transcript of “tone in job interviews”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “Tone in Job Interviews.”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Last year, I did a couple of episodes of the show that were all about tone. One was about what kind of tone to use in tricky conversations at work, and one was about getting your tone right when you’re a manager. Those are some of the most popular episodes of the show, and I’ve had request to do more of them, on tone in other work situations. So I thought today we’d talk about tone in job interviews – because that’s an interesting situation where a lot of people feel that they’re supposed to be pretty deferential – but where in fact you’ll usually come across better if you’re not really that deferential.

That doesn’t mean you should be aggressive or adversarial. You definitely shouldn’t be! But you’ll usually come across as a more confident and more appealing candidate if your tone is more matter of fact than that – more collaborative, and something closer to peers.

So I thought we could talk about the tone you want to strike in job interviews in general, and then talk through some specific situations you might find yourself in and what an effective tone will sound like.

So, first let’s talk about tone in job interviews overall. Job interviews have really weird power dynamics, in a lot of ways more so than most other work situations. A lot of people go into interviews feeling like the interviews has all the power and they have none, and they want something that the interviewer has (a job) and so they feel like they need to be really deferential throughout the process. That’s actually not the right way to approach it!

If you’re a good candidate, you have power in the situation too. This is not a situation where you’re just waiting for someone to decide to pick you, like on the Bachelor. You should be evaluating your interviewer right back, and deciding if this is a job you want, and a manager you want to work with, and a company you want to work for. You don’t need to be really deferential, like you’re a lowly subject talking to the king. You need to be polite, of course, but that’s different from being deferential.

The tone you want is really similar to the tone you’d use in most other business meetings – friendly, collaborative, and direct. Think of yourself as talking to a colleague who you don’t know well, and where the two of you are considering working on a project together. That’s actually the situation here – you’re both trying to decide if it makes sense to work together. It’s not just you waiting for the interviewer to pass judgment on you.

So that means things like, you don’t need to apologize excessively if you aren’t available at the first interview time the employer suggests, or act as if you’re committing a minor crime if you decide to turn down a job. You are an equal partner in this conversation about whether to work together, even if you really want this particular job. It’s important to remember that, because it will lead you toward using the right tone – and sounding like a confident equal is a lot more appealing to good employers than sounding overly deferential is.

I should say, there’s an exception to that. Really bad employers sometimes do screen for people who are overly deferential, because they want to hire people who will accept really bad treatment as employees. So if you ever hear someone say that they do prefer candidates who are deferential and really lean into the power dynamics of interviewing – that’s someone who’s revealing to you that they’re probably pretty terrible to work with. You want to screen them out – that’s a good thing.

Now, all that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some power dynamics in interviews that you need to play along with. There are, and they’re usually just double standards – like it’s considered okay for your interviewer to answer their phone in the middle of an interview, but it wouldn’t be okay for you, as a candidate, to do that. Same thing with being late – your interviewer can get away with being a little late, and you can’t. That’s just how the conventions on this stuff are – but it doesn’t translate into meaning that your whole tone and demeanor needs to be super deferential.

Okay. Let’s do some specific conversations you might have while you’re interviewing, and what your tone should sound like.

Let’s say that you’re sitting in the interview and you’re asked a question that you’re completely stumped by. You just have no idea how to answer it. First, don’t try to bluff your way through – they’ll probably be able to tell, and that’ll make you look really bad, far worse than if you’re just honest about it. But what does being honest about it sound like? It could be that you say, “Hmmm, you know, I actually don’t know the answer to that! When I’ve encountered similar things in the past, I’ve done X and Y and that usually gets me pointed in the right direction.” 

So – matter of fact, and confident. Your tone is conveying that you’re mortified and worrying you’ve blown the interview. Your tone is saying that you are a normal human and normal humans don’t always have answers to everything, and you’re comfortable with that. That’s actually pretty appealing.

Now, obviously, if the answer to that one question is crucial to you getting hired, then that’s not good. But that was going to be the case no matter what you said! So you might as well sound pleasant and matter of fact and not freaked out by being imperfect – and for most situations, where one single interview question isn’t make or break, that’s going to help you.

Okay, let’s make it a little more nerve-wracking. Let’s say that as you’re talking to your interviewer, one of your realizes there’s a mistake on your resume. Maybe they point out that your resume says you left your last job in 1822, or something like that. You don’t need to run out of the room in shame, or beg forgiveness, or let it throw you off your game the rest of the conversation. You say just, “Oh no! Thank you for bringing that to my attention so I can fix it. I’m normally a neurotic proofreader, so this is mortifying.”

Now, remember how with the example about not knowing the answer to a question, I said you didn’t need to sound mortified? And yet here I am actually saying the words “I’m mortified.” That’s because you need to convey that a mistake on your resume – a document that’s expected to be really polished – is out of character for you. You need to sound like you take it seriously, without sounding like you’re going to leave and throw yourself down the elevator shaft as penance.

Let’s do another one where you’ve messed up a bit. Let’s say that you’re stuck in traffic and realizing you’re going to be late to your interview. Ideally this won’t happen because you’ve allowed yourself lots of extra time, but hey, sometimes it happens and maybe it’s your or maybe it’s not, but either way now you’ve got to call the employer and tell them you’re running late, which no one wants to do for an interview. The thinghere, similar with the resume mistake, is that the interviewer has no way of knowing if this really frequent with you – if you’re someone who’s always late and maybe is cavalier about it too. So you’ve got to convey, with both tone and your words, that this isn’t your normal M.O. So you want to sound a little mortified and make it clear that you take it seriously. (And this is an example of one of those double standards I was talking about earlier – because your interviewer can stroll in 20 minutes late to your interview and not sound appalled about it, but convention says you’re supposed to be on time. I don’t want that to undercut my message at the start of the show about how your equals, because you are. This is just about recognizing the convention around this kind of thing.) So when you call, it sounds like this: “I’m so sorry about this – I had left with plenty of extra time, but there’s a massive traffic jam on 395 that looks like will make me about 15 minutes late. I realize that’s later than you had planned. Will that still work for your schedule?”

Let’s talk through some more examples of tone when you’re interviewing. Let’s say that your interviewer asks you an inappropriate question – like asking about your religion or your plans for having kids, or something else they shouldn’t be asking about.

First, I want to note that despite widespread belief to the contrary, it’s not actually illegal in the U.S. for an interviewer to ask you about those things – there’s no law that says they can’t ask about your religion, your ethnicity, whether you’re married, how many kids you have, plans for kids, or so forth. However! What is illegal is for them to make a hiring decision based on your answers to these questions, and so because of that, smart employers don’t ask them. It’s opening the door for you to later think they did base their decision on your answer to those questions, and it’s asking for legal trouble.

But some people ask anyway. And in some cases, they’re really just making small talk, without realizing they’re straying into dangerous territory. Like someone might ask you if you have kids if you just moved to the area and they want to offer you helpful advice on the local schools or something. And you’re sitting there thinking, crap, are they weird about parents and trying to figure out if I’m going to need to leave early for child care pickup or something?

So what do you do when you get asked one of these questions that you really shouldn’t be asked? Honestly, if your sense is that the person really is just making small talk and trying to be friendly, you’ll usually get a better outcome if you take it in that spirit.  But if you do get the sense that something sketchier is going on, one option is to answer the question you think they’re really asking. Like if you think they’re asking if you have kids because they’re worried you won’t be at work reliably, you can sidestep the question of kids altogether and just say, “Oh, there’s nothing in my personal life that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed and make the job a top priority.”

So, breezy, and speaking directly to the concern.

If something is more overtly offensive, or if you just can’t figure out what they’re really getting at, you can always say, “Why do you ask?” The key here, though, is that you have to say it in a friendly, pleasant tone, and just sound curious, not pissed off. I mean, you don’t have to, but if you’re still interested in the job and want to preserve rapport, “why do you ask” is a good way to respond that doesn’t seem wildly adversarial. You could even say, “Huh, “I’ve never been asked that before in an interview. What makes you ask?”

Let’s do another tricky one. Let’s say that you’re interviewing with a company and you’ve found that they have awful reviews on Glassdoor. Not like one or two bad ones, because those can be outliers, but a real pattern of terrible reviews from their employees. You can ask about this! And really, you should ask about it, unless you’re in a desperate position where you need to take any job that’s offered to you. Because you want to see how they respond – do they just give you some public relations fluff, or do they engage with the topic in a serious way that sounds like they’re making real changes?

But you’ve got to ask about it in a way that doesn’t sound accusatory. You don’t want to make them feel defensive or like you’re calling them out on something – you want to sound like you’re saying, basically, hey, I saw this thing that concerned me, I know there might be to it, what can you tell me about it?

So that might sound like this: “I noticed that the company’s reviews from employees on Glassdoor include a lot of concerns about culture and work hours. I’m curious what your take is on that and if it’s something the company is working to change.”

So, inquisitive and curious, but not accusatory. And really, if someone reacts badly to that, that’s going to tell you a lot.

Okay. Let’s say that you’re interviewing for a job, and you’re talking to a bunch of different people there. And as you do, you’re hearing conflicting things about the job – one person tells you that the focus of the role is X, and another says X isn’t as important as it used to be and Y is really where this person will focus now. Or whatever – but the idea is, you’re hearing different things from different people, and it’s important enough that you need to get it clarified before you could comfortable take the job.

So maybe you say something like this: “I’ve heard different perspectives on the job from Jane, Bob, and Olivia. It sounds like, on one hand, some people want to see the role focus on X, and other people really think it should focus on Y. Can you help me get a better sense of how those will be balanced, and whether there’s internal alignment about what people want to see from the position?”

So again, the tone here is matter of fact and curious – here’s this thing that I’ve noticed, can you help me understand it better?

I took a look through some past letters at the Ask a Manager website that were asking questions about interviews where tone was really important, and I thought we could talk through some of those too. One person wrote in about an interview they had where their interviewers all seemed to have some sot of problem with the job itself, the one she was interviewing for, and they kept saying things like, “What do you see MISSING from this job description?” and “What do you see as problematic about this role?” She, of course, was wondering what was going on – it seems like a red flag, but she wasn’t sure how to figure out what it was really about.

When something in an interview is confusing you, it’s okay to ask about it! In this situation, you could say something like, “I’m curious about the questions you’re asking. It sounds like you might have some concerns about how the role is structured — am I reading that correctly?” Or, “I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that question too — do you think there’s something problematic about the role?” You want to be pleasant about it, of course; your tone needs to sound curious, not annoyed. But you’re there to collect information just as much as they are, and it’s okay to ask about what you’re hearing if it’s not clear to you!

Another person wrote in asking if there’s a way to ask if they’d have work much with one particular person – apparently there was someone who was just rude and horrible during the process, and they’ve heard bad things about them too. And they’re wondering if there’s a way to say, “Hey, I’m interested in the job, but how closely would I be working with that jerk?”

You can’t say it like that, of course, but you can say: “I’ve really enjoyed getting the chance to learn more about the position. Can you give me a sense of how my role interacts with Jane? How closely would we be working together, if at all?” The tone here needs to be neutral. You don’t want it to sound like you’re obviously saying “ugh, I don’t want to work with Jane.” The person you’re talking to is going to figure out why you’re asking anyway, but it’s important for you to still come across professionally.

I sometimes get letters from people who encounter truly hostile interviewers – interviewers who are just outright jerks, and you figure out during the interview that there’s no way in hell you’d ever take a job working for them. If you’re in that situation, you don’t need to stay and be abused – you’re allowed to end the interview early, just like the interviewer is allowed to do that too.

The most low-key way to do it is to say something like,“You know, as we’re talking, I’m getting the sense that the fit here wouldn’t be right. I appreciate your time, and best of luck filling the position.” And that’s the tone – polite, but matter of fact, and firm.

However, if you want to be more direct that that – and sometimes you might want to, if you’re not worried about burning a bridge – you could say it like this:  “I have to be honest, your tone is really throwing me here. I don’t think we’d work together well, so I don’t think it makes sense to continue talking. I appreciate your time meeting with me, and I wish you the best in filling the position.” That’s it!

Or, let’s say that you realize during the interview that you definitely wouldn’t take the job, but it’s not that the interviewer is being a jerk – it’s just clear to you that it’s not the right position for you. In most cases, I’d say it makes sense to stay and finish out the interview because, who knows, it’s possible that the company will have an opening in the future that you do want, so you might as well make a good impression. But if you’re, like, in the middle on an all-day interview, it doesn’t make sense for you or them to invest a bunch of hours when you already know you wouldn’t take the job. In that case, you can say something like:   “As we’re talking, I’m realizing that this probably isn’t quite the right fit for me. I really appreciate the time you’ve spent talking with me, but I don’t feel right taking up more of your time.”

Ideally, you’d add in something brief about why, if there’s something you’re comfortable explaining and that you can easily capture in a sentence or two. So like you might say “I’m looking for something more X” or “I hadn’t realized the job was so heavily focused on Y or “we’re further apart on salary than I’d realized.”

Okay, let’s say you’ve had multiple interviews with a company and they just keep asking for more. I’m not talking about two or three interviews – that’s pretty normal. But some people end up with five or six or even more interviews for the same job. If that’s happening and they haven’t clearly told you what remains in the process, you can ask about it! It’s something like this:  “Can you tell me more about what steps remain in your process and what your likely timeline will be for making a decision?” Or, you could even say: “I’m very interested in this position, but it’s becoming harder for me to take time off work for additional meetings. Would it be possible for us to consolidate some of the remaining steps?”

So your tone there isn’t demanding, but it’s assertive. It’s pleasant, but it’s still assertive.

Now, let’s say you go through the interview process and you get the offer! And you want to ask for a particular perk, like, say, working from home on Fridays. It helps to frame the request as “Would you be open to X?” or “I’d like Y because of Z. Is that an option on your end?” That way you’re being direct about what you want, but you’re not demanding it.

So if you want to ask about working from home, it could be something like:  “My current job is very work-from-home-friendly, and I usually work from home a few times a month. Would you be open to me continuing to do that?”

Or you could even tie it to salary – if they’re not able to meet the salary you asked for, maybe you decide that you want to ask for one work-from-home day each week to make the offer more attractive to you. So it could be:“I understand you’re not able to go up to X. I’d be willing to accept the job for Y if I was able to work from home one day a week, since there’s value to me in cutting back on commuting time. Would that work on your end?”

So the tone here is pleasant, matter of fact – it’s not aggressive negotiating or, on the other extreme, being deferential and kowtowing. You’re just two business people seeing if you can figure out mutually agreeable terms. That’s the tone.

Speaking of salary, I think people really struggle with tone on that! There’s a whole separate episode of the show that’s about what salary negotiation should sound like, so you might want to check that out! It’s the episode from April 25, 2018, called “What Should Salary Negotiation Sound Like?”

But let’s talk about a piece of salary discussions that didn’t get discussed there – which is how to handle questions about what you’ve earned in the past.

To be clear, your salary history is no one’s business but yours, and it’s ridiculous that some employers still expect you to share it. In fact, it’s so ridiculous that some states are starting to make it illegal for them to ask, which is great. (Those states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.) But in most the U.S., it’s still legal for them to ask, and for them to require an answer from you, so let’s talk about what to do if that happens and you’re not somewhere where it’s prohibited by law.

First, if you’re asked what you’ve been making in the past or make currently, try instead answering with what salary you’re looking for now. Like just, “I’m looking for something in the range of X-Y.” Sometimes they’ll accept that answer and not push to know what you’re making now!

But if they do push, you can try saying, “Well, that’s covered under my confidentiality agreement with my employer – we’re not allowed to share the company’s salary structure outside the company – but what I’m looking for is X-Y.” Because that’s actually probably true – take a look at your company manual and there’s a good chance you’ll find that in there, or it’s an unofficial expectation.

But what if you get an employer who’s really pushing this and who won’t drop it? And what if you know that you’re underpaid, and you don’t want them tying a salary offer to what you’ve been making? In that case, your response could sound like this: “Well, one of the main reasons I’m looking to change jobs is that I know I’m underpaid for the field. I’m leaving in part to get my salary back in line with market rates – meaning $X – $Y for a job like this one.” Very early on my career, I was in this exact situation  — I’d been working for a nonprofit earning hardly anything and I was interviewing for a job that would more than double my salary. And when they asked about it, I said it this way: “I’ve loved the work I’ve been doing, and I was willing to do it for well-below market rates because I was so personally invested in the organization and I was learning a huge amount that I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn somewhere else. But now I’m ready to move on from that stage, and part of the reason I’m leaving is because I want to be paid a normal market rate.”

Okay, let’s do one more. And let’s do one that people really get anxious about – how to talk about a past firing in an interview. If you get asked about why you left a job that you were fired from, the key to talking about it is to be calm, not defensive or bitter. Or emotional at all, for that matter. And to be concise – you really only need a sentence or two here, not an exhaustive explanation. Your interviewer doesn’t need all the details, just the upshot.  So here are some examples of what it could sound like: “Actually, I was let go! I reported to two different managers and got conflicting instructions from each of them, and I didn’t speak up about it when I should have. I tried to make it all work, which wasn’t realistic, and ultimately I dropped some balls. It taught me a lot about needing to speak up early on when priorities aren’t clear so that never happens again.”

Or here’s a different one: “It ended up being a bad fit. They were looking for design expertise when I’m really an editor, not a designer. Ultimately we agreed that it didn’t make sense for me to be in that job.”

Okay! Those were a lot of examples, and hopefully it helped to hear them out loud. If there’s another topic where you want me to tackle tone, write in and let me know! I’m at

Also, I don’t normally make a big plug for my book on this show, but if you have found this kind of sample language useful, you might really like the Ask a Manager book because it’s filled with sample language for all sorts of situations you might run into at work, and there’s a whole section on talking to your interviewer. In fact, I took some of the examples today from the book! If you want to check it out, it’s called Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. And you can order it on Amazon or anywhere books are sold.

Okay, that’s it for today. I’ll be back next week with our more traditional Q&A format.