3 ways to rescue a job interview that’s going wrong

April 30, 2015, 2:49 PM UTC
job interview
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Photograph by Jon Berkeley—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Every job hunter has been there, even if only in a discouraging daydream: You show up, on time, and pumped up for a key meeting with a hiring manager. But, as the conversation goes on, you get the sinking feeling that it just isn’t going your way.

“You need to know how to turn the discussion back in your favor if it does start to go awry,” says Tracy Cashman, a senior vice president and partner in the IT search practice at recruiting firm WinterWyman. Here are the three most common problems she hears about from job candidates, and how to recover:

1. The interviewer isn’t ready, or is noticeably distracted. “There could be lots of reasons for this,” Cashman notes. “Maybe he didn’t have time to read your resume before the appointment, or there is a crisis in the office, or he’s just having a bad day. Whatever the cause, you need to take control of the interview.”

The fix: Bring copies of your resume and offer one, with a few brief remarks about your experience and why it’s a good fit for the opening. If that doesn’t seem to help the interviewer focus on you, “he may just be too distracted to have any kind of real conversation,” Cashman says. “In that case, politely ask whether you can reschedule. You could say something like, ‘It seems I may have arrived at a difficult time. Is there a better time for us to meet and talk about the job?’ You have nothing to lose but a bad interview, and the other person may really appreciate your understanding and flexibility.”

2. You don’t know the answer to a question. This could happen to anyone, but it’s particularly critical in IT, since part of the interview process for tech positions is usually a test of specific skills that may not be a precise fit with the work you’ve done so far.

The fix: “When you’re nervous, you may draw a blank on something you actually do know,” Cashman says. “If that happens, smile and acknowledge it. Most people will be sympathetic. Talk about how you would find the answer if you ever needed to recall it, or figure it out, while on the job.” If you really have no clue, however, “don’t B.S. or pretend. Instead, draw a parallel with experience you do have, or describe how you might go about finding the solution. This can impress an interviewer by showing him or her your problem-solving skills and resourcefulness under pressure.”

3. The interviewer seems underwhelmed by your background or one of your answers. “Sometimes the person will come right out and tell you where she feels you are weak, what skills you may be lacking, or that she disagrees with an opinion you’ve expressed,” says Cashman. “More often, though, you may just get the feeling that things aren’t clicking.”

The fix: Most of us are lousy mind-readers, so avoid trying to guess, Cashman advises. “Instead, ask directly. For example, you could say, ‘It seems you may have a concern about something I said. May I ask what it was?,’ or ‘I get the feeling you may think I’m lacking the experience you want in XYZ. If so, I’d like to tell you more about an XYZ project I worked on.’”

Sometimes the problem is a simple miscommunication that can be easily ironed out, but “if you don’t address it in the interview, you usually can’t go back and fix it later,” says Cashman. “That’s why it’s also important to ask how you did at the end of the meeting. One of the most powerful questions is, ‘What would you be looking for in the ideal candidate for this job that you didn’t see in me?’” The answer might surprise you, but in any case, “it gives you one last chance to sell yourself” — and demonstrate how fast you can think on your feet.

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