Damage control at interviews

Ever been in a position where you're sure you're making a mess and overreacted, or have created a negative situation with an interviewer?

Put any group of people in a room, and it'd be quite unusual if there weren't at least as many misunderstandings or misinterpretations as people.

Damage control comes about as a result of a variety of situations:

Interviewer and interviewee clash on something
Interviewer gets irritated
Interviewee gets irritated
Interviewee misinterprets something, gets frustrated and snappy
Interviewer makes a mess of a question, gets embarrassed

Meaning someone's toes get trodden on, in these or other situations.

Like any form of social group, the interview group is a matter of relationships. You, as the interviewee, want those relationships to be positive, or at least neutral, not negative.

One thing must be made clear:

The responsibility is on you, not the interviewers, to communicate.

You must get your message across, and you must make sure you're understanding what the interviewers are asking. It's the only way you can be sure of getting a good chance to answer the questions.

It's a fact of life that some interviewers aren't very good. They're reading from a set of questions, and don't (or won't) go beyond that. They can be truly lousy, inadequate communicators themselves. Some treat interviews like multiple choice tests, and just give the job to the person who fills in enough right answers. It's not supposed to be done that way, but it sometimes is.

That means that unless you're careful, you can find yourself at a guessing game, rather than an interview.

This is usually where the problems start, and damage control has to be used.

Prevention of damaging situations

In many cases you can head off any serious communications problems before they happen. This is also a good introduction to the interviewers, and worth doing at the introduction stage.

If possible, you should try to establish good working communications, where you're not being read a shopping list by total strangers, but are being spoken to on a person to person basis. That makes both parties a lot more effective as communicators.

To do this, you speak directly to each interviewer, and try to draw them on an extra statement with a question. This is an icebreaker, and you familiarize yourself with that person, their voice, and their way of expressing themselves.

Warning signs

The warning signs are when one of the interviewers starts sounding vague or like they're asking a standard question badly. The problem may be them, or your interpretation, but you have to shut down any possibility of misinterpretation immediately.

Don't allow any question to just sit there being incomprehensible to you.

You might have missed a word, or a context, something said as a preamble, like Now we're going to talk about mains boards, from someone with a heavy accent, which sounded like Now we're going to talk about being bored.

Not the best possible interpretation of a question, is it? You can see why we suggest getting familiar with people's ways of speaking and expressing themselves. Misinterpretations occur every day, and everyone finds something they need to hear or read twice, to understand it properly.

When the problems occur

Everybody on Earth has had the experience when some of the normal situations between interviewers and interviewee occur. Even interviewers are people, and they get frustrated, too.

Sometimes interviewees bring this on themselves.

There are several things you should not do, when doing a job interview, to avoid antagonizing the interviewers:

  • Don't be clever. Be reasonable, rational, and pay attention.
  • Don't talk too much, and stay on topic. You're there to answer the questions, settle for that.
  • Getting irritated yourself, during an interview, is a luxury you can't afford.
  • Do not, ever, give the impression you're not taking the interview seriously. (It really is offensive to people doing their jobs.)
  • Don't react to a tone of voice, or any negative impression from the interviewers. You can create real clashes, right in the middle of the interview.

Obviously, you have endless opportunities to make a mess if you try, so don't do that.

Problems with interviewers can have various causes, and you need to be sensitive to their general vibes and demeanor.

Interviewers, often through frustration with previous candidates, can be in various states of mind when you arrive for your interview, and make the interview a very tough experience.

If you sense the interviewers are getting touchy, play it cool, and be all business at your interview.

If other candidates have annoyed them, your chances of getting the job have just improved dramatically.

Other interviewers, either through sheer ineptitude, or incompetence, are terrible at their work. It's a matter of opinion if they have any real concept of employing people on merit, and many seem very lazy and indifferent.

These are the ones most likely to get on your nerves, so make sure you remain strictly under control during the interview.

(It's sometimes not understood that people who've been truly suffering from unemployment and the related stresses for years don't appreciate being interviewed by apathetic people who obviously don't know their own jobs. Maybe the employment industry will condescend to consider this situation, preferably soon, before an interview leads to a war.)

Don't get angry, however justifiably. Stay on track. You can take it out on the furniture later, when you get home. During the interview, be all there, and be as good as you can.

Examples of damage control

Situation: The interviewer is looking very angry, you're not sure why, but he's staring at you. You don't know what you said, in fact you're pretty sure you didn't say anything offensive.

Do not say or do anything to aggravate the situation. The anger may not even be about you. Just don't push the wrong buttons on the interviewer.

Instead, you take defusing measures, to get the interview moving and back on track. You take the initiative. Don't wait for a next question.

You say:

I'm not sure if I answered the question as fully as you wanted. Was that enough?

You can express this differently, like Did you want something more on …

The reason for this question is to get things moving, and get the interviewer back from wherever his state of mind has taken him.

(Note: Don't get intimidated, either. At stress interviews, these techniques are used to psych out interviewees. Just stare back, silently and impassively.)

Situation: One of the interviewers contradicts you, angrily. You know you're right, in this case, and the absurdity of the contradiction has you wondering if you want the job at all. This is a situation where damage control has to be balanced against common sense. You say:

Sorry, but from professional experience I know my answer to be correct.

Do not react to the anger in any way.

If the interviewer wants to make a fool of themselves in front of the rest of the panel, that's their problem.

If you agree with something you know to be incorrect, you may well be falling for a very old trick in some forms of job interview. In some jobs your ability to handle pressure is part of the essential criteria for the job. You have to prove that to the interviewers.

Add to that the fact that you may have serious reservations about someone making an obviously incorrect statement, and expecting you to agree with it.

Either way, you can't back down on your original answer, because you've effectively admitted your answer was wrong. Not a great way of proving your job skills.

As you can see from these situations the usual requirement for damage control with interviewers is when you've hit a bump in the interview process.

There's one more, self inflicted, problem: When you make a mess of a question.

This is where damage control has to be extremely effective, and erase the errors in your answer.

If you find you're right in the middle of making a total mess of an answer, pull out, fast. Tell the interviewers:

Sorry, I just realized I need to reword this answer. Can I start again, because that didn't come out the way I intended?

You're not admitting a mistake, so much as your awareness of your errors. The interviewers will recognize that instantly, so you should be OK.

If you've made a statement, which you realize from a later question was wrong, you can still do some damage control. The important thing is that the interviewers understand you do know what was wrong. You can even say so, diplomatically:

I just realized in a previous question I said…. That's not really how I should have put it. What I meant to say was….So in answer to this question…

Simple, easy, and you can reassure the interviewers you do know what you're talking about. Better still, you're not contradicting yourself.

The rules about damage control:

Be alert to the interviewers
Be alert for your own mistakes
Be tactful with anything which looks like a mistake by interviewers
Be diplomatic but effective with any of your own mistakes

Damage control at interviews is actually about making sure you're staying focused and giving the best answers. It is actually an important part of your interview technique. A bit of practice with a friend or trainer will give you some insights into how to use your damage control skills.

It will also get you jobs you couldn't get without good damage control.