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How To Handle Awkward Interview Moments

By Jenn Steele - Nov. 7, 2013
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When you’re sitting across from a candidate (or on the phone with one), pretty much anything can happen. Candidates are usually nervous, and not all of them think well on their feet. You may ask them questions they don’t expect, or they might respond in a way you certainly don’t expect! Ideally, you can handle these moments gracefully and put the candidate at ease after something unexpected happens.

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Handling Desperation

If you read Paul’s post, you’ll note that he experienced a few really awkward moments when candidates expressed raw desperation about finding a job. In a recession, you’ll find that some candidates are getting more and more desperate as their unemployment compensation runs out and they start wondering whether they can make their mortgage payments.

So let’s say that a candidate has just expressed a level of desperation that left an awkward silence in its wake. What do you do?

First, you need to realize that desperation happens. It does. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidate isn’t a good fit. Your job is to figure out whether – desperation or not – the candidate is a good fit for your role.

Second, it’s probably best if you have a few responses in mind for this situation. My favorite is the sympathetic approach, where I say, “I completely understand. Let’s figure out whether we’re a good fit for each other, shall we?” Whatever your response, you’re trying to get the candidate mentally past the awkward moment of desperation so that he or she can focus on the task at hand, which is figuring out whether you’re a match for each other

Handling Social Awkwardness

I’ve caused my share of socially awkward moments in my time, I have to admit. Thankfully, most of mine have not been during job interviews. Not everyone is so lucky, unfortunately, so socially awkward moments happen.

My favorite way of handling social awkwardness, frankly, is to ignore it. Sometimes candidates don’t know that they’ve been awkward, so calling attention to what just happene simply magnifies the moment and makes it that much more awkward.

Sometimes, however, candidates point out their own awkwardness. At that point, ignoring it is off the table, sadly. When dealing with a candidate’s social awkwardness becomes unavoidable, I’ve usually chosen to brush it off with a joke, saying, “Oh, no problem. Everyone puts their foot in their mouth sometimes. I think my foot might permanently live there!”

If a candidate insists on pushing you to the seventh level of social awkwardness hell by belaboring the point, you may have to get more direct. I have been to this level of awkwardness hell, and I have dealt with it by saying, “Hey – really. It’s okay. Let’s get back to the business of figuring out whether we’re a good fit and just pretend it never happened.”

Handling Rudeness

Candidates who answer their phones while you’re sitting in front of them. Candidates who tell you your husband must be a very strong man to deal with you (yes – that did happen to me!). Candidates who condescend to you or insult your profession to your face. All of these fall squarely into the category of overt rudeness.

If you’re dealing with an overtly rude candidate, let’s be honest: you’re not going to hire them.

If you know you’re not going to hire the candidate, you have two options: end the interview quickly and be honest to their face, or end the interview quickly and be honest later about why you rejected them.

Note that I did say that you have to be honest either way. You help candidates the most by letting them know that their rudeness cost them the job. Maybe they didn’t even understand that they were unacceptably rude, and you’re going to be their ticket to polite society. It sounds crazy, but it could happen.

If you’re going to cut the interview short and be honest to their face, simply do that. The rudeness happens and you say, “I’m just going to end this interview now. I appreciate your time, but answering your phone during this interview wasn’t acceptable to me. In fact, it’s often considered rude, so you may want to consider turning off your phone in future interviews.” This approach is pretty gutsy, but after enough crazy interviews it’ll get easier :).

If you’re going to cut the interview short and be honest later, you’ll have to be more subtle. When I used this approach, I’d ask another question or two, thank them for their time, and walk them to the elevator. Later, I’d call the candidate (or, when I was REALLY chicken, the candidate’s recruiter) and explain that answering the phone (or insulting my husband to my face) wasn’t the kind of considerate behavior I needed from a future employee.

Honestly, the candidate probably knows that he or she was rude. When I’ve called people out, I’ve mostly been met with silence, although I’ve had the occasional curt apology. On very rare occasions, I’ve had a candidate respond well to the coaching, and I’ve wished them well in their future endeavors.

Handling True Disasters

Unlike Paul, I have thankfully never had a candidate vomit on me during an interview (EWWW!). I have, however had a candidate faint, a fire alarm go off, and a network crash during various interviews.

When a disaster happens, there’s one key thing to remember: a disaster has happened. This is no longer an interview, it’s a crisis that needs to be handled. Your job is to stop thinking like an interviewer and handle the crisis.

Usually, the interview will have to be rescheduled. You should probably reschedule no matter what, because a crisis will create an environment that’s not conducive to seeing the candidate at his or her best. Rescheduling will really freak out the candidate, unfortunately. So reschedule to later that day or the next day if possible and reassure the candidate that the crisis hasn’t hurt his or her chances at the job.

What other kinds of interview awkwardness have you had to handle as an interviewer? Any other coping strategies? We’d love to hear them!

Image courtesy of Victor1558.


Jenn Steele

Jen Steele is a dynamic, results-driven leader with over two decades of experience in the technology and marketing industries. As the CEO of KissMetrics, Jen is responsible for driving the company's strategic direction, growth, and overall success. Before joining KissMetrics, Jen held various leadership roles in sales, marketing, and operations across several high-growth SaaS companies. One of her notable achievements was her tenure at Recruitloop. Under her leadership, Recruitloop experienced exponential growth in revenue and customer acquisition, establishing the company as a market leader in the recruitment industry.

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