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Advice on Surviving Tricky Interviewers

Jim Simpson wanted a production supervisor's job with Florida Ladder Corp., a Sarasota, Fla., manufacturer, but his interview with one of the company's executives was the most unpleasant he ever had.

The senior manager began Mr. Simpson's meeting by leaning back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other and demanding in a bitter tone, "Tell me why I should hire you."

Mr. Simpson did his best to respond, but the executive challenged and interrupted him. He also asked several illegal questions, such as "Which political party do you prefer?" and "How do you feel about working with any person?"

The session was nothing like Mr. Simpson's previous upbeat meetings with two other company managers, during which he'd enjoyed genuine camaraderie. Unprepared for a confrontation, he was caught off balance and couldn't recover. He left the office certain that the executive would veto his candidacy. A letter arrived in the mail a few days later confirming his fear.

Fortunately, few interviewers will intentionally give you such a hard time. The majority will be friendly and congenial as they try to learn more about you and your background. You'll leave their offices feeling that you've met someone with whom you'd like to work.

But there are also interviewers who go out of their way to be abrasive and adversarial. By provoking you, they hope to gauge your composure and see how you react when you're frustrated, angry or under pressure. You must be prepared for these interview games or, like Mr. Simpson, you'll see the prospect of a great job offer go down the tubes.

Consider the following hostile interview situations you might encounter, and guidelines on how to handle them, so that you can emerge from future interviews with both your integrity and a job offer.

Selling Yourself

The interviewer begins the conversation by bluntly asking, "Why should I hire you?"

Many job seekers become tongue-tied and make a poor impression when asked this question. Yet there's no better opportunity to establish your qualifications.

Try being just as blunt as the interviewer when describing your most salient strengths and accomplishments. For example, Jerry Gross, a former corporate-purchasing manager at International Harvester (now Navistar International) in Chicago, took this approach while interviewing at Trace Corp. in New York City:

"Bob, your ad stated that you're looking for a top-notch manager and negotiator who has a record of reducing material costs and building teams of dedicated personnel. Well, I established the research purchasing department at Harvester, hired and trained all the buyers and administrative personnel, and subsequently cut component costs by more than 5%. But I'm proudest of my negotiating abilities. I accompanied the president of Harvester at pricing meetings and contract negotiations when he met with the president of General Motors."

The interview was easy from that point on, and Mr. Gross earned an offer.

Who Are You?

The interviewer starts the meeting with, "Tell me about yourself."

This statement perplexes some candidates, but it offers another great opportunity to explain why you're the best fit for the job.

Focus your response on how you can benefit the company, not on such autobiographical elements as where you grew up, your marital status or your hobbies and interests. Briefly summarize your background, then conclude with a strong statement outlining your most important strengths and accomplishments as they relate to the open position.

Here's how Debbie Tarper, a registered nurse at Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton, Fla., responded to this query when applying for a sales position at Tri-State Hospital Supply Corp., a producer of surgical supplies in Clearwater, Fla.:

"Mike, I received my bachelors degree in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania and have 10 years' experience working in med-surg and the O.R. I have charge responsibilities, and I also scrub. I really enjoy nursing, but I'm changing careers because I want to double my income, and I know I can do this by selling medical supplies and equipment. I'd like you to know that I had a heart attack 10 years ago, and my recovery was so successful, I completed the New York Marathon five years later. Because of that, today I give motivational talks on a regular basis for the American Heart Association. I know I'd do a great job for you as a sales rep. I've used all your products and know their advantages and shortfalls. But most important, I find it really easy to communicate with people. I'm very convincing, and I have the energy level and perseverance to help you become the leading supplier in your open territory."

interviewers who begin a meeting with "Why should I hire you?" and "Tell me about yourself" are handing you a golden opportunity to state your qualifications and wrap up an offer. Instead of dreading these opening remarks, prepare for interviewers who begin this way.

Tough Guy

The interviewer is determined to make things difficult for you.

Tricks they might try include frequently pointing out your weaknesses, constantly interrupting, trying to intimidate you with their knowledge of the field or continually disagreeing with your comments. These tactics are especially unnerving if you're being interviewed by two or more people simultaneously. In these settings, candidates often become so flustered or angry that they say things they later regret or forget to mention important information.

Your best defense is to play along with the interviewer. Your secret weapon is knowing that the interviewer's antagonism is a game. He or she simply wants to see if you can maintain your composure. By acting politely, calmly and evenly, no matter how rudely the interviewer behaves, you'll demonstrate confidence and maturity, qualities all employers seek.

Of course, the situation can get difficult. Some interviewers act badly to learn how aggressive or assertive you can be. They hope that you'll take offense at their demeaning behavior and object to it. Therefore, any information you can get in advance about the person you'll be meeting, as well as the personal characteristics the company is looking for, will help you know how to behave.

Other strategies to arouse applicants include seating them in a wobbly or squeaky chair, next to a hot radiator, beside a breezy open window or with the sun in their eyes. Since no one wants to be interviewed under these conditions, explain to the interviewer what's annoying you, then continue the conversation while moving your chair to a different location or sitting in a different seat. These measures always gain an interviewer's respect.

Using Silence

Some interviewers won't say anything after you've answered a question. They'll just stare at you. In response, most job hunters become anxious and either laugh or grope for things to say, and their remarks often backfire.

A short period of silence is easy to manage. You've answered the interviewer's question, and now it's up to him or her to continue the conversation. Simply return the interviewer's gaze while slowly and silently counting to 20. If these 20 seconds seem like an unbearable amount of time and you feel pressured to break the silence, ask the interviewer a question about the position or company. Your question will be especially effective if it uncovers details about the available job.

Kyle Harris, a construction project manager at Yale Properties in Sarasota, Fla., has built more than a dozen high-rise luxury condominiums in his career. He's used every conceivable type of building material and is proficient in the latest construction techniques.

During an interview with a local general contractor, the interviewer sat quietly after Mr. Harris answered a question. But Mr. Harris was ready, and after several seconds, he added, "The Twilight Towers project you plan to begin this fall -- what are some of the key ways in which you'll be putting up the building?" When the interviewer explained that the company would use post-tension structures, Mr. Harris described his wealth of experience with that advanced construction method.

Not only did Mr. Harris avoid the silence, but he used it as an opportunity to advance his qualifications.

Rather than dreading difficult interview situations, prepare yourself to handle them effectively. While your competition will make a poor impression and lose points with interviewers, you'll cast yourself in a favorable light and be well on your way to winning an offer.