ending an interview early when your interviewer is a jerk

This was originally published on July 13, 2011.

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, if you’d like.)

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).

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. GrumpyBoss

    OP, I’ve had very similar interview experiences before. I’m the sort of person who sticks it out and puts on a million dollar smile and forces politeness, only to go home and think about what I really WANTED to say instead. Then proceed to beat myself up for years on it.

    I’m at a point now where I am OK with the excruciating interview. Because I’ve suffered through the excruciating job and career choice because I didn’t see, or chose to ignore, behaviors like you explained above. So I have to fly in, waste a day off of work, be in an uncomfortable dinner appointment, whatever. I want to thank them. Because I know up front that this is not for me. There will be no replaying this in my head, wondering what I should have done differently.

    A rude interviewer is my best friend. They’ve given me the best insight I can get at that stage of the process so my choice is clear cut.

    1. Former Usher

      Agreed. I wish they had been rude at my last interview so I would have known not to have taken the job. Argh.

  2. DC

    I’ve never had a rude interview. I did have an interview for my first real professional job out of grad school where I’d describe the interviewers as less than warm (not rude, just sort of abrupt and matter-of-fact, a little whiny at one point). In hindsight, that was a sign. It was a terrible place to work! I lasted 8 months before finding another job. I heard someone else quite before lunch the first day. So, bad interviews give you great information, but I agree — don’t burn bridges.

  3. My 2 Cents

    If you fly in for the interview and the company is going to reimburse you for your expenses after the fact, I’d suggest toughing it out because if they truly are asshats then I can see them trying to refuse to reimburse you for your expenses since you didn’t stay for the whole thing.

  4. Adam

    As much as you want to have your big dramatic movie moment where you give the jerk a verbal lashing and make him eat dust as you stride confidently away, unfortunately doing as Alison says and just sticking it out until you can politely escape will be the best for you in the long run. In this day and age it seems everyone is six-degrees-of-separation from anyone else, so you are pretty much always networking.

    So bite the bullet, get out with your reputation in tact, and then regale your nearest and dearest over your drink of choice about the time you narrowly escaped your encounter with Mephistopheles’ great grand niece.

  5. Various Assumed Names

    Both of your interviewers’ behavior sounds rude and so odd. And having two experiences like this? My first thought was “I wonder if OP is a super hot woman” because that would be my best guess as to who would be the biggest target of such condescending behavior.

    Then again, maybe there are just a lot more a$$holes out there than I realize.

  6. zecrefru

    In response to something as unforgivable as smirking, I’d be tempted to say something like “Was that not the response you were expecting?” or “Did I misunderstand your question?”.

  7. Sabrina

    I had a rude phone interview once. The manager wanted to know everything I knew about the company, which was privately owned and had a dismal website. There was nothing out there about this company, but what I was able to uncover was not enough. He told me to research more and call his assistant back to reschedule the phone interview. Yeah, that didn’t happen, I knew I didn’t want to work with that guy.

  8. YoYo

    I have had more rude interviewers than I care to list, a lot of bad experiences.

    And you know what?

    I thank them! No matter what they throw at me, I stay on point and professional. If you can remain nonplussed, as an interviewee, you hold the power – whether they hire you or not.

    In my opinion, some people are just down right rude. But some do these things to put you on the defensive or make you feel ‘less than’ and insecure. People have their own issues, jealousies and idiosyncrasies.

    I’d never let anyone throw me off my game. And it’s important to believe in karma! As my mother always says, you don’t have to be there to see it, but they will definitely ‘get theirs.’

    1. Pennalynn Lott

      “Nonplussed” <— '…that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.' :-)

      1. CanadianWriter

        No, YoYo is using it properly. It used to mean confused, now it means unfazed.

        1. Steve

          Not to sidetrack the overall discussion, and not to attempt to appear as though I’m correcting anyone’s grammar; I was under the impression that even though it is being used (primarily in North America) that way, it is an incorrect usage and has not been accepted as standard English.

            1. nep

              This. Please let’s not let words like ‘irregardless’ become acceptable just because a lot of people are confused and don’t care about proper grammar. But yes, I digress too.

      2. YoYo

        “Not to appear as if you are correcting someone’s grammar?” But you just went on a diatribe.

        ….How about stoic? Better?

        1. Various Assumed Names

          I honestly didn’t know what nonplussed meant and now google is telling me two definitions, which are the opposite of each other. Crazy world.

      3. Vicki

        Bizarre:

        non·plussed
        adjective
        1.(of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.
        “he would be completely nonplussed and embarrassed at the idea”
        2.
        NORTH AMERICAN informal
        (of a person) not disconcerted; unperturbed.

  9. Thomas W

    I wrote in not too long ago asking whether to give feedback on an awful interview/company. I took AAM’s advice to not bother, because as she rightly pointed out, things may one day be different at that company, and I don’t want them to remember me badly. In retrospect, I now realize that if they were so self-impressed (it was several hours of them telling me how lucky I’d be to work at their company, whereas, I viewed it as a slight downgrade from my previous contract company), they would certainly not draw the right conclusion from my early departure, regardless of what I told them.

  10. CAS

    I had a non-interview once, and I ended it early. The manager who interviewed me was in no way friendly, courteous, or respectful. She took me to a cubicle where she asked me a couple of questions with zero interest, writing nothing down and avoiding eye contact. Despite that, I responded to her questions earnestly and enthusiastically, providing examples that related to her questions. She stopped the interview.

    Her: “You don’t have to try so hard.”
    Me: (puzzled) “I’m sorry?”
    Her: “We have an internal candidate. He’s probably going to get the job.”
    Me: “Oh.” (Not knowing what to say or do at this point.)

    The interviewer resumed asking me questions, and I responded enthusiastically and earnestly. She again stopped the interview.

    Her: “I said you don’t have to try so hard. We have an internal candidate.”
    Me: “So, what you’re saying is that you’ve already made the hiring decision?”
    Her: “Yes.”

    I thanked her and left. Apparently, it was a “courtesy interview.” All I had to do was show up so she could check the box.

      1. CAS

        That’s what I was saying to her in my head, that’s for sure. I prepped for the interview by studying projects this group was doing. I had questions ready to ask. I was dressed up. I drove over there. Granted, it was another experience with interviewing under my belt, but wow … rude.

        1. anon-2

          I once – when out of work – was invited to an interview, where bozo manager was trying to put a team of six people together for a three month contract. I had the specific skill he needed.

          He began to give me a lecture “why aren’t you applying at places like A, B, and C?” and I informed him , A, B, and C are all laying people off. He went on, babbled about his Navy career and said “I just wanted to find out what you were about.”

          After which, I met with his boss. I was angry. I said I could do that job – but – that was never addressed. Obviously I was called in for the amusement of the interviewer. I told his boss – “If you’re putting together a contract team, and haven’t hired anyone – forget it. Tell your client you’re not going to make it.”

          They did call back and wanted to talk further — just too weird for me. Just too weird.

        2. HR “Gumption”

          Cas- Not only was that an insult to you but also very poor management on the companies part beyond using your time for simply checking a box.

          As many of us know there is never a “sure thing” until that person is in the position (internal or not). There is always a possibility of a hiring decision not working out and that company just limited any possible correctional options.

          1. CAS

            Exactly. The first time she told me they would probably hire an internal candidate, I heard “probably” and thought there was a glimmer of hope. I later wondered if she didn’t want me to succeed with the interview. If I were the stronger candidate, would she be allowed to hire the internal guy? I don’t know.

            1. Rose

              It seemed like maybe she would be forced to choose you if you were better, and didn’t want to. Why else would she tell you not to interview so well? I hope her internal guy took another job and she felt like an idiot.

          2. some1

            Good call. The internal candidate could be externally job searching & get an offer she can’t pass up, or get hit by a bus, not work out in the new role, or get a raise by the current boss to stay in the present role.

    1. Clinical Social Worker

      Unfortunately a lot of companies *require* that they interview everyone. State governments are like this. They have stupid rules about transfers so internal candidates have to “apply” just like everyone else, and the boss wants to hire the internal candidate, but state policy requires a certain minimum number of people be interviewed. It’s asinine.

      But the way she handled it was rude. She probably thought she was saving you time by telling you about the internal candidate.

      1. CAS

        Yep. This interview was with a state university, so it’s an institutionalized hiring policy. As I understand it, if the job is posted, they are required to interview anyone who qualifies, internal or not. I thought it was so strange that she was asking the interview questions if she had no interest in hearing my answers.

        1. Rose

          I work for a state u too! Ughhh worst policy ever!! They’re supposed to post when they have a SIC but of course no one bothers, because then few people apply.

      2. Rose

        This is how my company is. It drives me insane. It’s a huge company, and I’ve spent HOURS crafting a perfect cover letter, then going to two interviews only to hear they’ve had someone picked the whole time, but needed to interview at least three people.

        Wasting that much of my time is so. flipping. rude.

  11. anon-2

    I may have talked about this — I once had an interviewer who “punked” me — by continually asking tech questions, I answered 19 but tripped up on the 20th…. we were at lunch. I wanted to run out. Couldn’t stand the ##%^^!

    Some years later I was about to interview at a place – and heard the manager’s name called over the PA system. I told the receptionist, “Sorry I am definitely in the wrong place” and got the hell outa there.

  12. Sharon

    I think it kind of crosses a line when the interviewer actually bullies you, though. That’s what both of the OP’s interviews sounded like to me. What are the odds the interviewer is being a bully to test you and will later think about your grace under pressure…. as opposed to a simple bully who just forgets you as soon as the door hits your rear? I mean anybody who makes an interviewee come (close to) tears…. there’s just no excuse for that.

  13. Anon

    I had this situation a few weeks ago.

    I had an interviewed scheduled, the next day someone called and rescheduled the time. The day of the interview, the hiring manager ended up calling me at the first time, which was 7:30am. Needless to say, I was incredibly confused, and when I showed up to the rescheduled time via Skype, the second hiring manager made no effort to conceal how I was going to be “punished” for my error. She continuously made snide comments, like I was never going to accomplish my professional goals, would ask questions only to respond to my answers with, “I don’t actually care.”

    Why didn’t I just end it? Why did I go through the mechanics? As someone mentioned above, these people showed me how terrible they would be to work for. It certainly is gross to see a grown woman act like that, but at the same time, I’m so glad I found all of this out before moving or signing a lease. There is definitely a difference between going through a job that isn’t a great fit vs. someone who is being mean for the sake of being mean.

    1. Simonthegrey

      In that instance, I’d really want to record that somehow (maybe on my phone?) and tell someone else at the company about that…. My petty revenge fantasy.

    2. Crow T. Robot

      Wow. The “I don’t actually care” response. Just wow. Not only is that highly unprofessional, it’s almost laughably immature. That’s some 14 year old mean girl stuff right there.

    3. BeBe

      You know you can record Skype interviews, right?
      Think of that next time, just hit record…

    4. Limon

      “I don’t actually care,” is now my new ‘wish I could say that’ phrase.

      Employee! please come in here and help me with this XYZ project.

      No, I don’t actually care.

  14. bullyfree

    I think I’d need to reserve the right to politely end an interview if the behavior of the interviewer triggers my posttraumatic stress. My health is more important and forcing myself to endure a problematic person or interview would not be worth it to me.

  15. some1

    If nothing else, it’s interview practice or practice dealing with a difficult personality in a professional context.

  16. Boats

    I had a rude interview a few years ago. I had been working successfully in my industry for about 10 years at the time. I had data to demonstrate my ability to contribute to this team, and I felt confident and excited about the interview.

    When I entered the conference room, I was surprised to see a semi-circle of about 7 chairs facing a panel of 3 interviewers. All of the candidates were given name tags and the interviewers proceeded to ask questions of the group (with none directed toward any particular individual). One other candidate (let’s call him Bill) had experience and achievements similar to mine; I felt that if I didn’t get the offer, he would. I wasn’t at all concerned about the others.

    After about 30 minutes of group questions, all the candidates were given a slip of paper. We were told to assume we considered ourselves to be the best fit for the position, but we should now write the name of the one other applicant who also deserves to advance to the next stage. The interviewers did not vote; only the candidates voted. The slips of paper were collected and read aloud.

    Bill and I received no votes at all. The interviewers said, “Thank you, Bill and Boats, for your time, but the group feels you are not right for the position. Goodbye.”

    Bill and I was too stunned to say anything. We just got up and left.

    1. J-nonymous

      That’s the most bizarre interview technique I’ve heard of. That said, you didn’t vote for “Bill”?

      1. Rose

        Good point, J!
        If neither of you got ANY votes, then I’m assuming you voted for someone else, because you viewed Bill as a threat. Everyone else must have thought the same thing.

        That being said, I’m glad you didn’t get that job, because that is truly one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. I cannot imagine what working there would have been like.

    2. Adam

      Are you sure you didn’t take a wrong turn and stumble upon some dumb reality TV show? Did they make you sign a waiver or sit in a makeup chair at any point? That whole mess sounds so embarrassing.

      1. Boats

        Hi everyone,

        Nope, I didn’t vote for “Bill” (and he didn’t vote for me). I think we all adopted the strategy of choosing someone who posed no threat to us. Yes, it was embarrassing at the time, but now in retrospect I think the interviewers should be embarrassed. I still cannot believe any organization (even a new, fairly small one) could do this. I wonder if they’re still doing it.

  17. Sharm

    This is good advice I’d use, mainly because I am terrible at being quick on my feet, so all I could hope to do was stay cool, be myself, and hope to god the interview finishes quickly.

    I think I’ve told my story of a rude interview I once had — I had to meet with the president of the company, and maybe five minutes in, he opened up a newspaper that almost entirely obscured my face as I was talking. He’d flip pages, and then switch over to his cell phone, and go back and forth between the two.

    I had been brought in by a manager that reported to him, and I could see the manager trying to bolster me and make me look good, but the president wasn’t having either of it. He just seemed to ignore us compeltely.

    I tried to be as collected as I could be, but I knew at that moment the company was the absolute wrong choice for me.

    The craziest thing was, when I told the manager I was taking myself out of the running, he expressed complete shock. He even asked me what I thought they could do differently so they could attract and retain bright candidates like me. UM!?!? You were there, dude? If you can’t see it, nothing I can say can help you.

    1. Ruffingit

      That is always amazing when the person is shocked you would walk even though they just saw egregious behavior with their own eyes. It’s like they’re totally blind to what is appropriate and that could be the case with this guy. Maybe this was the only company he’d ever worked for so the boss’s behavior was normal for him. Who knows, but damn I’d walk too in this scenario.

      1. bullyfree

        If Sharm had any doubt, the manager acting as if he had no idea as to why Sharm was no longer interested would certainly be a huge red flag in itself. No one should have to grovel for a job nor should they feel obligated to stay at a job interview where the Director starts reading a newpaper.

    2. Artemesia

      It never ceases to amaze me that ‘high level’ people can be such barbarians. I once had to organize a presentation to a board of directors. One of the functionaries told me that the local newspaper provided complimentary copies of the paper after lunch and since we were scheduled then, not to be surprised if many of the board members read the paper during the presentation.

      I stole the papers. Stowed them until after my team had completed its presentation. Probably actually a bit risky, but I was young and stupid and no one caught me.

  18. Belinda Gomez-Maldonado

    While this sounds like no fun, this isn’t traumatizing. War is traumatizing. Cancer is traumatizing.

    1. misspiggy

      Well, we have been talking about abuse of power, which often leaves a very unpleasant impression in the mind of someone who isn’t prepared for it. But maybe this blog isn’t the ideal place for trying to agree the definition of words; many people are here to discuss how to deal with the behaviours described, not to decide whether someone’s experience is valid.

      1. Liane

        Not to mention, AAM has requested several itimes we not get into the grammar and wording debates to help keep threads on topic.

    2. JessB

      Having recently been the target of intense and sustained workplace bullying, I’d have to disagree, actually. Bad behaviour can be traumatising, but there are certainly levels of trauma. Like you, I’d put war and potentially fatal illness at the top of the list, but I’d also include some of the behaviour that has been talked about here.

    3. Vicki

      Many things are traumatizing. People are different. Never assume that your “trauma” is the Only “trauma”.

  19. Kiwi

    Why would anyone want to stick it out and build a relationship with someone can’t go literally 5 minutes without bullying and abusing a professional subordinate? I’m sure I don’t want a professional relationship with such a person.

    There is nothing wrong with making polite excuses (not a good fit) and ending a truly abusive interview. Even in a small industry, a person like that is safer to know from a great distance. If my polite excuses offend this person so much that they will block my application to any future company they work for, good. I’ll consider that a professional safety net.

  20. Henrietta Gondorf

    I grew up in New Jersey and went for an interview in a mid-sized Midwestern city where the interviewer opened with “jokes” about my home state. When I looked quizzically at him and said I didn’t really understand what he was talking about (no, I did not grow up near a petrochemical plant staffed by gang bangers and I don’t have an answer to “what exit”?”), he said “look, I’m just trying to build rapport here. Can’t you just roll with this?”

    With bad, semi-insulting jokes that have a racist tinge? Sorry, not good with those. I did not get an offer, but I learned a lot more about the industry when I retold the story to a friend in the same field and she said “oh, whether people laugh at their jokes and suck up to them is really the only way they think they have to distinguish candidates.” Sigh.

  21. Ruffingit

    Wow. The one where they smirk and you’re nearly brought to tears…UGH. I think at that point, I’d politely excuse myself with “this clearly isn’t the fit either of us are looking for. Best of luck with your search” and exit the restaurant possibly stopping by the bar on the way out for a stiff drink. Geeze, it’s just ridiculous to have that kind of behavior from an interviewer.

  22. Not Fiona

    A friend had a great bad interview story I will share here. He talks to this company, about 12 years ago. (Back when internships in our field were always assumed to be paid, not like today.) They are pursuing him, he’s open to moving. They fly him down for a full-day of interviews with various people. They were all normal except one. Jerk reviewed his resume, and then proceeded to berate him. “Why have you had so many jobs?” These jobs were all internships (paid) or regular full-time work. They were all in the field, not unrelated retail jobs or whatever. The shortest one was maybe 4 months full-time. The resume was a normal 1 page length. We still laugh about that line “Why have you had so many jobs?” Maybe because he wasn’t a person like the interviewer (who came from another generation of course) who joined a company and then worked for 20-30 years for them. They weren’t fired either, and there weren’t gaps between the jobs.

  23. Limon

    “I don’t really care!” I just can’t stop saying that to myself. It is so incredibly awesome.

    I have never walked out of a crappy interview now matter how awful. I try and act like I am a researcher doing a study and these people in front of me are my subjects. Sadly, that approach and the detachment can really make the difference and unfortunately I have somehow wowed a few of these terrors and been offered the position.

    That’s what lying and false behavior will get you with these people, they just love you!

    Of course, “I don’t really care.” : )

  24. Dasha

    A little late posting here but I thought I’d share my horrible interview story.

    I had an interview once where the interviewer (president of a very small company) yelled at me for meeting with him during working hours. I think the interview was at 9 AM or somewhere around then. He said I was disloyal to the company that I was currently working for and I should have set the interview after 5 PM. He then proceeded to be very rude, loud, and horrible in general. He called me a traitor and said I should be ashamed of myself. I sat through it, but I really wish I would have just left. Unfortunately, I was very young and didn’t know any better.

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