching the interview kind of like boot camp, to weed out the weak.


      1. Natalie*

        Meh, I wouldn’t say someone’s distaste for that means they’re weak – just that they don’t want to work in that sort of grueling environment. Speaking for myself, I’m certainly capable of surviving in that kind of office, but I don’t like the person I am so I avoid those environments.

  5. SME*

    I had a doozy of an excruciating interview about ten years ago. It was a face to face that followed a fairly lengthy phone screen, during which the owner of the small business and I had developed a great rapport. We were both very excited about it, and he made it clear that the in person interview was just a formality, and that he had essentially already decided to hire me.

    That is, until I walked in and he discovered that I was fat. The look of utter horror and disgust on his face was so over the top that in retrospect he reminded me of The Office’s Michael Scott, whenever the subject of fat people comes up in an episode – complete and total over the top parody.

    I stuck it out, because a lifetime of trying to make up for being fat by being extra awesome in other ways made me determined to shine, but it was a complete waste of time. I should have turned around and walked out as soon as I saw his reaction to me.

    Live and learn!

  6. Anonymous*

    The OP had way too much artistic liberty in her question to really garner much sympathy from me. Staying in a budget motel is traumatizing? Really? Same with flying in and driving around a strange town? Wow. And, as a whole, particularly horrifying?

    And, because the owner of a company asks you a question you don’t like and gives you a funny look, it makes it excruciatingly painful?

    Crud. I’ve had my share of sucky interviews/interviewers (including ones where I had to fly in to and drive around strange towns!) but none rose to the level of “excruciating” or “particularly horrifying.”

    1. Anonymous*

      I was thinking the same thing. What’s so awful about visiting a new town and staying at a budget hotel? I guess it’s more about feeling trapped in a strange city after a rough interview experience, but “traumatizing” and “horrifying” seem a little much. And if the OP had to pay for the trip I could understand being upset at the waste of money, but by saying he/she was “flown in” I figured it was paid for by the company.

    2. Lisa*

      Exactly what I came in to post! All I can figure is maybe the room had an infestation of bed bugs or mice or something and the letter didn’t specify that for reasons of space. I can see being traumatized by something like that, but if the bed was lumpy and the A/C lousy, oh, poor baby, you lived like the top 4% of the world’s population instead of the top 1% for a night? My heart weeps.

    3. FrauTech*

      Well I could be wrong, by I interpreted it as a night of regret and maybe homesickness. Travel and being away from home for a while is not easy for everyone. When the people who brought you out there are unwelcoming and cold it can make you feel even more alone. You go alone to a simple hotel room feeling rejected. I’m not sure she was whining so much about it being a budget hotel, just that it was simple and she was alone after an emotionally tough day. Not everyone is accustomed to travelling everywhere and is completely comfortable with it, a bad interview experience could completely throw the whole thing off to me (they flew her out in the morning? but then could only meet with her at the end of the day? it’s like they are messing with her).

    4. Jennifer, Too*

      It’s also possible this interview process presented an economic hardship for the OP. Maybe they couldn’t really AFFORD the hotel or the time off or the car rental fees. Maybe they had to defer a bill in order to go on this interview. Maybe THAT’S why it was traumatizing.

  7. Chris Walker*

    I once met the owner of a small business in the lobby of the company. After introductions, he said ‘Come with me.’ We went to the parking lot and got in his car. I thought we were going to have the interview over coffee somewhere. No, the interview was in his car. I did not do very well, being somewhat distracted., and he made no comment as to the interview location. I know it ‘takes all kinds’, but there are some you just know you don’t want to work for.

    1. Mike C.*

      Was it at least a nice car? I’d be more than happy to interview in some exotic supercar, but I too would be pretty distracted. :p

    2. Diane*

      Are you sure he actually worked there? People pretend to be doctors. Next: pretending to be interviewers.

      1. Joe*

        Wow, that’s a brilliant idea. I should go find some cool company, hang out in the lobby, and try to intercept people who look like they’re coming in for interviews. Sounds like a great way to entertain oneself on a staycation!

  8. Chris Walker*

    No, he made no comment at all. He seemed to think it was quite normal to interview in the car. All the questions were right out of 1001 Best interview questions: Tell me a little about yourself, What would your co-workers say about you, What is your greatest strength/weakness, etc. It was all so ordinary, except for the venue.

    The car was BMW 320i, burgundy as I recall. He owned a small chain of retail stores.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is a perfect illustration of why it’s worth sticking with it so that you get a good story later. Because this is awesome! I would have reclined the seat as far back as it went and put my feet up on the dash.

        1. Jennifer, Too*

          Oh, yeah! In a Beamer? Definitely off!

          Must have been nicer than some conference rooms I’ve been in! LOL!

  9. Becki*

    When I was just graduating I applied for a job and was asked to interview. The receptionist who set up the interview gave me the name of one person that I would be interviewing with. The day of my interview, I walked into a room with 11 panelists interviewing me at once. The interviewers were reading all the questions straight off a list with no follow ups or clarifying questions. I was also seated in the middle of the long side of an oval table and had to turn my back to half the table in order to make eye contact with the other half. If all of this wasn’t bad enough, in the middle of the interview, two of the panelists began arguing over if one of them had asked a question assigned to the other and could they switch questions. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want the job but it was a funny story.

  10. Anonymous*

    How do you best handle the opposite situation? So far I have stuck it out through several terrible interviewees, even though most were “eliminated” in the first few minutes. Though I haven’t run into one that was traumatizing, what is the best way to handle one of those? (one of those small world things)

    PS anyway you could get a guest post with more Tales of the Cluefree?

      1. Anonymous*

        I do. Oddly enough – it’s the ones who are great at the phone interview that have been disasters in person.

        1. Another Anon*

          Hmmm.. this makes me wonder if you should look at your phone inteview protocols and see if they could use some sharpening. “Great” phone interviews should correlate with better in-person interviews, ard really, really rarely lead to “disasters.” Also, if you’re not weeding out the disasters at thsi stage, maybe you ARE weeding out some good candidates…

  11. Sara*

    Woowee! Once I had an interview with a woman (through a recruiter) that owned her own consulting business. She wanted to hold the interview at 7 o’clock at night. (Red flag number one.) I arrived and she greeted me VERY warmly and kindly while sitting at the front reception desk. She said, “I’m so sorry, but I had to get rid of most of my staff (Red flag number two) because their attitudes were bad. I’ve been so busy I couldn’t do the interview until late tonight.” She showed me to the conference room where we’d do our interview and said she’d return shortly. She went into her office and I overheard her SCREAMING and CURSING (Red flag number three) at the recruiter because her previous interviewee didn’t show. Then she returned to the conference room, smiled at me and we exchanged pleasant conversation while she got settled. Then… she put her hands to her forehead… blinked a few times… and made some sort of movie-style transition into some kind of police interrogator you see on Dateline. She spent the next 2 hours berating everything about me – my appearance, my resume, my voice, my job history – and accused me of making up everything on my resume. It was the strangest experience of my life. But I just thought, “Use it as practice Sara – both for interviewing and maintaining composure when faced with a crazy person.” At the end of it, she smiled, returned to her original voice/personality and offered me the job. I said I’d like the night to consider it. She said she knew I’d take the offer and she wanted to see me the next day at 6am at a charity event she was putting on for a client (by herself because she fired all her staff). The recruiter was mad when I declined the offer.

    I am happy to say I am currently employed at the best job I’ve ever had.

    1. Esra*

      Oh recruiters. The last time I went to an interview a recruiter set me up for, they told me to “ask questions if you MUST, but remember your goal is to WIN the interview.”

      1. Kat*

        I had one temp recruiter berate me for daring to ask to take an hour or so think about a job offer I’d just gotten. The job she set me up for was 50 miles, one way, away from my home. I had a 13 year old jeep with almost 200000 miles and when she called me for it I told her it was too far away. She convinced me to go anyway, just because it was a great fit. She kept stressing…STRESSING that I had to make sure I dressed professionally (it was a law firm, how else would I dress?) and told me not more than 5 times in our conversation that I had to wear professional clothes. I decided to just use it as a practice interview. As things like this go, I ended up impressing the owner and before I even drove off he’d called her and said he wanted to offer me the position. She called me to give me the GREAT news and I dared to tell her that the distance worried me, especially with my vehicle (that had been giving me major problems). She told me to suck it up and stop being a baby (her exact words). I asked her could I at least THINK about it on my hour drive home. She didn’t like that answer but somehow said I had that long but I’d be a fool not to accept it. Plus she’d told me that they actually wanted to hire me on after 5 weeks of temping and when I told her I did not want to be hired at a company 50 miles away she told me just to work there and give them the 5 weeks adn go from there. Finally I agreed because, well after all that, it was a job.

        I actually ended up working there for 5 months and let’s just say I should have followed my instinct…one of the worst. jobs. ever. (Management wise…oh I have stories) They decided they didn’t need me once they convinced me to buy a new car since they were planning on hiring me permanently. I did and two weeks later, got a call from the recruiter saying they couldn’t afford me. Thankfully I had enough in savings to afford the payments while i searched for another job.

  12. Belle-Lettrist*

    Wow, Sara!

    That is truly an amazing story! You are quite the trooper for tolerating all the giant red flags you encountered leading up to and during the interview.

    Unlike you, once I heard the woman screaming and cursing from the other room I may have felt inclined to fake a headache or urgent phone call to extricate myself immediately. The idea of being alone in an office in the evening with someone so volatile would really put me on edge. You are much braver and savvier than I would have been.

    For the record, I can gladly state that I’ve never been berated and have had neither my appearance nor my voice critiqued during a job interview. Mostly, people recognize the college program from which I graduated and will try to make awkward smalltalk with me about that.

  13. M*

    I once had an interview with a hot-shot new manager at a decent-sized tech company. He had just been promoted from a pre-sales tech position. He was almost an hour late for the appointment, met me on one floor of the building then we rode the elevator several floors down while he dazzled me with his command of the company’s acronyms in the process of telling me about the project he was involved in. We went to a large, very dimly lit conference room, sat down at the very large table, and without so much as opening the folder in his hands or asking for a copy of my resume – or anything remotely like the normal start to an interview (or a conversation) – he said, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Then leaned back in his chair, stretched out his legs, and *smirked*.

    Apparently I was just Candidate Fodder and he was going to enjoy himself at the sucky task he’d been assigned. I told him I’d never considered myself to be any kind of botanical, tree or otherwise, and that it seemed there must’ve been a mix-up at the recruiter’s office. And then I left.

    1. Mike C.*

      It’s one thing for a tech company to ask puzzle or combinatorics questions since they directly relate to the sorts of issues that will be faced in the line of work.

      Sh*t like what kind of tree or cereal or whatever is so damn insulting.

      1. M*

        To make it worse, I was interviewing for a senior sales position, not a techie job. I knew about seemingly off the wall questions designed to test a candidate’s problem-solving abilities, and had experienced a few in other sales interviews. But telling a smarmy, wet-behind-the-ears, sales manager what kind of tree I would be – and why – would only serve to amuse him and give him something to laugh uproariously about later with his buddies.

        But the tree question did ultimately serve one important purpose: It weeded out a bad company very quickly for me. They disappeared a couple years later in the dot-com burst, even though they were a top player in the ERP software market with hundreds of [not terribly satisfied] customers; the more viable divisions of the company were sold off to their competitors.

    2. Anonymous*

      When I was a brand new manager, I was actually told by HR that the tree question was a good one to ask. I didn’t buy it, but made the mistake of telling my manager and he got a kick out of it and actually asked the poor woman. She took it in stride, but it made me vow never to ask any of those ‘what if you were a …’ type questions in the future!

        1. Joe*

          A Christmas tree. Set me up, leave me alone for a while, and you’ll magically find presents underneath me.

    3. Andy*

      I also think the zero-tolerance approach is the only way to deal with people like these. Let’s be honest here: tact, diplomacy and “helpfulness” do not work.

      The best response would be to tell him he’s an idiot and leave.

  14. Anonymous*

    I have had a few interviews with red flags in them.

    One time I had an interviewer tell me all about the benefits up front. He must have taken 10-15 minutes telling me all about the job and benefits; I just sat there and listened. Did I really need to know what insurance company the company used before I had even been asked my first interview question? It also didn’t help that when the interview really started that with some of my answers, he and the other members of the interviewing committee would look at each other and snicker. I was almost ready to ask them “Am I missing something here? What’s so funny?”

    Another time, the interviewer basically I job-hopped even though he failed to realize everything was done during college (internships, real world experience for classes, etc.).

    And finally, there was one interview in which I was in the interviewer’s office. He had a huge window which I sat in front of. It was on the ground floor and in a busy area where there were a lot of pedestrians (storefront). I bet you if the interviewer had to take a test on what I, the interviewee, said during that half hour, he would not have passed. Sure I could hear the people outside, but I knew where the person was behind me as I could follow his eyes following the person out the window. It was disrespectful, and once again, I really wanted to say something.

    1. Joe*

      With regard to that last one, don’t be so sure he didn’t hear you. Some people (myself included) are not able to tune out visual distractions the same way most people do, and any motion will draw their eye. That doesn’t mean they’re not listening to you. I can have a normal conversation with someone, and even though I’m looking at them less than half the time, I hear everything they’re saying. It’s just a real struggle to focus on looking at someone when there’s other motion around.

      Of course, if he did have a condition like this, he should’ve just drawn the shades, but I’m just saying not to assume that he wasn’t listening just because he wasn’t looking at you.

  15. Prairie Dog*

    When I was in college I responded to a newspaper ad for a marketing person (my major) at a small HVAC shop. The owner/interviewer wanted me there for the interview immediately, so I hopped in my car and drove 30 miles out of the city to a small industrial park where I met a man who apparently knew a hell of a lot about HVAC but not the first thing about management.

    Don’t get me wrong, he was probably the kind of guy I wouldn’t have minded knowing personally, but you could tell that he’d probably rather be working on the job site than in the office. Some of the questions were:
    -Are you married? (No)
    -Any kids? (No)
    -Any on the way (No).
    -Multiply these two numbers…
    -Spell and define this word…
    -Do you listen to talk radio?

    And so on. It was just really weird. But that never beat the story a friend of mine had. He was interviewing for a marketing position as well, and out of the blue the interviewer (who my friend had already decided he couldn’t work for) started criticizing the binder in which the resume was presented. And then it was my friend’s suit. He then asked what my friend’s three biggest weaknesses were:

    “Well,” he said, “I smoke a lot, I drink too much and I always oversleep.”

    The interviewer’s jaw dropped. My friend stood up, grabbed the binder and resume out of his hands and said “And with that, I’m outta here.”

    1. Natalie*

      That first guy sounds a little like the operations manager at my office. Good guy, great at operations… terrible manager. He is definitely one of those people who was promoted into managing because he was good at this job, with absolutely no consideration of whether or not he has the skills to manage.

      Thankfully for him and the rest of my office, he has one management peer and a boss who are aware of these issues and do their best to teach him or handle the management things he can’t handle. In a reasonable company he would be moved into a different position, but our corporate office doesn’t do reasonable.

  16. Anonymous*

    Try interviewing a ditz with their nipple hanging out. Happened. And it just seemed to be saying “look over here, look here!”. It took all my willpower not to look in it’s direction. Also, I once interviewed a guy that I swear crapped his pants during the interview. I mean it literally smelled like he dropped a deuce right there. All the while he’s got a straight face and he’s got to be wondering why I have this look of disgust on my face. I still wonder if he actually pitched a loaf or just blew gas.

  17. Jamie*

    I tend to make up my mind too quickly about whether I want a job or not – so back when I was looking on those occasions where I decided it wasn’t for me I would stick it out for interview practice.

    I hate to interview and I think I’m particularly bad at it.

    Ironically 90% of the time when I had no intention of ever taking the job I would get an offer. My success rate was much lower with the jobs I wanted.

    I tried to trick myself into not liking jobs I wanted so I would relax and get an offer…I was never able to pull it off.

    Ah – the good old days when the economy was such that we could afford to be picky.

  18. Top Executive Recruiters*

    Wow that sounds awful. I have never had an interview as unprofessional and rude as what you have described. The job I just got, I got through a recruiting firm that provided me with a great experience. While you might have to eat some you know what if you want to get your dream job, nobody should be treated like a worthless dim-witted lackey.

  19. anonymous*

    Worst interview I ever had was for apprentice electrician. I had goene to school for it for two years (an extension of high school.) I interviewed at one of the prestigious companies in the area. Over twenty years ago but I recall being told to speak only when asked a direct quesiton. I did ask the standard “how long have you been in business” “What is the average employee retention” basic things and was told I was a sniveling brat etc. Got up to leave indicating this does not seem a good fit for me and was told point blank “you’ll never work in this town I have lots for friends and they will hear about you from me and I am very influential” – what a joke, did get a job in another town (Long Island is a big place)

  20. Andy*

    “… I still wonder how to extricate oneself from a bad interview situation …”

    It’s quite easy.
    Tell him he’s idiot, and leave.

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