Turning a nightmare interview into a winner

Job interviews are highly-charged slabs of social interaction; the stakes are high, emotions are engaged, everyone is stressed, and if things go wrong they can go very wrong indeed.  Failure to spot warning signs can have dire consequences – a bit like failing to notice a smouldering cigarette end in a fireworks factory. These examples show how quick action, or surprise interventions, can sometimes pluck an unexpected positive from the jaws of disaster.


1.  The candidate feels insulted

It’s an interview for a junior editorial position at a popular magazine. A hot July day, the interview is to be held in the editor’s small office. Five minutes late, the Candidate arrives, red-faced and sweaty. On paper this guy is by far the best of a good bunch; in the flesh, well, you can see the editor is already sceptical. She fires off her first question with no preliminary civilities, as a powerful tang of body odour pervades the room. He’s about to reply when the editor stands up, strides across the room and opens the window. The HR person recognises the man’s embarrassment, and seizes the initiative. Before the editor can resume the interrogation, she asks in a sweet way if he’d like a cold drink, adding, “how was your journey? It’s horrible on the tube today isn’t it?” The drink is provided, a cool breeze crosses the room, the editor is penitent, and what could have been a disastrous interview proceeds on a good footing. He gets the job.


2. Emotional cataract

At a digital advertising agency, two smart-casual young men are interviewing a young woman for the post of project manager, and she’s doing ok – or so she thinks. The young men – one the MD, the other design director, are getting bored and decide to liven up the interview: “What,” snarls the design man, “do you think is so great about you? We have four others with the same qualifications – why should I choose you?” It’s just a stock question they got off some website – but to the candidate, it arrives like a thunderbolt. She stammers something to the effect that “I’ve already told you …” and bursts into tears. The MD has a little more empathy, offers her tissues, and adds, “Honestly, we know how hard this is for you. It’s hard for us too – please don’t take this personally, you have superb qualifications. Let’s just rewind that and when you’re ready, move onto the next question”.

Her confidence restored, she shines in the rest of the interview, and becomes a long-term employee.


3. Things fall apart

It’s not just human failings that can wreck an interview. Inanimate objects also play their part – as they did at an interview at a logistics company in the Midlands. A young man is to be interviewed for a management post in the international department. The three-person interview panel wanted to put him at ease, so coffee and biscuits were offered. A large jug of fresh coffee is brought in and the HR man does the honours: he pushes the plunger, it is stuck. He pushes a little harder and a tsunami of hot coffee shoots out of the jug and into the laps of the interviewers. The horrified interviewee jumps up, grabs a wad of wipes and throws them into the lead interviewer’s hands. He asks if they’re OK, and even helps mop the table. Having escaped serious burns, the interview resumes with everyone, having shared this alarming experience, determined to wrestle the good out of a near-disaster. In fact, he doesn’t get the job – but a similar position arises in the same company a month later, he applies and is successful.


4. A new vacancy has arisen

Twenty minutes into an interview with a would-be web developer, and the IT manager and HR person begin asking tough questions about Javascript. The candidate is clearly fluffing it. Suddenly, a tremendous commotion breaks out directly outside the interview room – raised voices, then shouting, a man is yelling, he’s telling them where they can put their job, and something to the effect that they wouldn’t know a decent web designer if they bit them on the backside. The interviewers have frozen; when the row subsides, they try to laugh it all off, but the damage has been done. Then the IT guy has an epiphany: this young woman has worked as a web designer, and it’s clear that her skills are more on the design side than in deep coding. “We’ll get back to you”, they say. Three days later she’s back, being interviewed for the role of web designer, and gets the job.


5. Ignorance is relative

At the end of the interview, the interviewer asks an eager candidate for a market research job if she has any questions. So she asks a detailed question about whether the company’s new owners have said any more about a rumoured re-location to Peterborough? They haven’t a clue; in fact they had been in such a rush that day they totally missed the emails and the small news item on the city pages of the Standard. Thinking quickly, the interviewer says “Well, that’s a damn good question, I am afraid I am not at liberty to answer this straight away….but let’s hear what you think – if you were running this company, where would you choose as an ideal location?” She gave a well-argued answer and got the job.

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