How to Save a Job Interview That’s Going Downhill Fast

If you’re heading into a job interview soon, you’ve probably read a lot of advice on how to make a good impression on the hiring manager. Almost all of it will focus on preparation: practicing interview questions, researching the company and the role, even making sure your interview outfit is top-notch. Read enough of this advice, and you’ll start to get the impression that if you’re prepared, nothing could possibly go wrong.

If only that were true.

Of course, if you’ve been on an interview or two in your life, you already know this. No amount of preparation will prevent you from spilling coffee down the front of your white shirt or getting stuck in traffic for an hour. Sometimes, the best you can do is brainstorm solutions for the common problems that might arise, no matter how well-prepared you are.

When you’re late…

Obviously, you do your best not to be late for interviews. But sometimes, leaving an extra hour won’t be enough – the train will stall in the station or construction will reroute your trip through Antarctica and you’ll wind up a few minutes late, despite all your planning.

When this happens, your first instinct will be to rush into the office panting and flinging papers everywhere, apologizing to everyone you see. It’s counterintuitive, but take a beat instead and get yourself together. You don’t need to compound a bad impression by being late and having anxiety-induced cowlicks.

Find a restroom, fix your hair and your clothes, and take a few deep breaths. Then, when you go in, apologize once to the people you’re meeting, and leave it at that. They had to get to work today, too – chances are, they know everything that can go wrong on the commute.

When you put your foot in your mouth…

There are 1,000 ways to accidentally insult someone, no matter how hard you try to be polite. You might get their name slightly wrong, for example – hey, it’s not your fault that the interviewer’s name is CaroLINE and your sister’s name is CaroLYN – or you might try to find a common point of connection by mentioning your favorite sports team, only to find out that the interviewer is a fan of their bitterest rivals.

Ideally, of course, everyone’s an adult and lets it go. But again, a quick apology can go a long way toward helping the situation along. Just don’t overdo it. The goal is to get everyone thinking about your qualifications, and let the incident fade from memory.

When you suddenly become the clumsiest person you know…

You spill your coffee, or you trip over the carpet, or you drop your portfolio … into a tray of sandwiches. It’s flustering and embarrassing, but unless the job you’re interviewing for requires a high level of dexterity – for example, waiter at a fancy restaurant – there’s no reason for a little clumsiness to derail the conversation. In fact, you can turn the incident to your advantage by showing that you recover quickly from unexpected setbacks. Clean up any mess as quickly as possible, make a joke, and use it as a segue. Maybe now’s a good opportunity to talk about a time you used your skills to fix a mess at a previous job.

When you don’t know how to answer a question…

Not knowing the best answer to a question won’t ruin a job interview – but rushing to answer it might. Take a moment to gather your thoughts before you answer, and don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer for clarification on what he or she means.

If you still need more time, Lily Zhang at The Muse suggests thinking out loud:

“For example, if you get asked something like, ‘Tell me about your copy editing process for long form articles,’ and you don’t actually have a process (yet), a good approach would be to imagine that you’re editing that article and share the steps out loud,” she advises. “Add transitional adverbs like ‘first,’ ‘then,’ and ‘lastly’ to give your answer some structure. You can also finish off with a qualifying statement that ‘the process varies depending on the situation,’ which shows that you’re flexible even if your answer isn’t what the hiring manager would do.”

Whatever you do, don’t try answering a question that wasn’t asked. The interviewer will probably call you on it. If you’re really stuck, it’s better to reiterate your interest in the position… and in learning new things. It’s honest, and allows you to move on as quickly as possible.

When the interviewer just doesn’t like you…

The interviewer doesn’t make eye contact, or doesn’t seem to like a single answer you give, or looks bored, or is dismissive. When you get the sense that the interviewer doesn’t like you, it can feel like all is lost.

First of all, don’t make assumptions. Your gut might well be telling you something… or the interviewer might just have a more aggressive style than you prefer. The goal remains the same as it would be if the interviewer seemed like your biggest fan: Make your case for why you’re the best candidate for the job, learn as much as possible about the role and the company, and pay attention for cues that will tell you what it’s like to actually work there.

That last bit is important: If the interviewer seems hostile or like they just don’t get you, you might want to ask yourself whether you really want to work at the company. While it’s totally possible to meet the one bad apple at your very first meeting, it’s also worth considering whether the hiring manager’s misery is induced by the job… or if their behavior indicates a culture you wouldn’t want to join.

File the information away with everything else you learn. After all, you’re interviewing the company as much as they’re interviewing you.

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