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When Your Interviewer Doesn't Ask Questions

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

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. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.   

I just had a job interview with a vice president of operations for an HR manager job. It would be a great opportunity for me, but the interview was a disaster. The interviewer did most of the talking and simply didn't seem to have a good enough grasp of the work involved to ask me questions. He talked almost all the time and only asked me three questions in 45 minutes, so I had no opportunity to demonstrate my capabilities. What can you do in a situation like this?

Do you remember leaving an interview knowing that you could do the job, but also frustrated because the interviewer didn't ask questions so that, consequently, you couldn't showcase your skills?

That such untrained interviewers exist is astounding when we know that a manager's first job is to get work done through others. As a manager, if you can't hire well, then you have little hope of building a stellar team, thereby failing in the essential function of management.

Here are a couple of ways incompetent interviewers reveal themselves, along with tactics to get your interview back on track:

  • His desk is unorganized, and he can't find a pen or the resume handed to him a few minutes ago. Sit quietly, checking out the surroundings as you breathe deeply and slowly to calm interview nerves. As you bring your adrenaline under control, you are calmer, and this helps bring a calming tone to the interview and the interviewer.
  • There are constant interruptions from the phone or people walking into the office. When an interruption occurs, make a note on your pad about where you were in the conversation before the interruption. When it is over, recap what the interviewer was saying (he'll be impressed with your level head and professionalism), and then get the conversation moving again by asking, "Would it be of value if I shared my experience with what we were discussing?"

Establish Rapport

Throughout the meeting, show engagement with what the interviewer is saying by giving verbal signals. Make appreciative murmurs: "Uh-huh," "That's interesting," "OK," "Great," and "Yes, yes" all work. But be careful not to overdo it. You do this with these occasional short, quiet interjections that don't interrupt the employer's flow but let her know you are paying attention. You can also show nonverbal signals of engagement: Sit straight, look attentive, and lean forward a little every now and then to show you don't want to miss a word. Nod at appropriate times.

Questions to Ask

An interviewer who doesn't ask questions is almost certainly nervous. This gives you an opportunity to guide the interviewer. Even these incompetent interviewers need to take a breath every now and then, and this is where you seize the opportunity to showcase your skills, by asking questions whose answers will buy you the opportunity to respond with all the benefits you bring to the table. Try variations on these questions:

  • "What is the biggest challenge in ___ right now?"
  • "How would you prioritize the most critical deliverables of this job?"
  • "Would it be of value if I spoke to you about my experiences with _____?"
  • "Would it be of value if I described my experience with ______?"
  • "Then my experience in _____ could be interesting to discuss?"
  • "I recently completed a _____ project just like that. Would it be valuable to discuss its challenges and my approach?"
  • "What are the problems you have experienced with previous title holders for this position?"
  • "Why do you think people fail in this job?"

Sometimes the interviewer leans toward asking closed-ended questions, which require no more than a yes or no answer and offer little opportunity to establish your skills. The trick is to treat each question as if the interviewer had added, "Now please give me a brief yet thorough response to my comment."

How to Create the Right Professional Impression

In professional settings, we make judgments about people based on many considerations. After appearance and demeanor, the statements others make and the questions they ask are critically important to the impressions they form. Your questions are especially important because they demonstrate a real grasp of what is at the heart of the job, which will impress the interviewer.

Because every other candidate is facing these same challenges, if you can finesse this situation, your candidacy will really stand out. At the end of the interview, when you are asked if you have any questions, respond with everything you've been itching to say had you been given the opportunity. Then ask for the next interview, saying your abilities match the job and you are interested in pursuing this opportunity. If there is no next interview, then ask for the job. Be confident that your approach has separated you from the pack. You have nothing to lose, you've increased your interviewing chops, and you can always use an offer you don't want to leverage an offer you do.

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.   

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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. Order your copy today!