how to deal with a bad interviewer

In an ideal world, all job interviews would be conducted by interviewers who are skilled at asking relevant questions and ensuring that candidates gain a solid understanding of the position, the company, and the culture. Unfortunately, in reality, many interviewers are inexperienced, unskilled, otherwise unable to conduct effective interviews. But if handled correctly, encountering a bad interviewer doesn’t need to derail your interview.

Here are some of the most common types of bad interviewers you might encounter and how you can effectively navigate each.

1. The no-questions interviewer. This interviewer talks on and on about her job, her professional background, the company’s culture, the free bagels the company provides every Tuesday – but barely asks you any questions about yourself. This might seem like an easy interview, but in fact it can be an especially tricky one, because it leaves you without opportunities to demonstrate that you’d excel at the job.

What to do: Steer the conversation back to the job opening and your qualifications. Say something like, “Would it be okay to take a minute and lead you through my professional background? I think it’ll tie in with what you were just saying about the job.”

2. The unprepared interviewer. It’s clear that she hasn’t read your resume and has no familiarity with your background.

What to do: Don’t show you’re annoyed by the lack of preparation, even if you are. Instead, offer to tell this interviewer about yourself. Say something like, “I’d love to tell you about my background and talk about some of the ways I think this job might be a great fit.”

3. The distracted interviewer. She’s checking her email, answering texts, and generally doing everything but engaging directly with you.

What to do: Don’t take it personally. Be as friendly as possible, and try to block out the lack of attention. But if the interruptions get really bad, you can nicely ask, “Is this still a good time for us to meeting? I’d be glad to reschedule if it’s more convenient.” And if this person would be your boss, give serious thought to whether you’d want to work for someone who won’t give you her full attention.

4. The inept interviewer. Her questions bear little relation to the work you’d be doing on the job. This is the type who uses questions like “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” and “What would I find in your refrigerator right now?”

What to do: Answer the questions, but then steer the conversation back to what’s really important. Weave examples of your professional achievements into the conversation, ask questions about the job itself and the challenges the team is facing, and then talk about how you’d approach those challenges. In other words, do the interviewer’s job for her.

5. The law-averse interviewer. This interviewer asks if you’re married, whether you plan to get pregnant in the near future, what church you go to, and other inappropriate questions that skirt the law.

What to do: While it’s illegal to base a hiring decision on answers to these questions, some interviewers plunge forward with them anyway. Often these interviewers are simply making small talk and don’t realize that they’re treading on risky ground. If you attempt to educate them on employment law, you can ruin the rapport that’s key to a successful interview. But you’re also entitled not to get into topics that most people consider off-limits. A good option is to figure out what the interviewer is getting at with the question, and answer that instead. For instance, if you think the interviewer is worried that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance, speak directly to that: “There’s nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed to get the job done.”

6. The hostile interviewer. Perhaps the worst type of interviewer are those who are rude or outright hostile – denigrating your qualifications or your answers, or acting bored or dismissive. Interviewers who behave this way are either jerks and/or are inflicting a “stress interview” on you – which is where the interviewer deliberately antagonizes you to find out how you respond to stressful situations. (Whether stress interviews should be used at all is up for debate, but if they are, there’s no point in using them unless functioning under extreme stress is relevant to the job: litigator, say, or air traffic controller.)

What to do: Don’t get flustered. Remember that the interviewer’s attitude likely isn’t about you, and continue to answer questions calmly and with confidence. And be glad for the opportunity to learn that this is how this manager operates before you’ve accepted a job working for her!

As always, remember that interviews are a two-way street. If something smells bad in an interview, that’s something you can use in making an employment decision, too.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah G*

    Alison – This is a apt and succinct summary of how to deal with these clowns, who are way too common! For my previous job, I had a “no questions interviewer.” A LOT of preparation is what allowed me to shine in the interview and proceed to get the job (where I stayed for the next 6 yrs). I then had to pair up with my original no-questions interviewer to find my replacement, and worked hard to convince her that we should actually ask more than one or two (vague) questions.

    As you point out, one needs to be prepared to convey the necessary information about oneself, no matter what the interviewer asks or doesn’t ask. Redirect, redirect, redirect.

  2. fposte*

    I worked with a no-questions interviewer of a specific subtype–she would actually ask a question, and then she’d answer it herself. It was kind of surreal.

  3. Anonymous*

    My current supervisor is another type of bad interviewer, of the the too-many-questions-at-once variety. All in one breath, his “question” would be something like, “Can you tell me why you want to work here, what background you have relevant to this position, what strengths and weaknesses you bring to this position, and what makes you the best person for this job?”

    It was like this for every “question.” Egad, it was like 50 questions in total instead of the “ten quick questions” he claimed to have! I found myself asking him to repeat the “question”, paraphrasing each part of it, writing it down on my notepad, and asking if I had missed anything or if I needed to elaborate on a part of the “question.” While these are good skills to see if a candidate has for a position that requires great communication skills–including interviewing–he did not do any of this deliberately.

  4. praveen*

    We tend to teach job seekers on how to dress up during an interview, how to handshake, how to speak, how to be confident and many more how to. In reality, very few interviewers take interviews seriously. Interviewers should be given proper training and they should practice to a greater extent before conducting every single interview because they are the brand ambassadors of the hiring company.

  5. Anonymous*

    I recently interviewed 3 times for a job at a non-profit. During the first interview, the manager read some silly questions off a print out, checked his blackberry multiple times, and overall just didn’t listen to my responses. He stressed I need to know Excel, and I gave him examples that I did because I’ve tutored it, supported it, and use it DAILY. At the second interview, he still seemed disinterested so the executive director interviewed me. While they needed someone who could work until 5, and I cannot because a part-time job like this will not cover my child care costs, I was told this was not a “deal-breaker”. He again asked me if I could use Excel. For the 3rd interview, he called me up first to congratulate me on making it to the next phase, and that I’d be coming in for training, after 3 months I’d be out of the trial period. Wait, did I say interview? Oh yes I did, because as it turned out the 3rd meeting wasn’t training, it was me meeting with the outgoing employee to learn her job — he told her I’d be there for 1, I was told be there for noon! I did great, and the other candidate couldn’t use Excel. She had told her boss that the business dropped off at 3pm, and there was no reason to stay past that time. They ended up hiring a girl who can’t use Excel, and doesn’t understand databases at all, but who can stay until 5. I feel his poor communication skills and inability to take employee input mean I dodged a bullet.

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