When, nearly 40 years ago, Alex Bielak—who until he semi-retired was director of the Science and Technology Liaison group at —was flown to Brussels to interview for a junior position with the European Commission, he was surprised by the scenario he was thrust into. “I found myself sitting at my own little table facing a row of half a dozen interviewers with microphones and headsets, and their associated interpreters sitting behind them in glassed-in boxes,” recalls Bielak, who today works as a self-employed knowledge broker and writer based in Ontario, Canada. “Talk about terrifying. It felt more like a prosecution than an interview. I could barely compose myself enough to answer what my name was. It really went downhill from there.”
Bielak didn’t get the job. The moral of the story, he says, is “that you never know what is going to be thrown at you” during a job interview.
“However if the candidate and interviewer manage the situation well I think the incident can be forgotten and the interview can continue with a good result.” —Victoria Walker
For most people, a job interview is quite enough to manage on its own. It doesn’t take a panel of intimidating interviewers to derail your train of thought. Embarrassing situations like tripping over the door jamb as you enter the interview room or being asked unexpected personal questions may jeopardize your focus and confidence and cause the interview to fall apart. How quickly you regain composure could determine whether or not you get the job.
In hindsight, Bielak says, a bit more experience or preparation could have helped him regain control of that interview. If he had talked to someone who had interviewed with the commission, for example, he could have anticipated the courtroom-style setting and the complex questions he was asked. Bielak also suggests that to avoid freezing up when faced with similarly unexpected arrangements, people preparing for an interview should “have friends or family serially throw practice questions at them at random times.”
But what if you do fall over the door jamb, spill your coffee, or otherwise inadvertently put yourself in an uncomfortable situation? Basking Ridge, New Jersey–based psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps says that “acknowledging a problem in a matter-of-fact manner can be helpful. Then move on. You want to convey that you can accept human failings or mistakes, but still feel confident in yourself.” Conversely, if something embarrassing has happened to the interviewer—who then just carries on as if nothing has occurred—follow their lead, Becker-Phelps suggests. If the interviewer makes a joke about the incident, “feel free to chuckle—but not too much.”
Another awkward situation interviewees might find themselves in is when their interviewer appears distracted, maybe checking their phone messages or e-mails. What should you do? Just “roll with it,” suggests Becker-Phelps, and refocus on answering the questions even though the interviewer seems not to be paying close attention. However, “if the situation really does derail [the interviewee], they might consider how to bring it up diplomatically”—noting, for instance, that should the interviewer need to attend to something, you are happy to wait. You need to take great care, though, not to sound admonishing, Becker-Phelps adds. “It must be really obvious that something is going on and that you’re just responding to it.”
Drawing the line
Some situations can be trickier to deal with. For instance, some interviews nowadays involve personality-probing methods, like being observed carrying out a task alongside other candidates. What if a test or task seems particularly whacky? Victoria Walker, a senior consultant with scientific recruitment agency CK Science in the United Kingdom, encourages candidates to “keep an open mind. HR managers would not want to extend the duration of an interview if it didn’t serve any purpose. However if you felt it wasn’t relevant to the position, you could politely ask what purpose the task serves,” she says.
Should you be asked to do a task that you vehemently disagree with, says Elizabeth Mortimer, a careers adviser at The University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, then don’t do it. “Whilst this is very uncommon within recruitment practice, nobody should do anything that is making them feel wholly uncomfortable,” she says. Mortimer encourages interviewees “to speak to a member of staff and take it from there.”
Despite legislation in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, there are also times when candidates are probed for details about their marital status or whether they are planning to start a family soon, or they are asked other inappropriate questions. If you are thrown by a question but are otherwise feeling comfortable with the interview, consider whether you may have misinterpreted. “Give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt and ask them to rephrase the question or elaborate,” Walker advises. This should reveal what type of information they are trying to obtain from you while buying you time not only to think up an appropriate response but also to decide whether you even wish to respond, Walker says.
It helps to try and put yourself into the shoes of the interviewer. A question about family life and children could easily be interpreted as the prospective employer’s unwillingness to give you potential time off for maternity leave or allow you to leave the office early, Walker says. But “they may actually be wondering whether they can offer you any flexi-time arrangements—or, they may be thinking of promoting someone internally who would prefer to work different hours,” she says. Try to ascertain the reasoning behind the question so that you can give a relevant answer, or answer honestly but seek clarification, Walker adds. For example, you could say, “Yes, I have two children—but may I ask what your reason is for asking? If it’s regarding travel then that’s not a problem, however if it’s regarding childcare my partner does the school run.” Even if the question is technically illegal, the interviewer may just be trying to build rapport, with no hidden agenda, Walker adds.
Should you refuse to answer a question, the consequences will really depend on the situation. “If the candidate is immediately defensive and offers no reason as to why they’ve decided not to answer, and the interviewer doesn’t take this very well—then it’s unlikely they’ll be asked back, especially if there were better interviewees,” Walker says. “However if the candidate and interviewer manage the situation well I think the incident can be forgotten, and the interview can continue with a good result.” The interviewer might make a faux pas without even realizing it, for example, and when the candidate flags it “they may realize their mistake and be horrified that they were potentially going to cause offense,” Walker says.
While truly inappropriate questioning is not a common occurrence, it does happen. When it does, Mortimer recommends keeping calm and politely declining to answer. “You could say ‘I’m afraid I don’t feel that question is relevant to this position,’ which makes it clear how you feel about the question being asked without sounding rude,” Walker says.
Should the interviewer become outright offensive or begin sexually harassing you, remember that you can always gather your belongings and leave. “There is no obligation to stay under any circumstance, so you are free to leave for any reason that feels right to you,” Becker-Phelps says.
Harness the courage to leave if you feel extremely uncomfortable, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, Becker-Phelps continues. “You can mull over what the problem was later when you feel safer. In these ambiguous situations, it helps to know yourself well so that you are more comfortable trusting your intuition.” Once you have a clearer view of what was inappropriate, you might consider reporting the matter by writing to the company’s human resources department and informing your university careers service, Mortimer advises.
Remembering that you are evaluating the interviewer and company can also help you retain confidence and composure if things start to go wrong during the interview. “It can give [the candidate] a sense that the interview is a two-way street. Both parties need to be comfortable with each other if there is to be a continued relationship,” Becker-Phelps says.
In our third installment of The Psychology of Interviews series, we will look into how fine tuning your personal appearance can help you to feel more confident and demonstrate your suitability for the job.
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