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Published on: Friday, August 13, 2010

When Bad Interviews Happen to Good Candidates


I first interviewed with ExecuNet around Halloween and was charmed by the decorations until I saw the giant, purple inflatable spider standing guard in the center of the office space. Despite the combination of two big fears — job interviews and giant spiders — I performed well enough to get the offer. (The spider now appears annually right outside my office.)

This story pales in comparison to candidates who saw dream jobs turn into nightmares when confronted by interviewers behaving badly. We've collected some of the best worst job interview stories from ExecuNet members and asked some of our expert executive coaches to give their feedback. We've excerpted a few for you here.

The Inquisition
At a dinner meeting with the CEO and other key company executives, this candidate said the questions were unusual: "What did my watch cost? Why did I buy such an expensive watch? Why did I come in a suit to dinner? How much did my suit cost? Did I know the job was in Raleigh?

"The next morning I arrived at the reception area; and after waiting 30 minutes I was escorted to a phone so an HR person in another city could tell me that there would be no interviews, and I would be free to catch a cab back to the airport," recalled the candidate.

Meg Montford, career coach and president, Abilities Enhanced, responded, "Every candidate needs to know when to cut his losses and move on. Lesson here is for the candidate to exercise his veto power before investing time and energy in a situation that doesn't fit. Interviewing is a two-way process. A candidate has to assess if the company is right for him as much as the company assessing the candidate."

Say What?
"One company told me that if I was made an offer, I would have to sign an agreement that stated I would not be offended if I heard foul language in the workplace. I had to wonder how bad the language must be to require a waiver, rather than telling employees to clean up their act," said an ExecuNet member.

Linda Dominguez, CEO and executive strategist for Executive Coaching and Resource Network, Inc., noted the agreement asks the candidate to sign away rights that fall under harassment laws and is probably illegal. "It certainly makes you wonder what other laws they skirt by way of side agreements, doesn't it?

"Part of the due-diligence research job hunters can do prior to interviews is on communication style, management style and culture — if you network to do this research you're also building your own brand and broadening your network. Go ahead and ask your network if they know anyone who currently works at the target company (or an ex-employee!), so you can get the real scoop. If you don't like what you hear, you can participate in the early interview stages, then withdraw your candidacy if necessary."

Takes One to Know One
"During an interview, the regional VP was explaining why the position was open. He stopped mid-sentence and explained the previous manager was one of those women in her mid-40s who had decided to have a baby, and asked me if I knew the type. I nodded sympathetically. I do know that type — I am one," said a telecom executive.

"This is tricky business but don't be tricked into thinking you know what he means," responded Executive Coach Judy Rosemarin, founder of Sense-Able Strategies, Inc. and facilitator of ExecuNet's New York networking meetings. "If he will be your boss, you have to decide if you can tolerate his bias, as it seems he might have one. If I were to replay that scene, I might ask, 'I really don't understand what you mean. Could you explain it?' That way you would get a closer look at how correct your suspicions might have been."

Have a story of your own to share? Your comments are anonymous!

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Robyn Greenspan's avatarRobyn Greenspan
Robyn Greenspan is ExecuNet's Chief Content Officer, where she is responsible for setting and driving the editorial content engagement strategy across the private business network's publications and expert-led programming. She is also a Huffington Post blogger. You can follow her on Twitter @RobynGreenspan

Posted by LP
01/12 @ 10:09 AM
Thank you for posting your comments about the heavy candidate sitting in a broken chair, my husband maybe has experienced the same treatment but in different techniques. He is old engineer looking contract jobs. For the contract jobs, the company-(big public companies, some of them: if telling the names, everybody would know) interviews him for a contract job; the interview was set up by the job agency who asked my husband if he can buy the airline ticket to fly to San Diego from Bay Area for an interview on his own expenses. My husband told them that the company is very big; if they don't buy the ticket, please cancel the interview. Next day, the job agency asked if my husband can drive 600 miles to San Diego for interview. He second time asked them to cancel the interview. The same day, the job agency set up his airline ticket but the interview for the contract usually hiring by phone after 1 or 2 phone interviews; instead, my husband was interviewed by 5 people asking various designing techniques and experiences. He tried his best to answer all the questions but before he flied he already knows that the company just wants to use the interview to get free training to its young engineers at the job seeker's expense emotionally and psychologically. He still has to try his best, he said that God will know that he tries his best and just look at the future not those past fishing interviews. This just happened yesterday! Jan 11, 2012.
Another job agency has asked if my husband can fly to Texas to interview on his own expenses, he said, I can walk and the other side is silence.

Not sure if anybody out there experiences the same things? Not only this interviews, a lot of them like that.
Posted by Burton
09/13 @ 05:46 PM
I was invited back for my 3rd round of interviews for a VP position with a Fortune 500 company and I went in as their leading candidate according to the recruiter.

The company had just invested in a new CRM package which I used extensively in my last position. Apparently, finding talent that knew how to leverage this software was proving to be challenging. During my interview with the person that would be my manager, I was asked for names and phone numbers of people I worked with that knew this program.

I was taken aback by the request and I responded that I was here interviewing for this position and if hired, I'd be happy to call former associates as they had indicated that they would like to work for me again. The person kept pushing and I finally said, "Let's cross that bridge when we get there. I'm here now."

Apparently this rubbed the hiring manager who told the recruiter that I seem antagonistic. Advice on how I should have handled would be greately appreciated as this was a wonderful company and opportunity.
Posted by Tadkins
09/09 @ 04:30 PM
My niece was job searching & asked for my help updating her resume. She went through a Job Placement Company that arranged an interview with a local franchise of fast food places. The HR/CEO was a man in his mid 50s. Who began asking my niece if she was married, planned to get married. Did she have kids, (answered yes) to which he replied, "oh I guess you'll be taking off all the time then with a sick kid!". He asked where her fiance worked, how much money he made. Told her that even though "technically she got an hour lunch break, he highly recommended she eat at her desk and since she would be at her desk she might as well keep working." he told her there would be insurance after 60 days then added, "if that OBOMACARE CRAP doesn't mess us all up and God know if we can even afford to offer insurance with that &^%$#@ in office.
Posted by George
09/09 @ 01:26 AM
I use a powered wheel chair to get around. In an interview with a company, a VP asked me why I was in a wheelcahair. I was a bit non-plussed by the boldness of the question, but I answered anyway. Then the VP went on to ask what my prognosis was, what the cost to the company's insurance would be, and if my chair could climb stairs, "...since that would be the only way to get to my office." I was astounded! But, I was not surprised to get a rejection letter two weeks later. They were surprised, however, when I sued. I won because of the tape recorder did a fine job of accurately reproducing the worm's illegal performance. We settled out of court for a most satisfactory sum.
Posted by Raj Thomas
09/08 @ 04:54 PM
Dear Readers,

About two years ago I had received a phone call from a gentleman in response to my resume found on one of the job boards. He is looking for a technical recruiter with extensive IT background for his Perm Division. I had let him know ahead of time my experience in both perm and contract staffing experience. I had also let him know ahead of time that I had never done Perm Staffing in a Agency environment.

He said he is insisted in my background and would get back to me, I at the time insisted he take the time out to do a formal interview with me because I do not want to waste time and money neither of which I had at the time. Needless to say he did neither and said would contact me in two days which he did. Again I insisted he would do a formal phone screen but he just told me to come in for a face to face which I did agree.

My interview lasted only 20 minutes in which his direct questions were answered in a professional manner, he basically said I was not qualified for the position in his organization because I did not have a Perm Placement background with in Agency environment which I had told him over the phone. And when I asked him why he refused to do a proper phone screen instead of talking about baseball and how well the Red Sox are doing he said its just the way they do business. Now my loss is about 2 hours and 120$ in cab fare his loss was 20 minutes. None the less I had sent email about how wrong I was treated to him and why I would be a better recruiter for him and his company because I do proper phone screens to start.
Posted by Robbie Johnson
09/08 @ 02:28 PM
I had a Surgeon interview at a Hospital in TN with his new wife. All was perfect until he heard his own nickname being yelled down the hall while taking a tour of the facility. When he turned to see who it was....low and behold it was his old X-Fiance....who just happened to be the Head Nurse of the Hospital. The new wife quietly said to my candidate..."well this place is dead!
Luckily I ended up placing my Surgeon in a town 40 miles away, still not far enough from the danger zone as 2 years later they were divorced!
Posted by Steve Buckley
09/02 @ 04:20 PM
I went to interview for an international job in a Fortune 500 company. My skills and experience fit the requirements. The HR person agreed after a 30 minute interview. I went on the be interviewed by the regional VP, who seemed to be surprised at having to do the interview. It turned out that he was not "on board" as far as hiring somebody for the position. Needless to say, no job.

Takeaway: make sure to ask if the decision-makers are all in agreement that there is a need that must be filled.

Another time I interviewed for a Big 4 consulting position: First I met with the HR manager, who agreed I was well qualified for the position. Then he sent me to interview with a partner who was in town on a short break from a project in Africa. At the beginning of the interview, the partner talked on the phone, taking care of personal business. Finally he did a quick review of my resume and said, "OK it looks good, but we don't have anything right now. Good bye." Apparently there was no immediate need for another consultant at that time. I asked the HR person, "Why the interview?" He said he set it up so I could "get the exposure."

Takeaway: Make sure you understand who you are interviewing with and why they are interviewing you.
Posted by mandeep
08/31 @ 11:02 PM
Very good article and I completely agree with its contents. I personally had experienced this situation were the initial discussion is conducted by unexperienced guys who fail to analyse and undesdtand and gives wrong and incomplete fedback to the management.
Posted by Inga
08/31 @ 06:30 AM
I completely agree with Dani. For couple times, I've been in the same situation; after that, with hours spent for tests with hundreds of questions and a shallow "interview" with a fresh graduate, my confidence in recruitment companies vanished. I was interviewed in Europe but I see the problem is global.
Posted by Dani Segdan
08/31 @ 04:57 AM
Under Qualified interviewer.

My last position was a CIO. Been in the field for 30 years.
I applied for a consultancy position by a consulting firm for one of their larger customers, I worked for before, and have intimate knowledge of the position and need.
I was interviewed by a junior 22 year old HR rep.
She had no idea what the position was about, nor the customer or his need, had no clue what are the abilities and qualities needed for the position.
She asked superficial questions right out of a stenciled page, and did not understand the answers.

I knew for a fact that they could not hope for a better suited candidate, they should have grabbed me, but "there was nobody home". Their loss.

So the morale is - Assign an appropriate interviewer for each candidate or position
Posted by JoeG
08/30 @ 09:54 PM
Since this is about bad things happening to good candidates in interviews, I remembered one that I heard about from my receptionist while her husband went to school at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

He was interviewing for a job with a typical MBA-level firm when he and the interviewer noticed a helicopter flying particularly low and erratic. The chopper crashed into a boat house on the river as they watched in horror. The accident killed all four on board and the interview came to an abrupt end.

I was in our office a few doors down with a much higher view of the scene and I was conducting an interview with an intern in our conference room with a spectacular view of the Charles River (and the crash scene). I remember deliberately not looking out to see what was going on as it would just distract us from getting done on time, even though co-workers were looking into the conference room to see if they could catch a peek of the scene.

Gruesome, but sometimes real life interferes with our carefully laid plans.
Posted by Scott Gleason
08/30 @ 09:44 PM
Many years ago, while in Business School, I interviewed on campus with a well known advertising firm from Chicago. Their custom was to send recent graduates to interview candidates. I can’t tell if my guy was a bad interviewer or just using stress techniques, but he would ask a question; I would respond and then there would be an awkward 30-45 seconds of dead silence where he would say nothing. After which point, I would either “babble on” or ask if I could clarify my answer. This went on for the whole interview. When we shook hands to say good bye, I was totally exhausted and completely convinced that I would never ever get a second interview. The next day a friend of mine who worked for the ad agency called me to tell me that the interviewer “loved me” and the firm wanted to fly my to Chicago for another set of interviews. It only goes to show that sometimes a “bad interview” is not as bad as you think.
Posted by Meg Montford
08/30 @ 09:44 AM
Kevin, sometimes I think interviewers forget that they are being assessed by the candidate as part of the interview process. However, while you were completely within your rights to decide not to reschedule, another approach could have been to realize that this one person might not have represented the majority of the organization. Your day started off on the wrong foot and just kept on getting worse - but emotions can cause us to not make the best decions in the moment.
Posted by Kevin Feldman
08/30 @ 01:38 AM
About 11 years ago I drove from central Maine to an interview with a museum in Boston. With major road construction during most of the trip, the drive was long and tedious. I arrived to the interview on time, but the hiring manager was running late with her last interview. So, 45 minutes later I was escorted up to the hiring manager's office. I introduced myself. Then, no sooner than I sat down, the fire alarm sounded. Everyone in the building was immediately evacuated. In the parking lot of the museum, I attempted to get the hiring manager's attention many times. She was so busy socializing, I guess she never thought that the interview could be conducted outside. Finally, one hour later we were given the all clear to re-enter the building. When I entered the hiring manager's office, she immediately excused herself saying that she was late for another meeting, and that she would contact me to reschedule the interview. I told her to forget it.
Posted by John Cizek
08/29 @ 04:17 PM
Our Execunet posting, as always, produced excellent response. In a brief period of time, about 30 responders, all quality professionals. It will not be necessary to re-list. As always, a pleasure to deal with the Execunet staff.

John Cizek
Posted by Paul Bailo
08/28 @ 04:25 PM
Hello -

Here are some odds things that happen from the other end of the phone... hope it helps..

"One woman placed me on hold for 20 minutes and finally returned, saying she had to let the dogs out."

"A client had SpongeBob SquarePants blasting in the background during the whole phone interview."

"A former CEO from a utility company conducted his phone interview from the men's room. The whole time, there was a ton of bathroom noise, water running, toilet flushing...."
Posted by gary eastwood
08/27 @ 09:56 PM
I actually had a candidate interviewing for a sales rep job who responded to the old 'Where do you see yourself in 5 years?' question with: 'I've always wanted to open my own restaurant.'

Needless to say, my guy didn't get a second . . . .

gary eastwood
beck/eastwood recruitment solutions
Posted by Chuck Wilkinson
08/27 @ 07:22 PM
"That is when the interview ended"

A candidate sent for a Director level interview was explaining his need for a job to the client and suddenly began to cry; whereupon the client in trying to resolve this emotional crisis by changing the subject asked about his previous position and employer. It was at this point the candidate indicated that his previous employer would probably give him a good reference however, the restraining order against him prevented him from asking for a reference. That when the interview ended!
Posted by Tim Schultz
08/27 @ 05:22 PM
Had the "perfect" candidate for an extremely difficult position to fill (based on low salary and high demand for this type of position). HR interviewer called late so only had 10 minutes. Done deal unless........sure enough, the best candidate out there with unbelievable references from very respected executives made the mistake of talking negatively about her boss. DONE!
Posted by JoeG
08/27 @ 04:58 PM
I did have an interview situation where two people from the same company were interviewing in our offices at the same time. One knew about the other, but not vice versa. We carefully arranged to keep them in different parts of the small office and to avoid one seeing the other.

Except, a tornado happened to come along. We evacuated everyone into a central conference room to wait for further instructions. The two candidates got to laugh at their predicament much like two Baptists running into each other in the liquor store. No one died in the making of this anecdote, however.
Posted by Robyn Greenspan
08/27 @ 04:54 PM
@JoeG We haven't encountered anything that extreme but there's one we published for our members where an executive who interviewed shortly after stomach surgery popped his stitches and bled through his shirt.

He had to leave the interview and get to a hospital. Thankfully, he was okay and was called back for another meeting with the hiring company.
Posted by JoeG
08/27 @ 04:08 PM
Until someone comes up with a story that involves the interviewer dying in the interview, I don't think we have delved the depths deeply enough.
Posted by Meg Montford
08/25 @ 12:19 PM
Yes, Ed, it can be hard believe. Most times there's a reason behind interviewers' actions. Maybe just to see how candidate reacts under pressure. Usually to assess candidate's analytical thinking process, how he can translate past experience into new challenges, how he would work with different personality typse. It's an exhausting process to interview, and one that isn't always rewarded with a job offer. What's interesting is how an interviewer acts when he is put on the other side of the desk after he gets laid off.
Posted by Ed
08/25 @ 12:10 PM
Wow. It's hard to believe what some potential employers put candidates through in their interview!
Posted by Meg Montford
08/20 @ 11:49 AM
What a great sharing of experiences I'm seeing here! It's really helpful when we can learn from each others' wins and losses.

Yes, as "chodhry" says, take the time to prepare for each and every interview. No assumptions, please, based on a 1st or even 2nd interview with a company. Each interviewer brings his/her own values & expectations to the table - and they're not always the CEO's. Actually, they usually aren't, as the interviewer wants his/her own vested interests protected.

I like how "Anthony" put his needs first in deciding not to accept an offer with a company that his gut told him wasn't a good fit. While it's important in an interview to sell your value to solve a company's biggest problem, it's more important to exercise your only control in the process - your veto power - when you believe you're doing the right thing.

I tell my Career Coaching clients that the interview process is a numbers game, just as in sales - you have to track your averages and realize you must collect your set of "no's" to get a "yes" - but it only takes one "yes" to get a job!
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