When Things Go Wrong In A Job Interview

By Gerald Walsh ©

Airline pilots, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics all train for things that can go wrong. If they are properly trained and an emergency arises, their response should be professional and by-the-book.

We tend not to put job interviews in the same category as fires or accidents. But you would be well-served to adopt the same approach to interviews. You hope for the best but prepare for things that can possibly go wrong.

I did a little survey of my friends and asked them what can possibly go wrong in an interview. Here are a few of the examples they gave, and some suggestions on how you can respond.

You forget to turn off your cell phone and it rings during the interview.

Yes, it happens to everybody. Quickly apologize as you search for your phone and then turn it off immediately. Don’t be tempted to look and see who the caller was. Apologize once more and move on with the interview.

You plan for a Skype interview and your internet connection fails.

Interruptions to your internet connection can happen from time to time especially if you are in a remote location. Give your phone number to the interviewer in advance so they can call you and do the interview by phone if Skype fails.

You expect to be interviewed by one person and it turns out there is a panel of five people.

No problem. Just be calm. Introduce yourself to everybody and jot down their names so you can address them individually in your answers. Remember to speak to every member of the panel when answering questions. Some candidates make the mistake of only speaking to the person who asks the question, or the most senior person in the room. At the end of the interview, shake hands and thank all panel members.

You are asked a question and during your answer you forget what the question was.

You can avoid this by jotting down the question as it is asked to you. If you lose track of your answer, just glance down at the question. However, there is nothing wrong with asking the interviewer to repeat the question. While slightly embarrassing, it is not as bad as giving a long answer to the wrong question.

You forget your pen and have to ask for one.

No doubt, this will make you appear disorganized. But there is no other way around it other than to say something like, “I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to find my pen. May I please borrow one?” Hopefully your politeness will supersede your organizational skills.

You get delayed in traffic and will be late.

You should never be late but if something unavoidable comes up (car breakdown, unexpected traffic delay) have the interviewer’s telephone number with you so you can call ahead and explain. If it looks like you are only going to be 10 – 15 minutes late, that is excusable. If it looks like you are going to be much later, it is better to cancel and reschedule. Hopefully the interviewer will be accommodating.   

The interviewer asks for an example of a situation and your mind goes blank.

If you can’t think of an answer right away, pause and think for a few moments. If still nothing comes to mind, politely ask the interviewer if you can come back to that question later in the interview. By then, a good example should have come to mind.

You spill a drink on yourself.

If offered something to drink, you should only accept water. Avoid coffee, tea and juice because the consequences of spilling those drinks are more severe. If you do spill your water, stay calm and apologize. Offer to get a towel and clean the surface. The key is to stay composed, put it out of your mind, and move on with the interview.

You are about to give a presentation and your technology tools fail.

This will be a good test to see how you perform under pressure. Always have a backup plan in place. You might come with hard copies of your presentation slides. You could arrange to use a flipchart. Or you might just make your presentation verbally. Don’t let this ruin your interview.  


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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 15,000 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.