interviewer had concerns about me from the start

This was originally published on April 27, 2011.

A reader writes:

I’m currently a lawyer with several years of general legal experience and I’m trying to transition to a more specific area where I don’t have too much experience. I recently had an interview with a reputable recruitment agency, which went very well, and which got me the second interview with the hiring company.

The interviewer (a non-lawyer) stated right from the start that she had a serious fear that this position would be too challenging for me. It seemed that without the strong recommendation from the recruitment agency, the company wouldn’t have considered me as a candidate at all. At some point, after explaining my experience so far and providing examples of my ability to learn new things, I asked her how could I relieve her fear that I wouldn’t be capable. She replied that she didn’t know. The interviewer also hinted that they already have a candidate with at least 10 years experience in this field.

It was clear from the outset that the interviewer had serious doubts about my abilities and it seemed to be an uphill battle to communicate how I might be suitable. I realize that there is luck involved in interviewing, but is there anything I can do when the interviewer won’t give me a fair chance?

If the interviewer won’t give you a fair chance? Not really.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here. What’s more likely is that the interviewer didn’t consider you a competitive candidate on the basis of your resume alone. The recruitment agency, however, really liked you, thought that she might like you too if she had the chance to talk with you, and pushed her to give you a chance. The interviewer thought to herself, “Well, there’s no harm in talking to him, and maybe if I give him a chance, I’ll see what they see.”

After all, most experienced interviewers know that a candidate who wasn’t your first choice on paper can become your first choice after an interview. As a result, it’s not uncommon to interview someone who you might have some concerns about but who has enough promise that it’s worth a conversation — because maybe they’ll overcome those concerns in the interview. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s very hard (if not impossible) to predict who will rise to the top of the candidate pool in an interview and who will stay where they are or sink to the bottom. You pretty much only find out by doing the interview.

However, in those situations, it’s up to the candidate to find a way to impress you. And that’s why when you asked your interviewer what you could do to ease her concerns, she said she didn’t know. She really didn’t know — she was waiting to see if the interview changed her mind in some way that she couldn’t predict. For instance, maybe you’d end up being insanely talented in some way that would trump the lack of experience. Maybe she’d decide you were so smart that she was willing to take a chance on you. Maybe you’d just have a really compelling and convincing explanation of why you’d excel in the role. Or maybe none of those. She didn’t know, but she was giving you an opportunity to make your case.

In other words, it wasn’t about not giving you a fair chance — it was about the opposite: giving you a chance and seeing what happened.

Overall, this is a good thing, even if you ultimately didn’t end up her first choice for the job. After all, I’m constantly hearing from job-searchers who are frustrated that no one will give them a chance to interview and show that they could do the job well, even if they’re the underdog. So when you have an interviewer who’s willing to open up the door a little wider and see if an interview turns you into a stronger candidate, that’s a good thing.

Now, I know that you were left feeling like her mind was already made up. And it’s possible that it was, of course, and that she was just wasting your time (and her own). But it’s more likely that she was genuinely giving you a chance to see if something happened in that interview that overcame her concerns … but that ultimately it just didn’t.

Of course, there are other possible explanations here too: maybe the recruitment agency doesn’t know what it’s doing, or maybe the hiring manager is just a jerk or doesn’t know how to say “no” to the recruiters when they push a candidate she’s sure is the wrong fit, or unlimited other possibilities. But if you’re going to draw a broad conclusion from this interview and apply it to future ones, I’d go with the explanation above, because it’s the most common.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonymousOne

    I once had something similar happen to me, as far as an interviewer not really giving you a chance from the beginning. I was interviewing for a marketing job at an engineering company (so obviously I don’t have an engineering background), and I didn’t get the position I was applying for, but the manager who interviewed me recommended me for a similar position in another department.

    I went in a few days later to interview with the second manager, and he was grilling me about really technical stuff, and telling me that the position is more engineering than marketing-related. At one point he flat out told me “you know, I looked at your resume and laughed, and I thought ‘there’s no chance,’ but I thought I’d bring you in anyways.” I was totally caught off guard and embarrassed by his comments, and thought it was extremely rude and unprofessional. Geez, thanks for thinking I’m a joke and wasting my time. The entire interview only lasted about 10 minutes.

    I remember reading a post where Alison said that one way to calm your interview nerves is to remember that you wouldn’t have been offered an interview in the first place if management didn’t think you were qualified. Apparently that’s not always the case :/

    1. Anon Accountant

      Wow. He was very unprofessional and rude in saying that. And if he “looked at your resume and laughed” then why waste your time in asking you to interview with him?

      If he’s thought that your other experience would be a good fit for a position then bring you in for an interview. But not if he’s just going to make comments like this to a job candidate.

    2. Ruffingit

      It’s definitely not always the case. You only have to look at the people trying to fill interview quotas, but who already know who they’re going to hire to see that. However, I think Alison’s advice is generally true that you get most interviews because you are qualified. In your case, your interviewer was a total ass and that has nothing to do with you, your qualifications or anything else. He’s just an ass.

    3. NavyLT

      Sounds to me like you dodged a bullet. The interviewer was insulting and offensive, but whoever did ultimately get that job is now working for someone who enjoys wasting other people’s time as well as his own.

  2. blu

    I think it may have helped to ask what specific area(s) the interviewer thought were too challenging for the OP. That being said, I think the interviewer could have been more specific with their concerns if they really were considering this person.

  3. Anon

    Leaving this anonymously ;) I just got hired for a job I was convinced I was underqualified for – by about 3 years. My interviewer said upfront to me that she was initially looking for someone with more experience, but my professionalism and eagerness to learn and adapt to new challenges showed through, as well as my track record of succeeding with the unknown and knowledge of the field (comm/marketing). I told the recruiter who pushed me into the interview (nicely) that I felt I was underqualified and he encouraged me to go for it … so I studied up, came prepared with a ton of examples of work I’d done, and showed that I did my homework. ALso, don’t act scared of a challenge!

    I got an offer the next day. Instead of asking “what can I do to XYZ” I would ask a more general question – What are the top 3 qualities you’re looking for in your best candidate for this position? Then be ready with examples on how you shine at at least 2 of those qualities, whether it’s your time management, your ability to work well on a team, or that you’re always learning up in your field, etc. There are ways to overcome!

    1. Artemesia

      This is the kind of attitude that gets people jobs. No one is ever interested in an excuse or why it isn’t fair — they want to see even an ‘underqualified’ candidate rise to the challenge and make it clear what they have to offer to the company.

    2. HR “Gumption”

      Why do you wear a mask, were you burned by acid or something?

      Don’t know why the anon on this but congratulations!

      1. Anon

        Haha – thanks, all. I haven’t officially started quite yet so would rather not make public until my start date. I’m pretty active on social media (and on here).

  4. Motley

    If you are competing against a candidate with 10 years experience in this specific area and you yourself have general legal experience, I think this would be a tough sell for anyone especially if their top criteria for evaluating candidates is years of experience. I don’t see how you can position yourself better than the other candidate in this scenario unless in fact they are actually looking for candidates who have other strong qualities besides experience. Sidenote: I once temped at a law firm as a paralegal and I know they preferred to bring in staff who didn’t have experience in their area of practice, but had other transferrable skills. This was because they wanted to I don’t know if mold is the right word but they had a specific way of doing things and they wanted to be able to train people to adopt their approach.

  5. Eudora Wealthy

    I would love to get an interviewer who “stated right from the start that she had a serious fear that this position would be too challenging for me.” That kind of candor is too rare in those situations. It was a huge opportunity for the interviewee.

  6. Julie

    Alison’s answer reminded me of online dating. When I was “meeting” people on a dating site and then actually meeting them for dinner/drinks, I was always pleasantly surprised. They all looked good on paper, which is why I was meeting them in person, but they were even better in person, and that wasn’t what I expected. I haven’t had the same experience when interviewing people – probably because I don’t have quite as much information about them before we meet in person, but I can see how a job seeker could really blow your socks off in person when you might not have expected it.

    1. PEBCAK

      I think too, in both cases, people don’t always know exactly what they want until it is in front of them. You may think X and Y are the most important when screening resumes or flipping through Match.com, but then you take a chance on someone and find out that Z is really a better fit for your needs.

  7. MR

    One thing I noticed right at the top of the OPs letter was how the interviewer was not an attorney. I’m curious to know what the qualifications of the initial gatekeeper were to be screening for the legal field.

    I could certainly imagine the office manager doing the screening/interviewing for paralegals and such, but I would think the partners of the firm (or at least an attorney within the firm) doing the interviewing.

    It would be interesting to see if the OPs outcome would have been different if he interviewed with an attorney, instead of someone else.

    1. Legal Recruiter Admin

      Re: interviewer is not an attorney – This is very typical in law firms. The first round interview for attorneys is typically run by a manager or director from the recruiting department, and then there’s a second round run by the hiring partner(s).

  8. Lamb

    I recently had the opposite problem; I was interviewing for a front desk position with several years experience in a field related to what the office did, and the interviewer made a big deal about how I’d be unfulfilled because the work wouldn’t challenge me. I don’t know a good way to say “I’m cool with not really being challenged” (even when it’s because I’m not challenged at my current job and I’m hoping this one will be better in terms of hours/pay/not being the first step on a career path that will make me miserable)

  9. neverjaunty

    I don’t know if OP is still around, but I would put money on it being a problem between the recruiter and HR of some kind, ranging from pressure (“just give this person a chance!”) to HR having unrealistic expectations about salary/availability for that position. It also sounds like very poor communication between the person who interviewed you and the people who wanted to fill the position, so she didn’t understand exactly what was needed for a good fit.

    If this job was in a specialized area of practice where you don’t have much (or any) direct experience, you are almost certainly not going to get hired unless it is an entry-level position, or the specialized knowledge is a minimal part of the position. And if they were really looking for someone with ten years of experience in that specialty, I can’t imagine why they would want to hire somebody with no experience.

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