Desperate Measures

Championing change for your fellow workers may be the upright thing to do. But approach it the wrong way and you could find yourself out of a job.

YOU'RE IN THE MIDDLE of a job interview, and it's going poorly. Very poorly. Throw in the towel? Never! Here's how you can still salvage the opportunity.

Ever endure a job interview in which you couldn't do anything right? Consider the plight of Steve Kaspar. His nightmare began on the drive to his appointment at a Toronto social services agency, when he spilled coffee on his suit. As soon as he arrived, he made a beeline for the bathroom to clean up. But to his horror, the toilet overflowed, soaking his Italian loafers. He ran to fetch a janitor, then returned to the bathroom to frantically scrub his shoes. "I lost track of time and got to the interview a few minutes late," says Kaspar.

His meeting with a scowling manager went badly and didn't last long. But Kaspar, still hoping to make a good impression, thanked the interviewer profusely as he got up to leave. Then he opened the door and walked straight into a storage closet. "That was it," recalls Kaspar. "I just broke up laughing."

Kaspar wrote off his interview as a lost cause, and who could blame him? When so many things go wrong, sometimes all you can do is wave the white flag and move on. But not every interview misstep dooms your job chances. "For the interviewer, it serves as a test to see how ruffled you get," notes Monster.com interview coach Carole Martin.

Odd Jobs
From Boardroom to Bathroom
"Executive in Training. Opportunity to launch a small community newspaper (circulation 1,500), while providing logistical assistance in the management of a community Internet service organization. The job also requires basic domestic support and dog walking."
San Francisco
Craigslist.org, July 7
Heavy Duty
"Tough Baby Sitter needed for adolescent. Have tried everything else. Would like to have my child not flunk out at this age. I have a 12-y.o. who doesn't do homework, won't study or pay attention in summer school. I would like to find someone to go to summer school with her and make sure she shuts up, stops talking to her friends and listens to the teacher."
Santa Monica, Calif.
Craigslist.org, July 19

And with interviews so rare these days, you can't afford to squander an opportunity. So how do you salvage an interview gone bad? The fix depends on the problem.

The late arrival. Showing up more than a few minutes late tells the interviewer you're about as reliable as a '74 Pinto. Acknowledge the gravity of the error right away. "The worst thing you can do is blame something else, so don't explain that the train was late," says Long Beach, N.Y., career coach Deborah Brown. "Instead, apologize and say, 'I didn't plan my morning as effectively as I could have, but this is not a reflection of who I am. It won't happen again.'"

Wardrobe Woes
Torn stockingsand magically appearing stains are common interview goblins. If you can't get to the store for a replacement, at least make sure the interviewer understands you're not an oblivious slob. Matt Deluca, HR director at online gaming firm Flipside, suggests saying, "What a morning I've had!

Do you know what I can do to get rid of this coffee stain?" An unzipped fly, however, is best ignored. "Pretend it's not happening," says Deluca. "Chances are, the interviewer didn't notice, and even if they did, you don't want to make them uncomfortable."

The Embarrassing Gaffe
Whether you've knocked over a vase or forgotten the name of the interviewer, apologize or explain with good humor and let it go. "The worst thing you can do is recall the incident later on," says Martin. "You want them to move on to more important things." Lori Olson, an HR manager with State Farm, interviewed a candidate who, halfway through the conversation, suddenly started crying. Olson would have written her off as someone who couldn't handle pressure, but to Olson's surprise, the candidate quickly pulled herself together. "I'm so nervous. I've been preparing for a few days and I became overwhelmed," she explained. "Could you ask the question again?" She handled the rest of the interview with such poise that Olson wound up hiring her.

Playing the Critic
Even if you're raising legitimate concerns about a company, being too blunt is a fast way to turn off a recruiter. "I've seen people say things like, 'I heard this company isn't a great place to work,' or 'I heard people never got their bonuses last year,'" says Steve Hayes, vice chairman of recruiter DHR International. If your query makes your interviewer bristle, back up and clarify why you asked. Explaining that you lost your last job because your employer went bankrupt will show the interviewer that your concerns about the firm's finances are justified.

Interviewer Apathy
A meeting that simply goes flat is difficult to remedy since the underlying problem is hard to diagnose. But by picking up on body language, you can adjust your presentation. "Notice when someone's distracted, looking at their watch and crossing their arms," says Jane Howse, a recruiter with the Alexander Group. If that happens, keep your responses brief and keep the interviewer engaged with comments like, "Is that the sort of information you were looking for?" Instead of just rattling off a list of your achievements, tell an interesting story.

The deep freeze may also indicate that the interviewer has concerns about your qualifications. Sean North encountered this when he was up for a tech support job at telecom SBC in Troy, Mich. The interviewer asked about one mainframe application after another, and North was clueless. "The interviewer was probably thinking, 'What does this guy know?'" North recalls. "He became indifferent, like he was just going through the motions." Figuring he had nothing to lose, North broke in and asked whether the job involved PC software, his strong point. When the interviewer brightened up, North described all the applications he'd dealt with. "We can teach you the mainframe applications," the interviewer concluded.

If you're at a total loss as to what's wrong, you can try one last ploy at the end. Compliment the recruiter's interviewing skills with something like: "This was a pleasure — you really put me at ease." Says Martin: "A little flattery goes a long way."

My Favorite Interview Question
Who is your favorite relative?
— Strauss Zelnick, former CEO of BMG Entertainment

Why he asks it: "It tells you something about that person's values and aspirations. I've had answers across the board — from 'my sister-in-law nun who devotes her life to working with poor people' to 'my rich uncle who makes a lot of money.' One of my favorite answers was the person who told me about his father, an entrepreneur who made a lot of money but almost lost it all. At 60 he picked himself up and started over again. That showed perseverance in the face of adversity."

Networking
Word Play
"Business silo"..."quality vector"..."future proofing." The boss is still speaking that strange language he picked up on his last trip to Planet Jargon, so why not have some fun with it? The Business Buzzword Bingo! Web site (isd.usc.edu/~karl/Bingo) draws from hundreds of lame buzzwords to randomly generate bingo cards you and your pals can print out for discreet use at meetings. If the right five phrases are uttered, you win. Just resist the temptation to yell Bingo!
— Anne Kadet