Working: Interview Blues

Sooner or later you'll run into one: a bad interviewer. Whether he's a nonstop talker, unfocused or flat-out mean, here are some tips for handling him.

Sooner or later you'll run into one: a bad interviewer. Whether he's a nonstop talker, unfocused or flat-out mean, here are some tips for handling him.

"NEXT VICTIM!" That's how Mike Massing was summoned into his interview with a small California tech company five years ago. "I thought it was a joke to put me at ease," he says. It wasn't.

As soon as Massing, a Northwestern University engineering student at the time, sat down, the interviewer began, "So, you have experience with HP Workstation. What operating system did you use? How did you modify it?" By Massing's estimate, the interviewer hit him with a dozen technical questions without taking a breath. When the barrage ended, Massing had no idea what to answer first.

"Well," he started, after a pause.

"That's why you're incompetent!" the interviewer roared. He went off on a long tirade, berating Massing for applying and calling him an illiterate. Massing stood up and thanked the man for his time. But the interviewer insisted on continuing. "At this point," says Massing, "I'm thinking maybe he's a little crazy, maybe he has a gun. So I sit down and listen."

For the next 10 minutes the interviewer grilled him on his thesis project, calling it "a mess," and said Massing didn't even belong in the sciences. "In the end, he told me I was pretty good for a lower type of company but not for him," says Massing.

His experience may be extreme, but bad interviewers are definite hazards. Career consultants tell of candidates kept waiting for hours and recruiters who blow cigar smoke in applicants' faces or don't even read the candidate's resume. "I had a client who actually had an interviewer fall asleep on him," says Cincinnati consultant Andrea Kay.

Here's a guide to the most common species of bad interviewer:

The Scatterbrain
You spent hours rehearsing answers and researching the company, but who's noticing? Not your interviewer. He's taking phone calls, chewing his sandwich and checking his watch while you talk.

Help him focus by requesting feedback. Ask, "Does that answer your question?" or "Do you want me to elaborate?" Another tip: "Maintain eye contact, slow down your speech and lower your voice," says Henry Lesher, senior VP of career consultancy Bernard Haldane Associates. "It draws them in."

If the interviewer is pressed for time, don't give longwinded answers or ask nonessential questions. In a follow-up note, add details you didn't have time to bring up. Think twice before you make an issue of the situation. Great Neck, N.Y., consultant Barbara Frankel had one client who told his distracted interviewer that he'd rather reschedule for a day when the employer had more time. "They never called back," she says.

The Busybody
Whether your interviewer bluntly demands, "How old are you?" or slyly asks, "What year did you graduate high school?" resist the urge to rebuff inappropriate questions. "If you take a stand, they're going to think that you're a potential problem," says New York consultant Barry Cohen.

Instead, address the interviewer's underlying concerns. If you're asked whether you plan to have children, for instance, try this: "If you're worried about my ability to travel and work long hours, I can assure you that's no problem."

If you don't mind answering directly, "briefly respond and then redirect the conversation," says Seattle counselor Janet Scarborough. "The focus should be on your qualifications."

The Chatterbox
The meeting is winding down, and you know everything about the interviewer's company, his work philosophy and his recent trip to Paris. But he still knows nothing about you -- because he hasn't stopped talking. How to get a few words in? Never interrupt a chatterbox with statements about yourself. Instead, ask something along the lines of: "What are your goals and how can the person in this job help you achieve them?"

Give the interviewer cues that you are about to speak by leaning forward and opening your mouth slightly. If that doesn't work, wait until the end of the interview and ask, "Do you have any questions about my ability to do the job?"

But don't overdo it. "For this kind of person, the best candidate is probably a great listener," says Toronto consultant Ken Sproul. That means lots of enthusiastic nodding and eye contact.

The Incompetent
Your inquisitor may be terrific at his job but not know the first thing about assessing candidates. The signs? He adheres to tried-and-true HR gambits such as "Tell me about yourself" and "Where do you see yourself in five years?" In the hands of a skilled interviewer, these are stepping-off points, but the incompetent lurches from one canned question to another. That leads to your canned answers, and neither of you learn enough to know whether you have a match.

Come armed with three or four reasons you're right for the job, and work at least one into each of your responses. The repetition will ensure that your points are remembered. While the interviewer probably won't ask, illustrate your points with stories about your past successes. "It becomes your responsibility to take control," says Charlottesville, Va., consultant David Dolak.

The Jerk
You may come across someone so unprofessional or nasty that there's no way to save the interview. In that case, you have nothing to lose by writing to the company, stating your qualifications and requesting an interview with someone further up the ladder. "But if it's the decision maker who's being kooky or rude, it's time to reevaluate if you want to work for that person," says careers columnist Amy Lindgren.

As for Mike Massing, he never heard back from the bizarre tech recruiter, but he did manage to exact some satisfaction: "I wrote a two-page rejection letter to the CEO."