can you walk out of an interview before it starts?

A reader writes:

I have a unique situation that I ran into and would like your perspective on it. I went to an interview, and as soon as I opened the door, I knew it was not the place for me. I already had some reservations going in, but was trying to keep an open mind. But opening that door to the office shut it right away for me.

The first indication was the size of the office. I thrive in a medium to large environment and this was the exact opposite. I tried to research this beforehand but was unable to find exact information. The second indication was that I want a place with other colleagues to interact with, who aren’t afraid to talk to each other, that has a life to it, and this was definitely not the place for that. It felt more like the living room in a house that was just for show and not a place to be in.

The other thing is that, perhaps odd to say, I think you can tell a lot when you walk into a place by the energy/feeling around it. Are employees happy, is there a sense of life, etc.? When I opened the door, all I felt was despair and stress. It was just sad. Which confirmed my initial feelings from a phone conversation.

While waiting to be interviewed, I was debating even if I should go forward. What are your thoughts? Should I have just told the interviewer right away that I knew it was not the place for me? Or would that have been rude and it is proper to go forward with the interview?

I’d say to do the interview anyway. Announcing that just from looking at their offices you know it’s not the place for you is a pretty dramatic statement. I’m not saying it’s not a valid one — but it’s the kind of thing that’s going to be fairly shocking to be on the receiving end of, and that those people will remember forever. And you might not care if they do, but they also might be connected to some other job that you’re applying for some day, a job that you do want, and you don’t want them to say, “Oh, her! We were supposed to interview her, but she arrived at our office and immediately said it wasn’t the right fit, without even talking to us.”

Now, if this were an all-day interview or involved some other major investment of time and energy, then I’d say it would be more okay to back out … but even then, I’d still talk with them for a while before backing out, so that you could more credibly tell them — based on that conversation — you don’t think it’s the right fit, and then excuse yourself.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. The Editor*

    I had that same experience once. I stayed and used the interview as a great chance to practice my interview skills. I also used it as an opportunity to try out some suggestions I had heard from others but had been too nervous to try. Basically, if it is a throw away interview, make it a good practice round at the very least.

    1. BCranston*

      Agreed. I had a horrific one once at a place where, same as the OP, I knew immediately upon entering this was not where I wanted to be and it would have been a dead end job. However, since I had made the time commitment to get dressed up and travel there, I went through with it just to work out the interview kinks. I think, too, it is a good way to practice being professional in the face of less than perfect circumstances.

      I must have pulled it off pretty well because they offered me the job, despite having a terrible problem with my contact lens that made my eyes red and watery, causing my nose to run, and I had to excuse myself once or twice to go to the bathroom between rounds to blow my nose and try and get it sorted out! Funnily enough my eyes stopped watering as soon as I left that place – I figure it was either a really dusty environment or a big sign to NOT work there (on top of all the other BIG signs)!

      1. Jamie*

        Back in the day I’ve been offered every single job I knew during the interview I’d never take.

        Apparently I interview much better when the pressure is off. Either that or they can somehow tell and it’s like dating…for some people lack of interest is a challenge.

        1. perrik*

          Or it’s like cats – if you’re trying to get their attention, they’ll ignore you. If you are oblivious to their presence, you’ll soon have a lapful of cat.

          Anyway, in a situation like this, it’s best to be professional and do a proper interview. You might find that the atmosphere is better than you thought at first. Or not, in which case you may be able to add some items to your job search red-flag list.

          1. KellyK*

            Especially if you’re allergic.

            (Every week, my husband and I have four people over for gaming. Three of them are cat people. One has severe allergies Guess who the cats gravitate toward.)

        2. Christine*

          That’s happened to me twice, and both times I was miserable in the job. One lasted only 2.5 weeks!

      2. Laura uk*

        I definitely agree with staying and practising your interview skills in this situation. I’m also with AAM that the situation is a bit different if the interview is particularly unusual or onerous and you feel that way. I once withdrew from a process politely and without drama with just an email “thank you for the opportunity but on this occasion I regret that I must withdraw my candidacy” type of email when I was notified that the interview was going to begin with a dinner with the Board and all the other candidates and a full day of interviews with various people the following day. I have done those interviews for jobs I’ve been really interested in but this was a punt application for a job I was fairly ambivalent about and I knew as soon as I saw the process I wasn’t committed enough to give of my best and i didnt want them to waste their time either. I appreciate that might sound bad but I was employed at the time and was unhappy in my job but was applying to quite a lot of posts at the time and playing a bit of a numbers game. It wasn’t so much that I found out about any particular culture, I just realised I really didn’t want to go through that process for that job.

  2. Julia*

    That’s a great idea, if it’s a throw away interview, use it to practice your interview skills.

  3. Katie the Fed*

    I’m an INFP on MBTI, strong on the N and F, and I get strong gut feelings and visceral reactions sometimes about people and places. Usually those feelings aren’t wrong as I find out later. But I would still stay for the interview, use it to practice, and be polite.

    1. cncx*

      I’m an ENFP and I am the same way. My first impressions are rarely wrong and the one job I had where I didn’t listen to my gut was so much fail. But still, again, it’s great to use it as free interview practice.

      1. khilde*

        Fellow NFP’er and I totally get this. I have a friend that is a very similar personality as me and she and I have had conversations about the feel or energy of the room. One thing she always says that I find intriguing: “The energy in town on a Friday night is much different than the energy in town on a Sunday night.”

  4. Chocolate Teapot*

    I have sometimes had a gut reaction when arriving for an interview that this isn’t a place where I would be happy working, but honing interview practice is always something worth doing.

  5. fposte*

    By “office size,” you mean number of people, I’m presuming? I’m not that familiar with phone screenings–I wonder if office size (meaning the number of people in the organization, not the square footage) is something you can ask about at that point.

  6. not really a job hopper*

    I wish I had these kind of instincts. I’ve never felt “uneasy” about a job but then again….the feeling of desperation to have ANY job overwhelmed any inkling of “is this right for me?” that would have been there.

    1. Limon*

      Oh yes, desperation can make you overlook many squinky feelings of dread in an interview. And many people have to pay the mortgage, feed their kids, etc and take the job just because. It is really a luxury to be able to step back and try and make the best choice you can. We don’t always get that opportunity, for sure, and it pays to be compassionate to those who find themselves stuck in such a miserable position or company.

      1. Anonymous*

        THIS ^^^.

        Interviewing when you have a job is a very different animal than when you don’t. As Alison has said on more than one occasion (paraphrasing here), it’s better to look for a job while you have one than when you’re unemployed. When you’re unemployed, even if the prospective employer isn’t wondering WHY you’re unemployed (ie, “what’s wrong with this person?”), it’s hard not to have an internal monologue running in the background: “OMG, I have bills…I need a job…the kids need braces….my spouse isn’t working either…do they like me enough to offer me the position?”

        Lost in all of that is the other side of the equation: would you be happy in that place, doing that job, working with these people? When I was IWJ (Interviewing While Jobless) last year, I had to consciously remind myself to think about all those things. At a final interview with the VP who was head of the division I was applying to, she asked me could I see myself working there. I couldn’t say yes immediately, and I suspect that torpedoed any chance I had of getting an offer. And in retrospect, that’s okay, because it probably wouldn’t have been a great fit. But it’s really hard to hold out for fit when you need a job.

  7. anon-2*

    Been there … done that. Way back in the 70s.

    One of the more obnoxious interviews I ever had – a very abrasive manager, was so offensive during the interview that his associate was embarrassed.

    Fast forward 10 years. I go to company B to show up for an interview. I don’t know who I’m going to meet with. Then over the PA system I hear “, please call the receptionist..”

    Exit, stage right. I was outa there so fast, back in my car and on the highway…..

    1. Elizabeth West*

      A lazy, bullying manager (not mine) I hated at Exjob got fired not too long after I was laid off. I was terrified for the rest of my unemployment that I would find a job someplace where he had been hired. Even worse, that I would be his direct report.

      If he got hired at my current workplace, it would be easy to avoid him. The place is huge.

  8. K*

    My now ex-husband once walked out of an interview before it started. He arrived on time (suitably a few minutes early) for the interview and was met by the hiring manager who escorted him to her office. She then stood in her office doorway and took up a conversation with a co-worker about her week-end. I can’t remember now, from his story, exactly how long her conversation went on for, but it was excessive. He could hear everything she was talking about and none of it was work related. As she finally wrapped up the conversation with the co-worker and turned her attention to him, he got up and put his coat on. He let her know that if that was how he was going to be treated in the interview, it was an indication of how he would be treated as an employee. And to her dismay, he left.
    Some people may have found this extreme, but I always felt that his actions were justified, even if he really needed a job at the time.

    1. Yup*

      I had a similar experience where I thought, wow, not so much with the sense of urgency and respect for my time. I showed up 5 min before my scheduled interview time, and sat in reception for 25 minutes. The interviewer came out to get me, and while walking me back to the interviewing area, she stopped to chat with multiple colleagues along the way. I’m not talking about “Hey Joe, have a good weekend, I’ll email you the numbers you wanted.” I mean like full-on “Did you see Lost last night? Wasn’t it amazing?” with an occasional “Oh, this is Yup, she’s here for the interview” as I stood there awkwardly in my suit and high heels. By the time we got to the interview room, it was a good 40 minutes past the interview start time. That, plus the interviewer’s blow-off response to my few questions, convinced me that I could never work for this person. I sent an email withdrawing my candidacy the next day.

  9. Vicki*

    OP – You would have liked the place I interviewed with a few weeks ago. (I knew right away it wouldn’t work out but, like many here, I stayed and talked to them.)

    Big open room. 5 long rows of desks. No partitions. People elbow to elbow.

    During the interviews, at least 3 people told me that it was a very collaborative environment. People get up and walk over and talk to each other all the time. In fact, the desks were all designed with an “L” shaped filing cabinet / seat section, with a cushion! for your co-worker to sit on while talking to you.

    It was definitely medium-to-large and oh boy did they have a culture of “other colleagues to interact with, who aren’t afraid to talk to each other”. In fact, everyone told me how sad they were that the company had gotten large enough for the Marketing team to move to the next floor up. They felt separated by a single floor elevator ride.

    It would have driven me mad.
    But hey, I was there so I stayed and talked to them (and got a lot more reasons why I didn’t want to work there, all of them specific from the interviews and none just “gut reaction.”)

    1. Collaborative Environment*

      We moved to one of those “collaborative environments” last year. I remain convinced that the real motivation was to squeeze more workers into less space, however the muckety-mucks keep proclaiming it as a triumph of ‘Agile’ (we’re in IT) cutting-edge development process. There are times when it’s convenient, but much more of the time it is counter-productive.

  10. -X-*

    Gut feelings may be right, but pulling out due to them is analogous to the hiring manager or HR person who eliminates people based on single thing that seems off rather than looking at the whole picture.

    “He didn’t to speak enthusiastically so he’s probably not really interested” No, maybe he’s just soft-spoken.

    “She has a masters degree from a famous university, so she’s probably snooty and won’t fit in.” No, she just has a masters degree from that school. That’s all.

    If you have many options for jobs/employees maybe that kind of vetting is not so bad (for you). But it’s a little cavalier.

    1. Lanya*

      I think it’s actually incredibly smart to listen to your gut instincts during job interviews – both as an interviewer and an interviewee – because many times those instincts are dead-on. I would have saved myself a negative experience or two if I had taken my own advice, so I plan on listening to the voice in the back of my head when interviewing from now on.

      1. Lanya*

        But to be fair, I am a ‘feelings’ person. INFJ. So, my trust-your-intuition approach might not make any sense to the more-logical ‘thinking’ types.

  11. OP*

    Thank you for the response as that is exactly what I was thinking and did.

    The end result, everything I thought turned out to be correct. I arrived 5 minutes early and was taken 20 minutes after that. Was then ridiculed for volunteering (who the hell does that?!?!). And it only got better after that. Left knowing, even though I need a job, a gut instinct is something to never ignore.

  12. kasey*

    Eons ago I walked into a trash strewn, super disorganized office. Tables filled with plastic bottles, numerous trash filled bags. Just seriously eeew. I came, I judged, I left!

    1. Jazzy Red*

      I had a temp assignment like that once. When my agency rep called me to see if I got there OK, I told her the place was so filthy, I didn’t even want to put my shoes on the floor to walk out. I certainly wouldn’t touch one of the keyboards, and as for the chairs – ICK! I couldn’t wait to get home and shower.

  13. crookedfinger*

    I’ve totally walked out of an office before the interview. Felt no shame for it, either.

    I was young and naive and had no idea what a methadone clinic was. They were hiring a receptionist for $11/hour and that was a lot to me at the time, so I went in. They handed me an application to fill out before the interview, but I couldn’t go sit in the waiting area because there was a strung-out woman yelling at the other receptionist, as well as a bunch of other people milling about in the waiting room. I gawked at that exchange for a bit before I told the other receptionist that there was no way I could work at this place, gave her back the clipboard, and got my ass out of there.

    1. Joanne*

      Substance abuse treatment is definitely a labor of love, and a less-than-professional environment

  14. Posh99*

    So surprised to see these comments. I thought this letter writer was absurd, but it seems I may need to reexamine that . Always good to get some perspective.

  15. -X-*

    The methadone clinic story is a good example of when to run away quickly. But in the other cases, I think the gut feelings/bad signs should be noted and strongly considered, but it’s worth spending the hour to do the interview, just to confirm what appearances say, or, perhaps, be pleasantly surprise.

    Gut feelings are important signals.

  16. Limon*

    Gut feelings are telling us something quickly, sort of like a ‘hey!’ shouted at us across the street.

    If we stop and listen, then we can appreciate what the ‘hey!’ was all about. I haven’t read one post on here where someone said: I felt something was wrong and then when I started the job everything was really fantastic!

    I have had some incredibly great jobs, and I knew the moment I got the call or when I walked into the company that is was going to be terrific. The way people interact with you, how they look at you and smile or not smile, the comments they make and how they interact with each other. It all contributes to the first shout from out from the unconscious.

    Agree with the interview for practice, that is the best way to handle these things for sure.

    1. -X-*

      I haven’t had a lot of job experience, but have had gut feelings be wrong in other domains.

      Don’t assume your gut feelings are right. Treat them as important, but confirm them if you can. If the cost of confirming them is low (an hour you’ve already scheduled), confirm them for sure. There is nearly no downside to doing so, and a small chance of a big upside if the gut feeling was wrong.

    2. Barbar limone*

      Once you have interviewed for many jobs at different life stages, I promise you – you will eventually do things you never thought. I was in the waiting room a few minutes before my interview, and asked of course to fill out their application, even though I had sent them a resume earlier. It was a combo of things..I was sick and tired of job hunting, I hate filling out gd applications when I already sent them a professional resume, and now have to put down my salaries for each job, why I left …etc. BS. I am a highly education professional, and immediatly I feel disrespected. Then I waited a while, and then I realized the job descriptions in their packet were not the jobs I applied for, no relations to my experience, education etc. What? Sorry, but I just left. No explanation, nothing. I had it in general and I just didn’t have the patience. Plus the office looked virtually empty and nothing was going on. Later. Bye.

  17. Elizabeth*

    I had one interview that I actually called and canceled after driving by the business. My husband was with me (one vehicle, and it was in a city 2 hours away from where we were living at the time), and he had very serious reservations about leaving the car unattended or me walking across the street by myself, because of the location. We had made sure to leave plenty of time, so we raced out of the neighborhood to a commercial area we were familiar with and I made the call.

    Given that the owners of the business were shot and one died within 3 months of my scheduled interview, along with much of the business inventory being stolen, I’ve decided I may have literally dodged a bullet there.

  18. Aswin Kini MK*

    I’d say that OP was partially right in his/her decision. I am not sure about others, but my previous experiences with companies have always validated the fact that if you go for an interview to an unknown company and enter the office only to feel negative vibes all around, it is mostly a BAD place to work in. In such instances, it is better to trust your gut feeling and get out at the first chance you have. I did this once a few years back. I went to a small Advertising Organization to interview for the job of a Content Writer. The first thing I noticed was how haphazard the things were. The workplace was located above a Car Showroom, filled with Puny Cabins, and a crappy CEO, who claimed that he was happy to recruit employes based more on their salary than their expertise and experience. To add insult to injury, I did the mistake of asking about the timings and whether the office had any transport facilities for its employees, who worked in late-night shifts. HE completely shut me down by saying that he had employees who worked late on Saturdays and Sundays for years, but never asked him such a question. HE also berated me by saying that employees commuting to office is completely their business and the company’s only responsibility is to provide them a job. I had the “Good Fortune” to listen to all this BS even despite the fact that I had gone to this interview only to explore my options and already had the offer letter from a good MNC. Anyways, I thanked the interviewer for his time, took my file, and rushed back home thanking god for making me opt out of this interview. Sometimes, it is better to trust your gut.

  19. Daisy*

    I have a similar situation which I’m a little worried about. I had a telephone interview for a job which was initially advertised as marketing/analysis but the telephone interview revealed it to be very fast-paced sales/presentations. I am an analytical person, skills include problem solving and writing – weaknesses are most definitely presentation to multiple people and sales. As I am 100% certain I wouldn’t want to be involved with this company, I have rejected the second interview I have been invited to (in person) but the interviewer is very persistent and has asked me to attend anyway. This means a lot of travelling expense for me for a job I already know I would not want even if I am offered it, but I don’t know how to respond. I have already explained that I don’t feel the role is for me, but I have just been told that it is. It is interesting to see how many say to attend the interview anyway to the above, although I fully appreciate that this isn’t exactly the same situation as that of the OP…

    1. Natalie*

      Stop explaining – it just gives this pushy person specific items to argue with you about. I would firmly decline her once more and then stop taking her calls or responding to her emails.

    2. Sascha*

      I agree with Natalie, just keep repeating that you don’t think this position is the right fit for you, and don’t provide anything for them to latch onto. Eventually they will get tired of hearing that.

    3. Sunday's Child*

      Your situation sounds completely different from the OP’s in that you’ve already interviewed and determined that the job is not something you want. Say, “Thank you, I’m not interested.” And especially say no to an interview for a job you don’t want if they are expecting you to pay for travel expenses!
      Just because the recruiter says you are right for this job, doesn’t make it so. You get to decide.

  20. Sascha*

    Normally I would say don’t do it, but depending on the situation, it may be the best thing to do. I wish I had walked out of an interview several years ago – I was 19, needed a job, and got an interview at a place that was a longshot. The hiring manager ended up making me cry, she was so mean. At least I was able to hold it together until I got to the parking lot.

    But 90% of the time, I’d say stick it out – you made an appointment, you should keep it.

  21. badmovielover*

    This discussion reminds me of the book called Blink. Then again, you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

  22. Daisy*

    Natalie, Sascha & Sunday’s Child – thank you very much for your advice, it has really helped. I’ve done exactly that and will see what happens, but will definitely stick to my guns now…

  23. Miss Displaced*

    First let me say that I work for a bad bully-boss.

    I don’t interview people, but these stories remind me of the time our company was interviewing for an office administrator position. One applicant came in, and upon being told that she would have to occasionally run personal errands for the owner, walked out mid-interview.

    We though it rather funny/shocking at the time; but I suppose she had the foresight to see the nature of the place.

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