how do job interviews work now?

A reader writes:

Since my new job was postponed due to COVID-19, I am actively pursuing other opportunities. After applying for a restaurant position, I was asked to come in for an on-site interview.

So what does job interview etiquette look like in the current COVID-19 world? For example: Do I wear a mask to the interview? Should I eliminate the traditional handshake? Is it rude to ask to wash my hands before starting the interview? How does this all work now?

Some employers have responded to the pandemic incredibly well — giving employees extra flexibility on work schedules, projects, and deadlines; providing more paid leave; and encouraging people to work from home long-term when their jobs allow it. Others have been fairly awful — inflexible, unaccommodating, and reckless with people’s safety. Now that certain cities and industries are beginning to creak back to life, you’ll want to know what you’re signing up for before you take a new job.

First and foremost, consider requesting a video interview.

This particular interview is for a job in a restaurant, so it’s not surprising that it’s in-person and on-site. But if you’re interviewing for a job where off-site work seems more feasible, consider asking if a video interview is possible, at least for the first interview. The employer might want to meet in person at some point before extending a job offer, but if there will be multiple rounds of interviews, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask that conversations in earlier stages of the process be done remotely.

You can frame it as, “I’m trying to be very careful right now because of the pandemic. Would it be possible to do this initial meeting by phone or video? I’m of course happy to meet in person later in the process if we move forward.” And if your area still has stay-at-home orders in place, cite that: “I’ve been trying to be vigilant about following the stay-at-home order.” But if the interview is in-person …

Don’t rely on employers to have figured everything out.

We’re taught to defer to employers in an interview situation — and generally look to them to decide on the structure of the interview and to arrange the logistics. But if your default assumption is that the employer will be taking all necessary precautions right now, that can leave you blindsided and in an uncomfortable position (like being seated in a tiny room with little space between you and an interviewer who isn’t wearing a mask and breathing all over you.) And if you’re anxious to make a good first impression, you might be reluctant to speak up for fear of seeming difficult or insinuating that they’re being reckless or cavalier. (They are, but that’s a tough message to deliver during a job interview.)

Instead, it’s smart to ask ahead of time about COVID-19-related precautions so you’re not caught off guard once you get there and so you’re able to ask for any accommodations you might need. When you’re setting up the interview, you can broach the topic by asking, “Do you have any COVID-19 policies that I should know to follow when I arrive?” Ideally, you’ll hear that you should wear a mask, that they’ll be wearing masks, and that they’re following social-distancing guidelines. If you don’t hear that, you can ask for those arrangements or decide whether you’re still willing to attend.

Wear a mask.

If you do end up doing an in-person interview, wear a mask.

If you show up without a mask while your interviewer is wearing one, you’re going to look inconsiderate and out of touch with public-health advice.

If you show up with a mask and no one else is wearing one … I hope you’ll keep the mask on. I realize you might feel pressure to remove it in the context of a job interview, but keeping it on is the right thing to do for public health and for the health of the people around you, whether they recognize that or not. That’s especially true if you’re in an enclosed space (which is likely if you’re interviewing in an office).

You might worry it will put you at a disadvantage. What if they think you’re too uptight or dislike that you’re making a different choice than they are? Honestly, that’s a possible outcome. But job interviews are two-way streets; you’re supposed to be assessing them just as much as they’re assessing you. And an employer that penalizes you for taking public-health recommendations seriously is an employer that doesn’t take employee safety seriously. You should judge them on that.

Handshakes are out for now.

It’s perfectly socially acceptable right now to skip a handshake. When you first meet your interviewer, say in a warm tone, “I know we can’t shake hands right now, but it’s great to meet you.”

(You also asked about asking to wash your hands when you arrive. That’s fine to do!)

Pay attention to what you learn about the employer.

As I mentioned above, interviews are two-way streets. Too often, in their desire for a job offer, candidates forget that the interview process should be about more than convincing the interviewer to hire you. You should also be figuring out if the job and company are the right fit for you.

When you interview for a job, you get a ton of information about what the company is like and what the manager you would be working for is like. Pay attention to those cues! At the moment, that includes a lot of data about how seriously the company takes employee comfort and safety. A manager who looks down on you for wanting to maintain some physical distance, for example, is a manager who will be cavalier with your safety once you’re working there — not just with COVID-19 but more generally, too. An employer that balks at an easily accommodated request for a video interview in the current climate is an employer that probably isn’t going to be terribly supportive of working from home right now, either.

And in addition to all the questions you should ask in any interview, consider asking, “How has the pandemic affected your operations?” and, “How has it changed how employees are working?”

But don’t dismiss those less explicit cues. Part of the point of interviewing is for you to gather information to help determine if you even want this job — and right now, there’s more data coming toward you on that front than ever.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. reelist1*

    I had a nightmare Covid-19 interview! They patched in multiple phones (so old school,in a very small division of the Govt) instead of a Skype or Zoom meeting. This resulted in everything I said echoing back to me in a 5 second delay. They wouldn’t reschedule, again Govt weirdness. I powered through, but was flustered, said um quite a bit, paused quite a bit. I’m normally a very polished interviewer, but I could not form any nuanced answers due to the distraction.
    Made it through to the next round though, so wish me luck!

    1. nep*

      Congrats on making through to the next round, especially with all that craziness! All the best and keep us posted.

    2. Anonanonanon*

      If it was US federal government, I recently interviewed for a position and got some advice from higher ups and people who run the interviews, and in the department I interviewed in, at least, they can only grade you on the content of your responses and not your delivery. Basically if you show up to an in-person interview in sweats, say um every other word, and include all the speaking points they’re looking for, you get full points and would do better than someone who’s in a suit, well-polished, doesn’t say um at all, and misses a speaking point they’re looking for.
      As someone in a technical field who’s very good at my job but not good at talking to people I don’t know (mental illness and non-NT), I love government interviews.

  2. Roger*

    I went to an in-person job interview last week. Of the two people interviewing me, one wasn’t wearing a mask and one was wearing theirs improperly. We were in a tiny office, and the hiring manager, near the end of the interview, asked me to remove my mask “so I can see what you look like.” I was wondering if maybe I was missing something, but based on this, I was not the one out of line.
    I ended up being offered an even better job, so I happily declined that position when they called to offer it to me.

    1. Captain Raymond Holt*

      Ooof. I also don’t like the phrase “see what you look like.” – that shouldn’t matter AND can be discriminatory.

      I can understand the desire of wanting to see a person’s face to get more nonverbal cues, but public health is more important.

    2. Umm, yeah, no*

      I hope I would have had the presence of mind to pull out my phone and show a picture. Much much younger me, probably too intimidated to do anything but comply with the request.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Yeah, I’d pull out a photo. Aren’t you NOT supposed to touch your mask AT ALL once it’s on until you get home, anyway?

      1. Roger*

        Unfortunately I did. In the moment, he made it sound like a perfectly reasonable request and I didn’t feel like I had any option to refuse without jeopardizing the “I’m a polite and accommodating employee” face I had on for the interview.

  3. nnn*

    If you’re concerned that asking to wash your hands would come across as rude, you could also say something like “Would you like me to wash my hands?”, which comes across more as accommodating their needs.

    Another option, if you want to screen the employer for how amenable they are to basic hygiene, is to present it as of course they want you to wash your hands and you just need them to point you in the right direction. “Is there somewhere I should go to wash my hands?” or, even more assertively, “Where should I go to wash my hands?” The same tone you’d use for something like “Where should I park my car?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I like, “Where should I go to wash my hands?” With the others, it’s too likely they’ll say, “Oh, that’s fine, no need!”

      PSA: when someone says something like “I’m going to stay 6 feet away to protect you,” the subtext is “and because I want to protect me.” Do not shrug them off and tell them you don’t care so they shouldn’t bother! (As I’ve seen several people do recently.)

    2. Properlike*

      From a health perspective, I would not go into a bathroom to wash your hands at this point unless you’re interested to see how they’re cleaning/maintaining those facilities safely. Hand sanitizer is the way to go!

      1. Annony*

        I agree. I think hand sanitizer is the easier and safer way to go in this situation.

        1. Annony*

          Added bonus: you don’t need to ask them anything. Just whip out the sanitizer and use it.

      2. So sleepy*

        This. When I switched jobs recently I had to drop my stuff off – I washed well before leaving my house and used hand sanitizer before walking in and as I left. There are still people working on-site and the washrooms are tight so I felt there was much more risk using the washroom than not (although I would if, say, I had made multiple stops before arriving, as it wouldn’t be fair to them to come in with unclean hands).

        God knows about the masks, though, it’s still super awkward. I had to have an in-person meeting for my spouse’s business with a vendor and I full-on yelled at him at one point because he wasn’t respecting physical distancing with ANYONE, despite multiple reminders (and I consider our one person on staff as part of our “bubble,” so invading the space of him, my spouse, or me is of equal concern). If he needs to come back, he will be informed that he is required to wear a mask. I think you can really err on the side of safety right now – anyone who will hold it against you is not someone you want to work for. I would let things like incorrect mask-wearing go – only because it’s still such a departure from what we’re used to that I think a lot of people are still deeply uncomfortable with it, even if they are adapting. You can decline shaking hands, though – I find some people still put their hand out but I assume they are doing it because of social pressures, and appreciate the gesture when I say we don’t need to.

      3. Soap Opera*

        From a health perspective washing with soap and water is much more effective against the virus – hand sanitiser is recommended when soap and water is not available (better than nothing). Much better to wash your hands so the soap can act against the lipids surrounding the virus if present (as that’s how soaps work) and it will die. I know this isn’t the place for medical advice but I feel recommending hand gel over soap and water is bad advice and doing the OP a disservice.

        For the OP though I reckon “Do you mind if I just wash my hands before we start?” is as normal and unremarkable as “do you mind if I just visit the bathroom before we start?” and likely to result in you being politely directed to the facilities without a second thought.

  4. basic name*

    I recently had an in-person meeting at a medical office. Masks were a given, but there was some awkwardness surrounding the handshake. We’d all used the hand sanitizer upon entering the room, but still kind of knew we should not shake hands. We just stood there awkwardly for a moment, hemming and hawing, until someone said “elbow bump! ” We laughed and waved our elbows in the air, not bumping or coming anywhere close. It was a light moment and broke the ice wonderfully.

    1. Do I need a hard hat for this?*

      I had to go to a job site meeting where there’s wind and background noise to contend with, so wearing masks makes it particularly difficult to hear each other. We had to move around to look at things on site as a group, then found spot under a big tree in the shade to discuss dealing with some of the issues at hand. We ended up spreading apart about 10ft from each person in a big circle, then took off our masks and raised our voices to project. Worked out pretty well, but was super awkward at first trying to figure out what would work. At the end one person laughed and “air high fived” everyone. That helped lighten the mood and end on a good note.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I dread this gesture because it makes me think of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m afraid one of these days I will start to say “elbow bump” and instead make an NSFW show reference.

    3. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      I guess it’s different in different places, but around March 2 where I am (New York City) I ran across an old contact and we both immediately said “Not shaking hands.” I’d be surprised if anyone suggested it now.

  5. Lady Heather*

    One thing I’ve noticed is that the ‘handshake and name’ is so ingrained in people that when they don’t shake hands, they forget to introduce themselves. So, my tip is: remember to introduce yourself/clarify the name of who you’re talking to if they forget to introduce themselves.

  6. Anon Commenter*

    I had both a zoom interview and in person during the pandemic. I’ve had zoom interviews before, so I pretty much knew the drill and that hasn’t changed much.

    The zoom one wasn’t well thought out, there was a significant delay because they couldn’t get one person’s connection figured out, people kept forgetting to un-mute themselves, the connection wasn’t strong for a couple of people so there was lagging and cutting out. Plus since they had a hard stop time for another interview, I was rushed through my answers and wasn’t able to ask any questions at the end. When they said they didn’t even know what their process was like (not the time-line mind you which would be understandable, but literally whether there would be a second interview, “maybe, but maybe not, I guess we’ll see!”) I realized….. I didn’t really want to work there anyway.

    My in-person interview was MUCH better, they made a big effort to social distance, let me know the requirements (mask, etc) and left plenty of time for both sides to ask and answer questions. And while I don’t relish 4 hour interviews (actually pretty normal in my field but argh….), when they offered me the job I was happy to accept!

    I’d say, the actually interviewing part really wasn’t that much different though. Just everyone wore a mask and there were no handshakes. And we all laughed at some of the odd movements of trying to figure out how everyone could get around the same room or through the same doorway. It was a little awkward but actually lightened the mood a little.

  7. rayray*

    I’ve had a couple job interviews during the pandemic over video call. It was a little different to say the least. I just made sure to dress like I would if I were going in person and made sure my connection worked beforehand and that it would be quiet and well lit in my apartment.

  8. Ana Gram*

    I hire cops (mostly) and civilians and we’re still interviewing in person. Applicants need to be fingerprinted and complete other testing as well. We’re handling it by eliminating handshakes, wearing masks in the elevator, and sitting 6+ feet apart in the interview. We have one dedicated person completing fingerprint services and we’ve streamlined the process as much as possible. So far, it’s working well. It’s not perfect but our hiring can’t stop and I feel pretty comfortable with what we’re doing.

  9. YesImTheAskewPolice*

    I’ve recently had in-person interviews for two different jobs. In addition to the questions Alison suggested about their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, I specifically asked for how they will handle the situation going forward under the assumption that neither vaccination nor treatment would be available for at least two years.

    Since the country I’m in is in the middle of easing most major restrictions, this ended up giving me a lot more insight into the organisation and the manager’s thinking process than their answer to how they’ve handled it so far (where due to regulations they didn’t have much room for variation). In short, one place emphasized that they will keep on working from home and that they are very committed to keeping up with all health recommendations, while at the other place the manager basically said that he thinks too much informal knowledge and collaboration gets lost when working from home, and that at some point we all probably just would have to learn and live with it (at which point the HR representative jumped in).

  10. Roads Lady*

    I’ve enjoyed the interviews relying on Zoom and the like. Got a job offer today… And didn’t have to show I’m 8 months pregnant (the job wouldn’t start till late August, so I’m not terribly worried about awkwardness)

  11. DataSci*

    “Wear a mask” is obvious, but what mask do you wear? I have homemade masks with various bright patterns, and a rainbow-flag patterned storebought one. None of them exactly scream “job interview”. Should interviewees invest in plain solid-color masks, either black or coordinating with their interview outfits? Of course the answer should be “interviewers should know that masks are new and not judge candidates based on them” (at least as long as it’s not something like a skull pattern or four-letter words) but we all know that’s not going to be universal.

  12. Orange You Glad*

    We just started our first round of remote interviews and they are going well so far. The hardest part is getting everyone on the same platform (for some reason our HR sends a different platform for each interview even after I’ve explained to him some of the technical limitations my team has). I had a lot of anxiety about doing interviews this way but I’ve found that if I can at least interact over video with the candidate, I’m much more comfortable and I feel I can get a better sense of the person over just a phone interview (I have horrible phone anxiety – mainly because I can’t see the person speaking).

  13. Anon Again*

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much about matching as long as the patterns couldn’t be ‘offensive’ in some way, even if accidentally. I have a mask a friend made that has yellow pineapples with green leaves at the top on a white background. While out one day I hear some guy shout ‘Awesome mask!!!” and then realize as I had been walking that direction and was now closer they were, in fact, pineapples and not a particularly popular OTHER plant, lol.

    When I had my in-person interview I just made a plain dark colored one as I didn’t want another mistaken plant identity situation. I wanted to try a new pattern anyway and was hoping it would be more comfortable (it was!).

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