what to do when an interview doesn’t go as planned

You’ve spent hours prepping for your job interview and you arrive ready to impress. But in an instant, your careful plans can fall to pieces if you’re thrown off by a change in the interview that you didn’t know to plan for.

Here are five fairly common ways that an employer might inadvertently surprise you, and how can make sure that these unexpected changes don’t throw you off your game.

1. Your interviewer is switched at the last minute. Don’t get throw off if you’ve been planning to meet with the VP of Communication and now find out that you’re meeting with her deputy instead. This stuff happens; people end up calling out sick or having emergencies to attend to, and it’s not a sign that they’re uninterested in your candidacy. When this happens, job applicants often tend to the worry that they interview won’t “count” or that they’ll be at a disadvantage from not meeting with the person they were originally scheduled with. The reality is that you may or may not be disadvantaged when this happens, but it’s impossible to know from the outside … and you’ll definitely be at a disadvantage if you let the last-minute switch throw you off your game. Instead, stay cool and show that you can roll with the punches without getting rattled.

2. You’ve scheduled a phone interview, but no one calls at the scheduled time. This one is surprisingly common; lots of employers will schedule phone interviews and then never call. If that happens to you, the best thing to do is to wait 15-20 minutes and then call the interviewer yourself. Say something like, “We had a 3:00 call scheduled, and I’m checking in since I haven’t heard from you. Would you like to reschedule or is now a good time to talk?” If you get voicemail, change that last sentence to, “I’d love to talk with you; I’ll send you an email to see when we can reschedule.” (And then do.)

Equally common is the reverse of this, which we’ll tackle next…

3. An employer calls you without warning and wants to conduct a phone interview on the spot. There’s an epidemic of employers calling job candidates and trying to phone-interview them on the spot, without any warning or advance notice. And many applicants are afraid to say that it’s not a good time for them and to try to reschedule, because often they never get called back after that (see #2), so they end up trying to do a phone interview outside the grocery store or with their kids in the car, frantically trying to remember which job this was at which company, with zero preparation.

It’s obvious why this isn’t good for the candidate, but it’s not good for the employer either: Interviewing a candidate who just woke up or is late for a meeting or just hasn’t had time to focus their brain on your needs isn’t going to give you the most useful information about that candidate.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s reasonable to say something like, “I’d love to talk. I’m at work right now and only have a couple of minutes — will that be enough time or should we schedule a time for later?”

4. When you arrive for your interview, you’re taken by surprise by assessment tests that you weren’t prepared for. Employers are increasingly testing job candidates’ abilities through writing tests, skills assessments, simulations, and work samples. You should assume that this might be part of any interview you go to. If it rattles you, remember that assessment tests can benefit you too, by giving you insight into the type of work you’d be doing on the job and making sure that your skills are well-matched with it.

5. Your interview is cut short. You thought things were going well, but suddenly your interviewer is explaining that an emergency has come up and she needs to wrap up your conversation more quickly than planned. It’s easy to assume that your interviewer has decided you’re not the right match and is politely trying to move on, but it’s entirely possible that her excuse is a legitimate one. Regardless, you can’t know from your end, and the best thing that you can do is to gracefully roll with the change. Thank the person for meeting with you, offer to set up another conversation if they’d like to, and wait to see if the person gets back in touch about next steps.

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

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Relly

    #3 is something I’ve been dealing with a lot lately. It’s bizarre that employers think playing phone tag with me is more preferable than sending an email to schedule.

    1. KJR

      You’d be surprised the number of people that don’t respond to e-mails, but will pick up the phone. Odd in this day and age!!

      1. BeenThere

        Yep I’m the opposite, if you call me without an email first I never respond. It shows a real lack of understanding of the type I work I do which requires long stretches of uninterrupted time. It might be a quick phone call to you however for me that interruption will cost me hours.

    2. Partly Cloudy

      I spent the last few days playing phone tag with an applicant and I kept reminding myself not to pull a “#3” (on the spot phone interview) if she answered the phone. We ended up connecting over email and scheduling a call instead. Before reading AAM, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me that launching into interview-type questions on an initial call is an unfair blind siding of the candidate, so I definitely get how this happens, even with good intentions on the interviewer’s part.

  2. Bee Eye LL

    I once had an interview for a training position at a bank. I was already working there in another position, so HR gave me some materials and told me to create a powerpoint training slideshow based on the material, and save it to a CD-R for a presentation.

    (Now, this was back in the late 90’s when flash drives were crazy expensive and PC’s still had floppy drives.)

    When we got ready to do the presentation, the laptop that HR provided did not have a CD drive in it – only a floppy. 10 minutes before the presentation, I was forced to strip all the images and multimedia out of my Powerpoint to make it fit on a floppy disk since the laptop didn’t have a network port built in either.

    Needless to say, my presentation was a disaster as much of my content was based on graphics and other visual aids. I should have forced them to reschedule but everybody was already there. I luckily found another job about a year later.

  3. Graciosa

    Changing interviewers is very common at my employer. We do a lot of panel interviews (which I think is good), but Other Manager Bob may have an emergency in his area and we will need to quickly substitute Other Manager Sue or Assistant Manager Jane.

    It really surprises me that there are candidates who get bent out of shape by this. When I choose a substitute, it’s because I value that person’s input.

    Protesting this is not only insulting the individual who is stepping in, but also my judgment as a hiring manager (or person sending a deputy if I’m not the HM).

    This is a really bad way to convince me that you’re a good candidate for the role.

    Although it could explain why some people think these protests are a good idea – Bad Candidate protests a substitution, fails to get the job, and then blames it on the substitute and vows to protest even harder next time.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      I wouldn’t get bent out of shape, but you definitely want a chance to meet with who would be your manager, so if the hiring manager is taken off the panel I’d be a bit bummed.

      1. Connie-Lynne

        If the hiring manager for the position is taken off the panel, and you’re still offered the job, I’d ask for the opportunity to get 30 min with my soon-to-be new manager before agreeing to the role. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request.

        But during the interviews? Yeah, I’d just roll with it and assume that the HM herself would want to meet me if her deputy reports me as an awesome candidate.

    2. Vicki

      “When I choose a substitute, it’s because I value that person’s input.”

      It’s good that you do things this way, but so many people don’t. Too often I’ve heard “Oh, we can’t find Ken. This is Mary. She works in Kens’ department.” (Or, “This is Mary, she works in another department”)

      Mary hasn’t seen the resume and doesn’t even know the position s open, but she’s game because no one can find Ken. It’s pretty easy to tell that the conversation, after the candidate has gone home, is going to be more about WTH is up with Ken?! and less about the candidate.

  4. Memories

    Years ago, I was scheduled for what I thought was a one-on-one interview, but was actually a panel interview/interrogation. The appointment-setter never made this clear. I let it throw me. It did not go well. Since I’d already tanked it, I answered honestly when they asked what it was like. I said it felt like American Idol. Still makes me laugh to this day. Though, in my defense, I was pretty young & naive at the time…

    1. Sara

      Based on past experiences with employers in my field/geographic area, I assumed that the interview I had late last week was going to be with a small panel, 2-3 people at most, probably. I was kind of shocked when they invited me in and there were SEVEN people on the other side(s) of the table. It did throw me off, although I think I still think I did well. (Not great, maybe, but I’m not beating myself up over it.)

      1. Memories

        Wow, SEVEN! I can’t even imagine. At that point, it’s more like Ms. America! It’s nice to hear that you did well in spite of the shock. It’s hard to roll with it in a case like that. Good Luck! :-)

  5. bad at online naming

    I’ve had two interviews that were actually for different jobs than I thought I had applied for and was going to be interviewing for. One I got the offer for (turned it down for a position more aligned with my interests/ a role I actually would apply for), and one was so excruciating that I ended up stating several times that I didn’t have a background in what they wanted. Wasn’t surprised to never hear from them again….

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      I’ve also had an interview for a different job than I thought I was applying for. But I was just doing a practice interview for a job I was pretty sure I didn’t want. Once I saw how the job had changed, I did want it (and ended up getting it too).

    2. JM in England

      I too have found myself interviewing for a job that was very different from the one described in the advert. However, the most underhand form of this that I have encountered to date was finding that the role was maternity cover when the recruiter had told me it was permanent. :-(

      1. Ellen

        Ugh – this happened to me too.

        Worst thing was I didn’t realise it was a different job (although I did think the questions were weird) and the recruiters didn’t tell me, even after the interview.

        I got the job, took it and bombed it completely as I didn’t have enough experience. It ended badly for everyone.

  6. JM in England

    #3 is a major pet peeve of mine. Surely employers must realise that a phone interview takes at least as much preparation as for an in-person one? When caught like this, I have simply stated that they have put me on the spot and cannot talk at that time. However, when trying to reschedule, I rarely hear from them again.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      I think sometimes they don’t realize the difference between a phone screen and a phone interview, but even in a phone screen they should ask if this is a good time/do you have a few minutes

    1. RVA Cat

      It’s really a problem if they happen to catch you while you’re driving. Do they really want you to endanger yourself and others, and possibly break the law? If so, they’re going to the Land of Nope.

        1. KAZ2Y5

          I have been caught like this. My phone hooks up to my car thru bluetooth so I can answer it hands-free, but I don’t know who is calling. Could be my mom, my son, a recruiter…. I answered one call while driving and it was a recruiter about a job. She started talking about the job and I asked her if she could call later since I was on the highway. She kept on talking about the job and how there were all these other applicants and I really needed to decide right then. I finally told her I was in the middle of Dallas traffic and just couldn’t talk. I ignored that number after that!

  7. ptrish

    I got my last job by doing Skype interviews while I was living overseas in a developing country a few years ago. Ten minutes before my first interview, my power went out–no wifi! They were SUPER nice and reasonable about it, and we rescheduled.

    Second interview: basically couldn’t see, and could barely hear, the interviewers because of the poor internet quality. I just made sure to repeat the question I thought they had asked, and kept my answers more concise than usual, since I figured any lengthy narratives would be lost.

    1. lowercase holly

      i’ve found skype interviews to be really terrible. i had one where the other side was a room of 8-10 people (surprise!), terrible quality, sound and video couldn’t sync up, and i could never figure out who was asking the question. eye contact is always mostly impossible. i got my last job through a regular phone interview.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        I dislike Skype interviews for all of those reasons, especially the eye contact one. I would so much rather do a phone interview, where you don’t have the constant distraction of trying to make sure you’re looking at the camera instead of at the actual people and so on… not to mention having to make sure your background setup is OK, camera set at a good angle, etc.

  8. Mike C.

    So long ago I had applied for a bench position at a lab. Halfway through the interview I was told that the job was already was taken but was instead offered to try a job doing calibration and what not. A bit odd to switch things up like that, but I got the job. This is the “special” job I talk about from time to time, but things turned out well once the recession cooled down and I found something better.

    1. JM in England

      Mike, this exactly describes my current position. I too interviewed for the lab bench analyst role (the majority of my experience) but ended up in calibration (formal title lab services). However, it is proving to be a new challenge in which I’m learning new (and potentially transferable) skills such as dealing with outside companies to arrange service visits for instruments.

      1. BeenThere

        Calibration FTW, I spent my time as a student engineer dealing with the entire calibration for a pharmaceutical plant including doing a complete review of schedules, accuracy and tolerances. I learned so much from the role. As a result I never think of measurements in the same way. It’s one thing to be taught about measurement error and another think entirely to look at the instrumentation and decide how far out it’s allowed to go before the QA manager needs to review it.

  9. Hermoine Granger

    Sort of in the vein of #2, how would you recommend handling instances where the interviewer is substantially late (30 mins – 1 hour+) or doesn’t show up for an in-person interview?

    I’ve experienced this on three separate occasions over the years with three different hiring managers / companies. I now regard it as a red flag, especially if they don’t sincerely apologize or offer a compelling explanation. However, I’m curious to know what’s a reasonable amount of time to wait and how you’d advise dealing with it in the moment.

    1. JM in England

      Like my mother taught me, I see being late as stealing someone else’s time. Like you, I’ve now added it to my list of red flags to look for at interviews. It also illustrates the double standard present in today’s workplaces, in that the interviewer can be tardy but woe betide the interviewee if they are even one microsecond late! :-)

  10. HarryV

    A few weeks ago, I had a great phone interview. Two actually, one with the in house recruiter and the hiring manager. We seemed to have hit it off but suddenly, I was told that I was not short listed. Hard to explain what happened.

  11. Jader

    The most I have ever been thrown by an interview was when I had applied to be a volunteer coordinator at a very small non profit. Seemingly out of nowhere they added that the position was also going to act as fund developer and they asked me all kinds of questions about applying for grants. Not only did I have no background in fund development, I had no desire to do it and definitely wasn’t interested in learning it at the stated salary. I was pretty annoyed that they had wasted both mine and their time when I was clearly unqualified for their new vision of the position.

  12. Lia

    My partner had a series of interviews with a company go very well, then they asked him to prepare responses to a bunch of technical questions and come up with a plan based on the details enclosed. Never heard from them again, though he did learn that they used his responses in a future product release.

  13. De Minimis

    I keep getting #3….moving cross country and had someone call yesterday! Thankfully I was driving on a highway and it was fairly easy to answer some brief questions [we’ve set up a phone interview for today.]

    Also had it happen a couple of weeks ago and was able to let them know we needed to reschedule. I hate this trend, but you just have to be ready for anything when you get a call, and hope that you can reschedule if it’s not a good time.
    Most people who have called have been more than willing to do that.

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