So you arrive at a big job interview confident and prepared. It starts off strong. Conversation flows smoothly. You’re saying all the right things.
Suddenly, the hiring manager asks you a question you didn’t anticipate.
The “deer in the headlights” look washes over your face. You flounder for an answer that fails to impress the hiring manager. Your confidence takes a hit, and the interview, along with any chance of getting the job, quickly head south.
Whether it’s a surprise question, a wardrobe malfunction or the hour-long interview that unexpectedly turns into a day-long affair, job interviews are filled with on-the-spot situations that must be handled deftly by the candidate. If not, these situations will sink even the most prepared professional.
To help you anticipate these unexpected twists and turns, career experts and corporate recruiters shared eight situations that can come up during a job interview. They offer advice on how to navigate them gracefully so that you can get the interview back on track.
1. You’re caught off-guard by an inappropriate or illegal question.
By law, employers aren’t allowed to ask job seekers certain questions, such as “Are you married?” or “Do you have kids?” But some hiring managers do so anyway, and these questions can throw a candidate for a loop.
Susan Whitcomb, a career coach who’s authored a variety of books on career management, including Interview Magic, recommends a three-step process for answering touchy questions:
- Avoid a direct response to an illegal question if it has the slightest chance of hurting your candidacy.
- Address the hiring manager’s underlying concern that’s driving the question.
- Accentuate a positive character trait or skill that will resound with the hiring manager.
When asked if you’re married, for instance, Whitcomb suggests a job seeker reply like this: “I’m in a solid relationship. I’m blessed to have someone who supports me wholly in my career. You may wonder about my personal life and how it might affect my ability to travel and my work hours. My last position required me to work 60 hours a week and to travel once a month. I love that quiet time in the hotel at night when I can really focus on my work.”
2. You need to address the dreaded “sticky wicket.”
Many job candidates have a “sticky wicket” in their employment histories, such as a layoff, job-hopping or even termination with cause. Candidates who have these issues are in a particularly sticky situation. How they handle discussing their employment history can mean the difference between staying in the game and sudden-death elimination.
Bluffing your way through questions about, say, the length of your unemployment or the circumstances surrounding your departure from your last position, is out of the question, says Whitcomb. She advises job seekers to be proactive and forthright in addressing thorny employment issues. “Write out answers to those questions that you hope nobody will ask you so that you’re not caught off guard and you have a positive answer to them,” she says.
For example, Whitcomb suggests a job seeker, who was fired or laid off, say something like, “I just want to volunteer that in my last position, I was asked to leave. It was based on some circumstances that I have learned a great deal from. I can tell you what I’ve learned from the situation, how I’ve applied it, how it’s made me a better person and a better candidate for your organization.”
Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s vice president of human resources, also recommends explaining what you learned from the situation and any new skills you picked up that would make you successful in the position for which you’re interviewing. “You have to bring your previous experience back to why you’re the best fit for the job,” she says.
3. You give a ho-hum answer.
No matter how much you prepare for an interview, a hiring manager is bound to ask a perfectly legal question that you never anticipated. If your mind goes blank and you muster a mediocre answer, all is not lost. You can always re-address the question later, says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, Vault.com’s career expert and a former corporate recruiter with Citigroup and Warner Lambert.
She recalls a job interview when a hiring manager asked her a particularly difficult, unexpected question. Her answer was less than satisfying. But 10 minutes later, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says, she recalled a project she had worked on that would have made for a better answer, and she asked the hiring manager if she could go back to his previous question. He said yes, and she was able to deliver a much more pointed answer.
“Answers to unexpected questions will come to you,” says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. “Sometimes you just have to relax.”
4. You ramble.
When job candidates don’t know how to answer a question, they’ll often ramble until they zero in on the answer. The risk with this strategy is that a tangent may never lead to the bull’s eye.
If you find yourself prattling, stop. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I think I got off your train of thought. Can you restate the question?'” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says.
Pausing to consider a question more thoughtfully shows the hiring manager that you’re in control of the interview. You’re also self-aware enough to know when you’re not communicating effectively and must find a new way to connect with the hiring manager, says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio.
“I appreciate when candidates realize they’re on shaky footing and try to get back on more stable ground,” she says.
How do you know if you’re rambling? Whitcomb says answers to most job interview questions shouldn’t take more than two minutes to articulate. A notable exception: Behavioral interview questions may require more time to answer.
She recommends the SMART (situation, metrics, action, result, tie-in) strategy for answering interview questions, which is similar to the CAR, or challenge-action-result format. The idea is for the job seeker to talk about a situation she addressed, cite some metrics that shed light on the situation, describe the action she took as well as the result, and, lastly show how it all ties into the value she’d bring to the prospective employer.
5. You lack an important skill.
An average of eight job seekers compete for every open position, Whitcomb says. Employers can afford to be picky. Chances are you don’t possess all the criteria the hiring manager seeks in a candidate. This means you’ll have to address your “deficiencies” during the job interview.
The most effective way to address a skill gap, says Whitcomb, is to focus on what the hiring manager wants from a candidate who possesses that particular skill, rather than focusing on your lack of that skill.
For example, if the hiring manager wants a candidate with a particular degree or experience with a particular technology that the candidate doesn’t possess, Whitcomb recommends the candidate ask the following question: “I’m hearing you need to have someone with X degree or experience using this particular product. Tell me what you need accomplished as a result of that degree or experience.”
By learning what the hiring manager specifically hopes to accomplish, the candidate now has “something they can aim at,” Whitcomb says. “They can say, ‘Here’s how I did something similar in previous positions. I did it with a technology that I had no prior knowledge of. Here’s how I went about the process.’ Anytime you can aim at specific results, you have a much better chance of influencing the hiring manager.”
6. You lose steam.
Job interviews can be physically and emotionally taxing. They can last all day and involve intense conversations with multiple decision-makers inside an organization, sometimes in different buildings. Add intellectually taxing questions, coupled with the pressure a job seeker puts on himself to land the job, and it’s no surprise a candidate’s energy wanes quickly.
“A lot of things can drain your energy during a job interview, but you must keep it up,” says Vault.com’s Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. “You have to keep your focus at 110 percent in every meeting.”
Losing steam during a job interview can indicate to a prospective employer that you may not be up to the job, she says. To maintain your energy during a stressful day of job interviews, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio advises job seekers to get a good night’s sleep before the big day and to keep some energy-boosting snacks and drinks, such as water and trail mix, on hand.
If you run out of energy, there’s a good chance you’ll also let your guard down, says Whitcomb. “One of the traps with a day-long interview is that the employer is expecting you to start letting your guard down later in the day,” she says. “That’s when you need to be more conscientious about leaning forward in your chair, leaning into the conversation, not sitting back and relaxing, asking good questions and being curious.”
On a related note, don’t fall into the trap of confiding in whomever is walking you from room to room, warns Whitcomb. “When they ask, ‘How’s it going,’ the temptation is to confide in them,” she says. Just remember that this person will likely be giving his or her impressions of you to the hiring manager at the end of the day.
7. You experience a wardrobe malfunction.
A run in your stockings. Trouser socks that sag around your ankles. Food in your teeth. A fly that won’t stay up. A button that pops off a shirt or waistband.
Oddly, the danger with these wardrobe problems is that they can be even more distracting to you than they are to your prospective employer. If you’re worried about how you look, you won’t be able to focus 110 percent on the questions and answers between the hiring manager and you. Always pack an extra pair of pantyhose, socks, a small sewing kit with safety pins, and some dental floss in your briefcase to take care of quick repairs in the restroom.
8. Your cell phone rings.
You’re nervous. You have a million things on your mind. In the process of reviewing facts and figures about your employer and answers to potential interview questions, you forget to shut off your cell phone. True to Murphy’s Law, the darn thing starts ringing during the interview—and hiring managers hate this.
The best way to rebound from this potentially irreparable gaffe, says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, is to apologize for the disruption and to quickly shut off the phone. Make sure you do this without glancing at the phone number.
What situations have you encountered during a job interview that nearly killed your chances with the hiring manager? How did you rebound from them?
Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.