things you don’t need to apologize for … or, don’t kowtow to your interviewer

A reader writes:

Some time ago, I interviewed for a job. I sent a nice thank-you email and didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, so I followed up with an email reiterating my interest and asking for information on next steps. Soon after, I received a rejection letter from the company’s HR manager.

I was disappointed, but I took a day or so to gather myself and sent a thank-you letter to the HR manager. Fast forward to last Monday. I received an email from the woman who interviewed me, stating that the position I had interviewed for had reopened and that she thought of me, so she was writing to see if I was still interested.

I am still searching for a job in my field, so I replied and said that I was absolutely still interested in the job. I asked if she would like to set up an interview (as I was unsure of the next steps), and she wrote back the next morning, saying that she was pleased to hear that I was still interested, and that she didn’t think another interview would be necessary.

She said that she would contact her HR rep, and that I should hear from them soon. That evening, I was at the store buying some things for my brother (who has special needs), and I found out that he had had to go to the ER. Naturally, I was a bit startled, and I was about to pay the cashier when my phone rang.

It was a fair amount of time after the employer’s business hours had ended, but I answered, just in case. Sure enough, it was the HR rep. She needed my driver’s license number and my date of birth for my background check (which presents no issues). I asked her to hold briefly (around 20 seconds), so I could get out of line and give her my full attention/get my information for her.

I was mortified by the situation and apologized, and she said that it was okay and thanked me for my information, and told me to have a good evening. Since I knew that the woman from HR was the rep for my contact, I sent my contact a brief message about the situation (not knowing anything about the HR rep other than her first name), following your book’s guidance (saying that I was mortified, that I had extenuating circumstances that led me to act out of character by having to make the HR rep hold, and that it wouldn’t happen again).

That was late Tuesday evening, and I have heard nothing. I know that background checks take time, but I am afraid that I somehow bungled things due to a rough set of circumstances. I don’t want to seem pushy by following up, but I am not sure what a reasonable timeline for background checks in my field (social work, therapy specifically) take, so I am a bit nervous, especially due to my perceived inconveniencing of the HR rep.


You did nothing wrong — stop freaking out and stop apologizing!

You asked someone to hold for 20 seconds because you were in line at a store and they called you at an unscheduled time. This is not something that you need to apologize for. What you did was perfectly normal, not something you bungled or anything in any way rude.

(And before we go any further, let’s clear my name — my book does not suggest apologizing for something like this! The advice in the book that you’re referring to — to say that you’re mortified and that something was out of character — is for when you make a mistake. This was not a mistake, not even close. To the contrary, my book and I recommend not acting like the employer holds all the power and you have none, because that’s not the case and it’s detrimental to your candidacy.)

While you certainly want to be respectful of people’s time when you’re interviewing, that doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to kowtow to them and act like you’re not doing anything other than sitting by the phone waiting to take their call at whatever moment it might be convenient for them, and you certainly shouldn’t feel you need to do penance for it if you’re not.

Would you apologize like this to a coworker who reached you at an inconvenient time and had to hold for 20 seconds? You would not.  Would you expect an employer to apologize like this to you if the roles were reversed? You would not. So why do you feel you did something wrong here?

You are a businessperson contemplating a relationship with another businessperson. You should not be obsequious or overly deferential; you should be normal, like you would be with a coworker — not too cowed to do reasonable things, like not being available every second of the day or putting someone on hold while you step out of line.

Employers (and other people) respect people who respect themselves. Stop kowtowing, and signal that you’re worthy of their respect. Because you are, right?

Now, as for what to do next, background checks take a while. It’s been a week since your last contact. Wait a few more days and then email either the hiring manager or the HR rep and ask what the timeline is likely to be for moving forward. Do not reference the situation last week, and do not apologize again. You are not seeking an indentured servant position; you’re making a mutually beneficial business arrangement, and your communications should reflect that.

Good luck!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. ChristineH*

    I can understand feeling mortified; I think I too would feel I handled the situation inappropriately if I were in your exact situation. You were on the way to the ER (I’m assuming) to help your brother…that’s a stressful situation in its own right!

    But Alison’s answer is right on the money. In fact, I probably would’ve asked if I could call the HR rep back and ask when the best time would be either later that evening or the next day. I’m slowly learning that it’s okay to not have to be at someone’s beck and call 24/7.

    And yes, background checks can take awhile. I don’t know if it’s especially long specifically in social work (that’s my field too, but I’m not a therapist), but I would imagine it can be a long process, particularly if you’re working with certain populations, such as children or the developmentally disabled.

    Good luck!!

    1. Jacob N.*

      Hi, OP here. I should add that one of the reasons that I went into the mental health field is my own struggles with OCD and ADHD, so I am generally prone to jangled nerves, even when I am not going to see my brother in the ER (he’s okay, by the way…he actually had a panic attack, ironically enough). That doesn’t mean I make excuses or accept that I will freak out or kowtow to an interviewer…but it helps explain me a bit.

      I realize now that you’re right, Christine. I should have called the woman back, and I wasn’t in a good state of mind, at any rate, due to the circumstances. I have also found that my tendency is to be overly deferential, and that is something I need to work on.

      Alison, thanks so much for the great answer and advice! Also, sorry for misrepresenting your book’s advice, and thanks for clarifying your actual guidance. :)

      1. fposte*

        It’s easy to forget the call-you-back option when you’re in the middle of a family emergency anyway.

        Jacob, I don’t know where you are in the mental health field, but there’s usually a certain amount of advocacy involved in most such positions, if only conceptually. So perhaps you can think about being as good an advocate for yourself as you are for your clients. It’s a great strength to be able to recognize and apologize when you do make a mistake, but it’s also important to understand and negotiate the situations where it’s okay not to be able to immediately grant a request–to realize that there are plenty of situations where a “No” is fine and even important.

        And congratulations on making such a strong impression and on what I’m sure will be your new position.

        1. Jacob N.*

          Thanks, that’s good advice. That’s been my biggest problem, learning to say “no,” even when I am under stress/strain.

          Also, thanks for the congratulations. Hearing back from this employer was a total surprise, and, while I will wait until I have an offer in hand before thinking I have the job, I am glad that I made a strong enough impression to be considered again after the initial rejection.

      2. ChristineH*

        I hear you Jason, I have similar issues in large part because I want to make the best impression I can and I sometimes worry that I’ll say something inappropriate or get tongue-tied.

        Glad your brother is okay!

        1. Jacob N.*

          Yeah, it’s been a struggle. Between all my existing self-esteem and confidence issues (largely related to the stuff I mentioned above), the strain of being in my 17th month post-grad school with no job (in my field…my working for my family business and being a caregiver for my brother are both important things) to show for it has wreaked havoc on my well-being.

          I most assuredly need to be as good of an advocate for myself as I am for others. I have been guilty of helping everyone but myself for far too long. I am glad to have Alison’s advice, because it comes with a bluntness and an outside perspective thst is sorely needed.

          Also, thanks…my brother is doing better, and that is a big relief. :)

          1. Jacob N.*

            Just wanted to include an update…I did as Alison said, and, after waiting a few days, I emailed the hiring manager and asked if she had an idea of what the timeline would likely be for going forward (not quite in those words, and, obviously, with no reference to the situation last week, nor any apologies), and she wrote back fairly quickly, saying that she had just recently spoken to HR, and they are still doing the background/reference check process, and, providing it all comes back clear (which it will), I will hear from HR soon. I’ll be sure to provide a final update once I have one. :)

                1. Jacob N.*

                  Okay, everybody…I got the job! I received the offer this afternoon. They actually offered a significant amount more than I had asked for, so, knowing that (and also knowing that this is my first job in my field since getting my MSW), I happily accepted the offer. I will be going in on Monday to work on paperwork/documentation, and my orientation/actual first day is September 4. Thanks everyone (especially Alison) for all your help! :)

  2. K.*

    In fact, I probably would’ve asked if I could call the HR rep back and ask when the best time would be either later that evening or the next day.
    Yep. I’ve done just this: gotten a call from a recruiter or HR person, and when they’ve asked “Is this a good time?” I’ve said “No, actually, can I call you back at [such and such time]?” if I was in the middle of something. I feel fine about it. If you think about it, the HR rep was inconveniencing you, not the other way around – and anyone who thinks having to wait less than a minute is a huge inconvenience is someone you probably don’t want to do business with.

    1. starts & ends with A*

      as an aside – it drives me nuts when a phone interviewer calls at a scheduled time and asks “is this still a good time to talk” …

        1. Ellie H.*

          I actually really hate it when someone says “Is this a good time to talk?” after hearing the tone of my voice when I answer the phone. I’m one of those people who gets constantly asked if something is wrong due to my expression, which I loathe, and I feel like this is the phone equivalent of that. If it’s not a good time to talk, I want to be the one to decide!

          1. Jamie*

            “I’m one of those people who gets constantly asked if something is wrong due to my expression, which I loathe, and I feel like this is the phone equivalent of that.”

            ME TOO! Argghhh!

            A couple of weeks ago someone stopped by my office and (as usual) asked what was wrong – I said nothing (as usual) and he said I looked like I was stressed out.

            I finally told him that he says that to me every time he sees me and it’s starting to hurt my feelings.

            Which it’s not (hurting my feelings, that is) it just sounded a little more gentle than annoying the crap out of me.

            I wish I was one of those sunny and smiley people… I really do. But I can either smile or focus – I can’t do both at the same time. And I think I’m being paid to focus.

            I smile if there is something to smile about – but otherwise my default is kinda serious. I really owe my old poms coach an apology…my I don’t feel like smiling thing didn’t work on her either and she was right – it would have helped me out in life if I’d learned to fake it better.

      1. ?*

        Oh me too! Not just with phone interviewers either. Just any sort of phone meeting. Yes. This is a perfectly acceptable time to talk. That’s why I accepted your meeting invitation and cleared out this hour in my schedule. Thank you for asking.

        1. Dan*

          The first time I was asked this at a phone interview, my first reaction was “This is our scheduled time isn’t, it?” The interviewer did say that many times people forget and she’s found it best to ask.

      2. Kimmie Sue*

        I always start phone interviews (even scheduled ones) with “is this still a good time to chat”. I just think it’s a nice courtesy. I have had candidates say, “actually, I’m terribly sorry but something has come up”.

        1. starts & ends with A*

          OK, then I must sound very surprised to get all my interview phone calls – but only those ones, because when they call for a non-scheduled interview, that question is rarely lead with.
          And to ? – yes, exactly. My current boss called me in the middle of the day prior to my starting work and just started talking to me without any sort of indication that he wanted to talk for 20 minutes. Eek.

    2. COT*

      I called an applicant last week (for a volunteer position at my organization) for a short phone screening. I knew he wouldn’t be expecting my call, so I asked upfront if it was an okay time to chat for a few minutes. He said yes. Every simple question I (gently) asked made him more and more flustered and rather rude. Then, a minute or two later, he brusquely said, “Look, I’m at the doctor’s right now and I can’t think straight to answer your questions.”

      He would have come across so much better had he just told me upfront that he wanted to talk at a different time. No problem at all. Instead, in his attempt to answer questions he was too distracted to answer, he revealed an unflattering side of himself that didn’t help his candidacy. I already had my doubts about him as a volunteer, but having him get rude and flustered over polite questions sealed the deal. We’re a homeless shelter–I need people who can prioritize appropriately and respond calmly in busy situations.

      So I join the camp: it’s okay to say no if it’s really not a good time. I won’t be offended if you make arrangements to call me at a better time, and you’ll look better in the end.

      1. Chocolate Teapot*

        One evening, I (and a carrier bag of groceries) were trying to unlock the door as I could hear the phone ringing. I rushed over to the phone, picked it up and got one of those annoying chirpy recruiters who wanted to know if it was a good time to talk, since I had clearly “Just walked in”.

        Based on some other career advise I read (it was a book called Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions) I politely requested they give me a minute to shut the door, then fished out a CV.

        Fortunately, the call wasn’t a long one, and my phone was cordless, but I suspected it would sound odd to hear fridge and freezer doors opening in the background!

  3. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Agree re: asking to call the HR person back. I know sometimes people are hesitant to do that in phone interview situations, because so often you never hear from the person again … but in a job offer situation, you shouldn’t need to worry about that (and if they do go AWOL, that wasn’t a secure offer to begin with and could have disappeared at any step of the process).

      1. ?*

        I sort of screen my calls, whether I’m in an emergency or not… but especially if I am. Always let it go to voicemail, gather your thoughts, call them back.

        I mean, they wouldn’t want you to answer whilst sitting on the toilet, true? ;)

    1. anonymous*

      Slightly off-topic, but when I was unemployed I had to go to a re-employment seminar as a condition of receiving unemployment. The Employment Counselor suggested that when you are job searching, you ALWAYS pick up the phone when it’s someone you don’t know, because HR people not leave a VM or ever call you back.

      1. Bridgette*

        Ehhh…I don’t think I would always pick up the phone, even though I am currently job searching. However I have never experienced a potential employer (whether the hiring manager or HR) just calling and not leaving a message – I’ve always gotten a message if I wasn’t able to answer. I would think that a company that just calls randomly and never leaves a message would not be a good place to work for, because it seems like they don’t understand that people can’t always get to the phone.

        1. KellyK*

          I think that employment counselor might be approaching job hunting from the perspective that ANY job is better than no job, and that even if the HR person or hiring manager is a flaky jerk, of *course* you still want to work for them if offered something.

          And while there’s some truth to that, I highly doubt it’s going to cost you a job with anyone you actually want to work for. It might make sense if you’re really desperate.

          1. Anon2*

            Well, I was reading up on what constitutes unemployment fraud in my state and one of the qualifiers is turning down legitimate work. If it’s of an acceptable wage, time commitment, commute, working conditions, etc then turning down that job to continue collecting unemployment could be considered unemployment fraud. So … if that’s also the case in that state, the employment counselor may very well have a duty to consider almost any job better than no job.

            1. Bridgette*

              That is true and not something I had considered. It would be good to know the state laws in that situation.

              1. anonymous*

                Yes, the laws in my state are that you can’t keep receiving unemployment $ if you have turned *any* job down (assuming they find out).

                I do think there are jobs where this advice could be practical; people who are going through a temp agency because when I was a temp they called me with one or two days notice for positions.

            2. KellyK*

              Right. That’s kind of what I was getting at, that that’s the unemployment office’s perspective, but not necessarily in the best interest of the person receiving the advice.

              And if you can’t turn down a job, the only way you *can* screen potential employers is by applying more selectively–which is tough if you have a quota–and by maintaining personal boundaries that might result in less desirable employers passing you by.

        2. Todd*

          I apply to too many jobs, to instantly know who the hell susie is that is calling. Susie, who muffles the company name even after you ask her to repeat it twice and still cant hear it!

          1. K.*

            Oh, that drives me crazy – to get a call from someone who says “Hi, this is Bob, you sent us a resume?” with no mention of position or company name. I send out a lot of resumes, Bob. Please be more specific.

            1. Bridgette*

              In my experience those types of people are usually trying to recruit for call centers. I have gotten corresponding emails that say, “You sent us a resume and we have an exciting opportunity for you!” Uh no.

              1. Todd*

                I was talking about any job that assumes you only applied to 1 place, but i also have issues with calls saying Susie from XYZ company, and she gets annoyed when you ask which position she is calling about. I often apply to several jobs at a company that I want to work at especially if they have similar job postings and i cant assume dept A will pass off my resume to dept B from a database that may reject me for job #1 but might put me on the interview list for job #2. Is it so wrong to apply to multiple jobs and not wait for the auto reply to reject before applying to the other dept?

                1. Anonymous*

                  Sometimes I find it helpful to let those calls go to voicemail and go online in case there was obvious clues like “Susan Jones” being listed as the hiring manager or “Susie Jones, Department of Teapot Manufacturing, XYZ Corp” listed as a conference presenter.

            2. Natalie*

              It’s a sample size of one, but still – a few months ago I got a call from Jane “about the resume you faxed”. Being that it’s 2012 I hadn’t faxed any resume, and of course Jane had to be prompted to give me the name of the company. Against my better judgment I went on the interview, and it was ridiculous. The interviewer was very late, completely discombobulated, and near the end of the interview I wasn’t even certain their was a position available. And of course, I never heard back.

      2. mh_76*

        I figure that, if a voicemail isn’t left, the call isn’t important anyway and the only time that I ever check and return “missed calls” is if I got to the phone just after it stopped ringing…maybe I’m just old but if someone can’t be bothered to leave a voicemail, I can’t be bothered to return the call and say “um hi somebody called me from this number?” Also, I’ve worked at a front desk before and it’s very very annoying to answer the phone and hear that phrase – regardless of how many people work in the department / company (in that case, the firm had more than 100 employees). If you want a call back, please leave a voicemail and if you’re returning a call, please check your voicemail first.

        To the OP above, Family is family and comes first, especially in an emergency situation. It’s always OK to ask to call someone back and up to you whether you mention there being a family emergency (I did read your comments, just adding more reassurance).

        1. mh_76*

          Also, that “Employment Counselor” is full of um beans because it’s been said all over AAM and other job/job-search advice sites that I read that we job seekers need to remember that we do not live to please the almighty Employers/HMs/HR departments/etc. and that we are (well, should be) screening them at least as closely as they screen candidates. The search is a two-way process…well, it should be, anyway.

        2. Laura L*

          I’m the same way. And I’m not old. I don’t call back if no one leaves a voicemail, unless it’s a good friend.

          I’ve noticed, though, that a lot of my friends don’t listen to my message before returning a call and don’t often leave messages for me. Which is where texting comes in, but I digress.

          1. mh_76*

            I am not a fan of texting although it is occasionally useful if (for example) you’re delayed en route to meeting a friend or need to send one person’s phone # to another

  4. tp*

    Great advice and also reassuring to hear. I had a phone interview recently which was scheduled for 11:30am, but on the day of, the interviewer called me 1/2 hour early. As I didn’t recognize the number, I answered it thinking it had to do with some other personal matter. Lo and behold, it was her and when she asked me if it was a good time, I should have just said no as it was not our scheduled time. I was pretty much thrown off my game and fluffed the interview. I had a grand plan to use my friend’s office, get situated before the call and lay out my talking points, but it was all thrown out the window just because I didn’t have the guts to ask her to call me back. Huge mistake, but lesson learned.

  5. Anonymous*

    Off topic: I was browsing the comments, and suddenly a “Scorecard Research” survey popped up in a floating “frame” of sorts. Is this a new ad platform that’s being rolled out on the blog? I’m not a big fan of how in-your-face it is.

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks! I appreciate that the ads on this blog are so unobtrusive. It really lends to the sense of community.

  6. Wayne Schofield*

    WOW….this is perceived as bad?!
    “Starts & ends with A August 21, 2012 at 1:03 pm
    as an aside – it drives me nuts when a phone interviewer calls at a scheduled time and asks “is this still a good time to talk” ”

    I do this all the time just to make sure that the time we had confirmed is still a good time for them. I have always thought this was just an extra bit of courtesy, but to hear that it actually “drives …nuts” YIKES!

    I’m flabbergasted!

    1. starts & ends with A*

      I guess I assume because I’m organized and obviously ready and prepared that yes, it’s a good time to talk because that’s how we scheduled it, and if something had come up I would have let you know. Which should reflect better on me than someone else who you call who is driving through a carwash or something because they forgot.

  7. Lisa M.*

    I’ve experience something very similar and the results were not in my favor (no return call). I have learned NEVER to answer my phone unless I can give the called 1000% undivided attention, no exceptions. That’s why they created voicemail. It will serve you well to follow this rule – I promise you…

    Even if you are waiting for the offer or a call back to schedule another interview – if you sound frazzled, it won’t do you any good and could ruin your chance to move forward. Let it go to voicemail … and when you are in a quiet place with a pen/paper – then return the call.

  8. JCC*

    I’m surprised that you’re surprised — it’s all about bargaining power, and the OP realizing how little he has. I’m guessing that his family expenses are high, that time is running out, and that kowtowing is tempting when seen as a short-term humiliation that leads to reward. Of course, whether it works for or against a person really seems to depend on the HR associate’s personality.

    I think it makes people uncomfortable when they see someone acting like a dog begging for scraps from the table because it reminds them of how little it would take to find themselves in the same situtation.

    Unless a person owns their own home (non-mortgaged) in an area with low or non-existent property taxes, has little to no debt, an “off-the-grid” system for producing water and electricity, and a love of gardening, sewing, electrical repair, and other handiwork, the minute their unemployment insurance runs out, the time bomb that leads to eviction or foreclosure is started — the clock set in direct proportion to their savings and monthly expenses.

    Even then, as time goes by, necessary monthly services will be progressively cut, often making a person far less competitive. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a “permanent phone”; if you want to keep a number for callbacks, every month someone expects to be paid. This is also typically true for internet access, although there may be ways to work around this barrier if you are willing to sacrifice the ability to respond to emails immediately. Unless you live in a state where the requirement can be waived, owning a car will require a car insurance payment that must be repeated at a regular interval, and the funds for gas must be found. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where rain and humidity is uncommon, laundry can be done the old-fashioned way, using a tub and a clothesline; otherwise, you will need to own a washer and dryer, or come up with the funds to gain access to a laundromat.

    Apologizing to an HR person under these circumstances certainly makes sense to me, although I agree a person can only swallow their pride so many times before they begin to choke on it.

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