By RICH BELLIS
“So how’d your interview go?”
Your answer to that question–after coming home to a spouse or roommate, or debriefing a parent by phone–depends on lots of things: your confidence, your preparedness, your level of sleep the night before. But it also hinges on the type of interviewer you happen to meet, and how they actually conduct the interview.
Often enough, interview experiences can be summed up as “pretty hard,” “surprisingly easy,” and “I don’t really know . . . kind of weird?” If you can break those categories down a little more systematically, it becomes a bit clearer how to handle each type of interview you might experience.
INTERVIEW TYPE NO. 1: CHALLENGING OR INTENSE
Some hiring managers are hard-driving interrogators. They ask tough questions, press for clarification, and don’t let you off the hook for iffy answers. They’ll also toss things at you that you probably haven’t had a chance to prepare for. None of this means you’re doomed to bomb, though.
When I was interviewing for entry-level jobs the summer after graduating from college, my dad gave me two pieces of advice that stuck in my mind. The first was to wear something green–probably because he’d read research somewhere like this, which claims–based on frankly dubious methodology–that the color is associated with agreeableness. (For the record, I did, and got the job.) His second suggestion was to answer any stumping questions with, “I haven’t really thought about that,” and then to take a moment to think it over rather than rushing into the first answer that comes to mind.
Psychologist and workplace expert Art Markman says my dad was onto something here. “The same way you should think of any job duties in the new position as learning opportunities, approach any curveball interview questions as an invitation to learn something about the employer,” he explained in a recent Fast Company story. “Try something like this: ‘Wow, you know that’s honestly not something I’ve had a chance to give a lot of thought to yet, but I’d love it if this position introduced me to more of that. What other learning opportunities will there be in this role?’”
Hard interviews are one thing, but bullying interviewers are another. And if your interviewer’s personality is downright aggressive, think twice about how much you want the job. Once in a while, though, an unsavory interviewer is just some asshole you need to get past, like a recruiter or HR officer, rather than somebody you’ll need to work with. Ted Leonhardt, a Fast Company contributor who coaches creative professionals, suggests disarming them with praise. “If you compliment them on their expertise and they believe your compliment is genuine,” he writes, “they’re more likely to back off.”
INTERVIEW TYPE NO. 2: SUPERFICIAL, TRADITIONAL, OR “TOO EASY”
Sailing through an interview might feel great, but it isn’t a surefire sign you’ll land the offer. Some job interviewers stick to questions so common and straightforward that you can’t always show yourself in the best light. You may walk away feeling like you nailed it, but there were a few really exciting things you didn’t get a chance to talk about.
The key is showing up prepared to use just about any question as a springboard for getting right into the good stuff fast. According to Glassdoor’s Isabel Thottam, a question like “Why are you looking for a job right now?” is an opportunity to dig into your experience and current priorities, so avoid a throwaway remark like, “I’m ready to take on new challenges.” “This question might seem innocuous,” she explains, “but this is how interviewers weed out the people who are either a) just looking for any job, b) were fired from their last position, or c) might have a high turnover rate, meaning you won’t be sticking around for too long. Focus on the positives and be specific.”
Same goes for borderline-trite questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “Consider shifting the answer to frame it around intangibles, knowledge, and experience you hope to have gained,” talent expert and Fast Company contributor Lars Schmidt advised in an article last year. “Make it less about job title [or] level, and more about growth and what you’ve learned.” Even the softest interview questions can give you a chance to discuss the skills and expertise you’re aiming to pick up, and why that growth on your part will be so valuable to employers.
INTERVIEW TYPE NO. 3: UNFOCUSED OR UNPROFESSIONAL
Some job interviewers are inexperienced or just unprepared. As career expert Martin Yate recently explained for Job-Hunt, bad interviewers frequently ask yes/no questions that don’t seem to leave room for elaboration–or else just probe for intel that’s already on your resume. But don’t be discouraged, he says. “The trick is to treat each closed-ended question as if the interviewer has added to the end of it, ‘Please give me a brief yet thorough answer.’” This can help lend focus to a rambling interview, turning it into a genuine two-way conversation.
Occasionally job interviewers will ask you questions that are inappropriate or downright illegal to pose to job candidates, including details about your family or personal life or those that rest on stereotypes. Always treat off-limits questions as potential red flags for a toxic or bias-ridden work culture. But you don’t have to stand up and walk out. Here are a few tips for steering iffy questions back toward the job description and probing for the intentions beneath a certain query. As a general rule, though, don’t feel pressured to answer anything you aren’t comfortable discussing.
My first full-time job interview was downright weird (I’ve written about it if you’re curious), but sometimes even the most bizarre interview experiences can be helpful in the end–even if only to help you zero in on the types of places where you actually do want to work.