Job Interview Gone Bad? How To Handle The Hostile, Mean-Spirited, Difficult Job Interviewer  


Caroline Ceniza-Levine
Caroline Ceniza-Levine
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April 24, 2021 5:35 am  

A job interview is a person-to-person communication, and some people are difficult, so you will likely encounter a difficult job interviewer at some point. The difficult job interviewer pushes back on what you say, picks apart your claims, focuses on your weaknesses and mistakes, or tries to get you to talk trash about your past bosses and companies. The difficult job interviewer frames questions negatively and wants you to get negative as well. Don’t fall for these traps!

Here are three approaches to diffuse the difficult job interviewer:

Stay neutral — don’t mirror (and therefore encourage) the difficult job interviewer.

Mirroring your job interviewer – smiling when they smile, matching the cadence in their voice – is normally a good way to engender rapport. However, if your job interviewer is negative, you don’t want to mirror that negativity. It just raises the tension in the interview. If the job interviewer asks negative questions – e.g., who was your least favorite boss, what was your biggest failure – resist the temptation to get judgmental or defensive. Share an objective critique of one of your bosses, but don’t demean them. Talk honestly about a project that went wrong, without criticizing your team or yourself.

Homework for you: If you normally get emotional or angry revisiting these points in your career, practice being able to discuss these trying career incidents in a neutral, objective way.

Address the root of the question, giving the difficult job interviewer the benefit of the doubt

Negatively framed questions are not always bad. Some well-meaning job interviewers use negative questions to see how self-aware a candidate is of gaps in their qualifications. Or negative questions can be used to see how a candidate deals with adversity. Don’t assume that a difficult question means you have a difficult job interviewer. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and address the constructive facets that negative questions elicit — demonstrate your self-awareness, give examples of your resilience in the face of adversity, share what you’ve learned from obstacles you’ve overcome.

Homework for you: Inventory the come-from-behind, overcoming-adversity stories you want to share in interviews. Prepare how you will discuss these incidents so there is a clear lesson or positive outcome that results.

Use the challenges set up by the difficult job interviewer as opportunities to highlight your strengths

In fact, if you can move past the anxiety that negative questions typically induce, you can use these challenges to highlight your strengths. Negative questions are the perfect set-up for a hero story with you as the star.

Knowing that you may be asked for weaknesses, mistakes, and obstacles (including people obstacles) prepare in advance those stories which place you in a challenging situation but from which you emerge smarter (what did you learn), stronger (what qualities did you develop), and more capable (what situations no longer faze you).

Homework for you: Identify your specific expertise, positive qualities, and skills, and explain how you developed these, how they’ve been tested in different companies or business circumstances, and what tangible proof you have (e.g., bottom line impact) that you have these strengths. This way, you’re not just pushing back on a difficult job interviewer with baseless claims, but you have itemized actual strengths and have examples or results to show for each.

Preparing specifically to handle the difficult job interviewer is great preparation in general. You will practice speaking objectively about difficulties over your career. You will have identified specific stories where you emerge as the hero – smarter, stronger, more capable. You will have identified specific strengths to showcase – expertise, qualities, and/or skills. Now, when you encounter a friendly, “easy” job interviewer, you will be even more positioned to shine.

This topic was modified 3 weeks ago by Bio Careers

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May 18, 2021 8:50 am  

I wanted to respond to this but time/priorities not on my side - got to some other first.

One area this poster does not address is when you need to stick to your values in these circumstances with an accepted risk that you're no longer in the pool, and the conversation is a waste of time.    

Hostile/Difficult interviewers have been on the order of very very rare for me. In general they share a common profile that they're already have a very high bias against you.  walking into the room, so high, that it will be near, if not completely,  impossible to surmount.   If you're a self-aware, high EQ, you'll detect it pretty fast. 

Very very rare I have to admit.  But that's the profile of the interviewer, and in the case of hostility just know there are insecurities there in that person that should be a warning that you dont' want to work with that person.  In one case I had a difficult interviewer who had the very bias view that I couldn't manage change, i.e. change management was a weakness of mine. Despite the contradictory evidence in my CV, my responses - it was not going to shift. So in that case - very gently I noted "let's agree to to disagree, where else can I address any areas of concern or experience you want me to expand on".   That way the ball was in that person's court to carry on or close. Either or, I was happy with ever outcome (..we closed it, and for the good, no job offer, which I was very OK with, why on Earth would I want to work with that person?).  

Yet in another case, the bias of the interviewer was so high that I closed the conversation - where I also I said - "let's agree to disagree, but I would like to thank ABC Pharma and you for you interest in my candidacy" - in that case I closed the conversation quickly and ended the interview.    And a good think, I would not want to work with that person.

And in another case - I very very very quickly noted a fast area where I was absolutely not going to budge or trade my values, so my closing response to my answer,  in that situation was on the order of ...."so if that is something you disagree with, we will be a firm in-pass, suffice to say this opportunity is not for me, we can close the conversation and save each other time".     In that case the interviewer immediately softened up, completely changed tone - and long story short, the opportunity (yes I was offered and took the job)  was one of among my more fruitful and rewarding experiences in my career.  

So do be mindful of these rare, very rare situations, I recommend, like I did, dont' trade your values, certainly dont feel or accept "abuse".   There ways a good interviewer can test you in difficult situation without the hostilities.    

Remember you'll find these circumstances very rare - but keep this value - Life is short. No job, amount of money, company name,  is worth be surrounded by idiots who don't value you. The interview is also YOUR interview also.   Keep that in the back of you mind - then you're 80 percent armed. The rest - is how you respond and willingness to accept or reject these situations.