How To Salvage A Bad Interview

By Gerald Walsh ©

Despite our best efforts, interviews sometimes go horribly wrong. Here is a question sent to me which illustrates that point:

“The other day I had a moment of panic when halfway through what I thought was an informal "chat" with a department manager it became quite obvious that it was actually an “interview” for a real job! For literally 30 minutes, I had rambled on as if I was talking to a friend. That was until the manager said "I see what you are saying, but I just don't buy your elevator pitch." I was mortified because I hadn't been trying to deliver an elevator pitch! My ease immediately turned to stunned agitation while my mind raced to recall what I had been rambling on about and whether it was even relevant to a job for which I didn't realize I was being considered. Any thoughts on what I should have done at that moment?”

The first question I asked myself was how did this person get into this situation in the first place? Didn’t she ask what kind of an interview or meeting this was going to be? Why didn’t she know she was being considered for a job? That’s one of the basic rules of job search. Whether you are doing what’s referred to as an “informational” interview or a real interview, you have to ask questions beforehand to know what you are walking into.  

Her question caused me to think more broadly about how do you know if an interview is going poorly and – if you choose to – what steps can be taken to salvage it?

Often you will know if things are going off track. Perhaps you misjudged what you should have worn and under-or-overdressed; got delayed in traffic and arrived late; or simply mishandled an interview question you should have aced. Those miscues are easy to figure out.

But you also have to be on the lookout for signs that things might be going badly even if you think you are doing just fine.

For example, you are likely in trouble if the interviewer doesn’t ask you about salary, start date, or references, and doesn’t try to sell you on the company and how wonderful it is to work there. Or, if they stick to the script and ask no follow-up questions, you can probably assume they are just going through the motions.

Keep an eye for body language too. If the interviewer loses eye contact, stops taking notes, or becomes distracted, it’s undoubtedly a signal they are not interested. And for sure, if the interviewer starts to offer you some friendly career advice – like what other companies you might contact – you know you can kiss that job good-bye.

Short of racing out the door and burying your head in embarrassment, what can you do to salvage a bad situation? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. How you respond in the moment is what counts.

Keep in mind that you can’t change what has already happened. But it does not mean you’ve lost the job opportunity. If you gave a lousy answer to an interview question, you can make it up by elaborating during a later answer so the information gets explained. Or you could say “I don’t feel I answered your earlier question fully. Let me tell you more …” Remember, hiring managers like people who respond well under pressure and who react well to difficult situations.

2. Stay upbeat throughout the interview.

Even if the interviewer’s body language screams “I’m not interested” you should stay positive during the interview. Who knows what’s going on in their mind? It is possible that you are misinterpreting their non-verbal behaviour. Perhaps they are worried about a personal problem they have at home or a pressing deadline they are facing. Make it your goal to turn them around with your enthusiasm and confidence.

3. Change your strategy midstream. 

If it doesn’t look like you are connecting with the interviewer, you can always change your tactics. Try asking frankly: “It seems like you have some concerns about my suitability (or fit) for this job. Can I address those concerns?” You will be surprised how your bluntness gets issues on the table that you can then deal with. 

4. Use the thank you note intelligently.

The rarely-used thank you letter is a wonderful tool. In addition to thanking the employer for their time, it is a good opportunity to remind them of your strengths, clarify answers to questions you handled poorly, and add important information you may omitted. Since so few people write a thank you letter, you will immediately stand out as friendly, polite and professional. 



The 8 Best Ways To Leave A Lasting Impression In An Interview

How To Improve Your Performance In Future Interviews

The Thank-You Note: A Small Thing That Goes a Long Way


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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @@Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.