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8/9/15 - How to Stay Cool and Collected When Your Interviewer Is Being a Jerk

By Caris Thetford 

It’s exciting to get a job interview, but it can also be nerve-racking: hours of preparation, trying to appear calm and confident when your knees are knocking, remembering a plethora of names and titles, answering tough questions, and remembering to follow up appropriately once the torture is over.

Can it possibly get more stressful than that?

Unfortunately, it can—if you add to the mix a less-than-kind interviewer, who doesn’t crack a smile, throws pleasantries to the wind, picks apart your resume, cuts you off, or talks while you’re talking.

In such a situation, it might be tempting to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and immediately exit stage left. After all, an interview is a two-way street, right? And you don’t want to work for a tyrant.

However, that’s not always the best strategy. If you encounter this unfortunate situation, keep the following tips in mind.

Protect Your Reputation

Never give anyone—no matter how mean he or she is—a valid reason to harm your reputation.

Here’s the reality: There are horrible human beings in every industry. There always will be. In a perfect world, these people wouldn’t be employed—or at least, they wouldn’t be employed in positions with any kind of power or influence.

In the real world, there’s a jerk around every corner. And since the person who’s interviewing you probably has some sort of influence in your industry, you don’t want to give him or her a reason to say anything negative about you to his or her network (which could include interviewers or managers from other companies you’re applying to). If you lose your head or rudely cut the interview short, you’ve done exactly that.

Instead, aim to protect your reputation and stay calm and collected, giving your interviewer no ammunition to talk about you in a negative light. (Plus, just imagine how fulfilling it will be if he or she offers you the job and you get the distinct pleasure of saying—in a professional way, of course—“hell no.”)

But Don’t Sacrifice Your Dignity

While you want to maintain your professionalism even in the face of tacky behavior, you don’t have to simply smile your way through abuse.

How do you know when it has crossed the line into abuse? Some unprofessional behavior is annoying, but manageable: the interviewer doesn’t smile, asks rapid-fire tough questions, occasionally cuts you off, or maybe even makes off-color comments.

It crosses the line, though, when an interviewer attacks you personally, asks invasive questions irrelevant to the job, or gets into illegal or unethical territory. (Think: “What church do you attend?” “I see you worked at Big Box Superstore in college. That’s the best you could do?” or “Is that a wedding ring you’re wearing? You know there are some odd hours in this job. Is your relationship going to be a problem?”)

Hopefully, you won’t ever run into behavior that falls into the extreme category—but if does reach that level, then it’s game over. Simply state, “That question has no bearing on my qualifications, which is what I came here to discuss. I’m not really comfortable continuing the interview.”

Stay calm, keep your voice level, and avoid getting drawn into any type of argument. Then, get out.

In this type of extreme situation, don’t let yourself worry about what your interviewers might say about you. In reality, they should be far more worried about what you might say to your network about them. A company that allows such behavior in their interviews probably has high turnover and is one you want to avoid.

Consider the Level of Jerkiness

Some people are caustic and capable of destroying an entire team or department with their vile behavior. Obviously, those are the personalities from which you want to stay far, far away. On the other hand, some people are simply a little rough around the edges or have a dry sense of humor. (I recall an interviewer who asked tough questions and never smiled, but she also answered everything I asked and was professional despite being dry. She’s now a trusted ally.)

It can be hard to tell within the first few minutes of an interview if a “jerk” is truly toxic or just cut-and-dry. So, don’t rush the interview; give yourself a chance to feel the person out. For a more accurate picture, observe the way he or she interacts with others and how those people react. Ask to speak with some of the people who would be your colleagues to learn more about the day-to-day operations of the office, the best and most challenging parts of their jobs, and who in the company they turn to for support.

From these conversations, you’ll start to get a sense of the work environment and the team’s interactions with your less-than-kind interviewer. You might figure out that this wretched person is actually very competent and well-liked, but simply doesn’t waste a lot of time on pleasantries. (Reality: Not everyone is warm and fuzzy!)

Understand that I’m not trying to justify boorish behavior; just know that you can’t always tell from the first few minutes of interaction whether a “jerk” is actually that way day-in and day-out. You have to dig a little deeper.

Weigh Your Information Carefully

Let’s say you figure out your interviewer isn’t really all that bad, she’s just on the dry side. You may still find that off-putting, but is it enough of a problem to walk away from the potential job? Really think this through before making a decision.

It’s important to bear in mind that kindness itself doesn’t make a good manager. Rather, consider: Is your would-be boss competent? Is she productive and accomplished? If so, it’s likely that Stone Face Magoo is actually a good manager who knows when and how to push her team, even if she does so sans high fives.

Another important question I consider before accepting any job is, “Will my boss go to bat for me?” I’ve known some nice managers with backbones like cooked spaghetti, and I’ve witnessed the damage it caused when they failed their teams. For the long-term health of your career, you may not need a boss who’s nice—but instead, someone who supports you when it matters, pushes you, and will fight for you. Even if he or she is occasionally a little gruff.

When you do land a job—sans a jerky manager—keep these things in mind. When it’s your turn to conduct interviews, you will know how do to so in a way that is respectful of your candidates while still getting the necessary information to make a solid decision. You’ll be the kind of person that people want to work for!

About The Author - Caris Thetford is a counselor who is fanatical about personal growth and development. She is particularly interested in encouraging women to reach their full potential. She encourages student development through various roles at Tarleton State University.