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How to Handle the Incompetent Interviewer

A business woman is holding out her hand.

​Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR.

I'm changing jobs and going to interviews. A situation I've just experienced was a killer: an interview at a major pharmaceutical company for a job I am exceptionally qualified and suited for. The interviewer barely asked any questions and, in fact, did most of the talking, telling me about the job and the company, so I never got the opportunity to show my skills and suitability. I was subsequently rejected within two days. What do you do in this situation? 

You aren't the only person to be confronted with an interviewer who has never been trained in the skills of employee selection. Poor interviewers pop up everywhere and when least expected. They could be junior or senior staff members or line managers or—embarrassing but true—senior HR professionals. Fortunately, once you recognize who you're dealing with, you can easily turn the situation to your advantage. 

Your Resume and the Job Description

The first clue about the type of interviewer you are facing can be given as soon as you walk through the door. The interviewer doesn't have or can't find your resume. Here's how to respond:

  1. Sit quietly and familiarize yourself with the surroundings, and breathe deeply and slowly to calm any natural nervousness. Getting your adrenaline under control will help you both calm down.
  2. Bring multiple copies of your resume and the job description. You can save the interviewer further embarrassment.

This second point might help you later if you are asked to meet other team members or managers. Often, they have been asked to spend time with a candidate but haven't been given details of the open job and its deliverables or a copy of your resume. Taking copies of your resume and the job description with you means that everyone you meet knows the job requirements and has your background at hand for review, and it demonstrates that you are organized and think ahead.

The Talkative Interviewer

Another red flag to look out for is the interviewer who explains why you are both sitting there and wanders into a lengthy diatribe about the job and the company. You are left to sit still, look attentive, make appreciative murmurs and nod at the appropriate times until there is a pause.

When that occurs, comment that you appreciate the background on the company because you can now see more clearly how the job fits into the overall company strategy and how valuable some of your skills would be.

Then you can ask questions like these:

  • "Would it be of value if I described my experience?"
  • "Then my experiences would be relevant! Can I share one or two with you?"
  • "I recently completed a project just like that. Would it be relevant to discuss it?"

You can then ask the interviewer to tell you about other job requirements, enabling you to guide the conversation without the interviewer feeling like you are taking control of the proceedings.

When Bad Experiences Dominate

The interviewer may focus on the drawbacks of the job or even describe the job in totally negative terms. This usually means that the interviewer has had bad experiences hiring for this position in the past.

In that case, you should listen attentively, then ask the interviewer for the reasons people fail in the job and what it takes for someone to succeed. This will tell you exactly how to promote yourself for this position. Address each of the stated negatives by describing how you would handle such issues differently. Describe the behaviors and experiences you have in common with those who have succeeded in the job. Give examples from your work history of your proficiency in each aspect of the job you've been discussing.

How to Deal with Yes/No Questions

When an interviewer frequently asks questions that require a simple yes or no in response, you are missing the opportunity to explain your suitability for the job.

Fortunately, every other candidate is facing the same problem, so if you finesse the situation, your candidacy will really stand out. The trick is to treat each closed-ended question as if the interviewer has added, "Please give me a brief yet thorough answer."

Closed-ended questions are often mingled with statements followed by pauses. In those instances, agree with the statement in a way that demonstrates both a grasp of the job and the interviewer's statement. For example: "That's an excellent point, Mr. Smith. I couldn't agree more that the extra steps you describe naturally affect cost containment. I recently identified a $7,000 double-billing error by doing exactly as you suggest. Can I tell you about it?"

Interview Interruptions

The incompetent interviewer can be interrupted by a phone call or by people walking into the office unannounced. Such interruptions provide opportunities to review what has been happening and plan out points you want to make. The interruptions also give you time to think through a question that has just been asked or to add new information to a point made prior to the interruption.

When an interruption occurs, make a note of where you were in the conversation, and then refresh the interviewer on the point when the conversation resumes. For example, you could say, "We were talking about …." This shows level-headedness and organization.

These tactics will make a big difference in your performance with weaker interviewers, because you'll be ready to hold up your end of the conversation by asking relevant and intelligent questions and following them with the answers that will help you to sell your candidacy.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore


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