Interview Disaster Relief

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Posted by Kemba Dunham on June 16, 2011

Your resume is impeccable, your outfit spiffy. You’ve studiously researched the company. And while it may initially seem you and this job were meant to be together, the interview, like a date, can go either way. You might say something stupid. You might not hit it off with the interviewer. Your cell phone might ring right in the middle of one of the recruiter’s questions. But experts say you can save your skin (in most cases). Here are some pointers to do just that.

1. You’ve embellished one of your roles at a previous employer—and the recruiter caught you.  
You told yourself it’s fine to say you “managed a team,” when you really just sent emails to coworkers to set up a March Madness pool. You also told yourself everyone has fudged, although no one will ever admit it. But try telling that to the interviewer sitting across from you with a furrowed brow.

Recruiters say if you’re caught flat-out lying about your credentials in a job interview, you have little to no shot of getting an offer. This is a tough one to get out of, so Arnnon Geshuri, vice president of human resources at Tesla Motors, suggests falling on your sword is the best bet. Geshuri recalls grilling a candidate about a position he had clearly embellished. After the candidate realized he had no choice but to come clean, he admitted he hadn’t done everything he stated on the resume. He then decided to pull himself out of the application process. In the end, the fiction writer didn’t get hired because he wasn’t qualified, says Geshuri, “but in that instance, he scored some points and left the interview on good terms.”

In some cases, you can overcome resume fudge, depending on how much wiggle room you’ve left yourself. Janet Raiffa, former head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs, says if a recruiter tells you point blank you are too junior to have done what you claimed, you can always respond, “I didn’t have the high-level responsibilities on every project, but I highlighted the efforts I really got to stretch on.”

2. You arrive late to the interview.
A 21-car pileup on I-95, a snowstorm that swept in the night before, and your father’s bypass surgery are acceptable excuses. The alarm not going off or thinking you were still on daylight savings time are not. “Being tardy does leave a negative impression and makes us question your ability to be responsible,” says Marissa Cherian, global director of management consulting recruitment at Accenture. 

If you have a legitimate excuse, immediately call and let the recruiter know, giving as much information as you can about your arrival time. Acknowledge in the process that you might have thrown off the interviewer’s day and offer to meet him at another time—at his convenience. If the excuse falls into the “not acceptable” category, just tell the truth—and fasten your seat belt for a tough interview. 

Either way, once you do finally meet with the hiring manager, apologize immediately—and profusely.

3. The interviewer asks you a brainteaser of a question and you’re completely stumped.
Some candidates in this difficult situation say they don’t have the foggiest idea and wait for the next question. Others try to fake their way through it. But while recruiters are looking for the right answer, they are equally interested in seeing how candidates handle themselves when the answer isn’t on the tip of their tongues. “You should start solving the problem by thinking aloud,” says Caitlin McLaughlin, director of talent acquisition at PNC. “It shows the person has some facility with the concepts. Say, ‘I don’t know the answer, but if I were going to think through it, here are some key criteria I’d use.’”

4. You say something truly stupid or grossly inappropriate.
You and the recruiter are really getting on together. Then, for a split second, you forget you’re not on campus and let one of those lovely expletives slip out. The recruiter may not have blinked, but make no mistake—he caught it.

Let’s hope you immediately realize your mistake and apologize, claiming that in the heat of the moment, you blew it. No matter how sincere the apology, you’ll most likely be remembered for that verbal jewel. Sarah Quarterman, senior vice president of human resources at Bank of America, recalls chatting with a student who fired off some bad language and didn’t acknowledge it. “It speaks to how professional someone is going to be with a client and points to someone’s judgment.”

So, depending on the degree of the profanity, context, and the perspective of the interviewer, “this could be a fatal error,” says Juan Morales, a managing director at the Miami office of Stanton Chase International, an executive search firm. A “hell” is easier to recover from than an F-bomb. Just make sure the mistake isn’t repeated.

5. Twenty minutes into the interview, the recruiter calls you by the wrong name.
“So, Christine, it looks like you accomplished a lot in your past job,” says the marketing director. Yeah, he got that part right. Problem is, you’re Michelle. Your inclination might be to brush off the mistake to keep the conversation flowing. Wrong move. A recruiter sees a lot of people and if you don’t give a solid impression of your name and identity, your entire interview might get lost in the black hole of her BlackBerry.

Plus, not correcting the person might say something about you. “I once called a student by the wrong name and she didn’t set me straight,” says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, partner at SixFigureStart, a career coaching firm. “I later realized [the error], but it made me wonder why she allowed me to call her by the wrong name.” Simply interrupt and say, “Just to let you know, my name is Michelle. I know you’re doing a lot of interviews, so it’s tough to keep track of everyone.”

6. The recruiter says something you know is plain wrong.
“We’ve had six straight quarters of earnings increases,” says the manager conducting the interview. But because you pored over the company’s earnings like it was last month’s bank statement, you know for a fact that one of those quarters had a decline.

Sure, this might seem like the perfect time to show you’ve done your homework. But making the recruiter feel like an idiot in the process is a surefire way not to get the job, says Brian Drum, president and chief executive of Drum Associates Inc., an executive search firm in Manhattan. Drum suggests moving away from the false statement and back to your accomplishments.

On the other hand, the interviewer could be testing you, “and you have to assess that as well,” says Drum. You could tactfully mention (preferably with a smile) you understood something else to be the case. The key, says Drum, “is to maintain your equanimity.”

7. Your cell phone rings.
It’s annoying and short-sighted not to have turned it off in the first place. But you will seriously limit your chances of getting any offer if you check to see who is calling. Thanasoulis-Cerrachio of SixFigureStart found it “infuriating” when a candidate glanced at the number before shutting it off. Recruiters say there is nothing else to do but apologize and say you thought you had shut it off. The key is to assure the recruiter nothing is more important than the interview.

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