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What to Do When Interviews Go Off the Rails 

Published on: Mar 28, 2024

Have you ever been in a meeting at work that went off the rails? One nice thing about work meetings is that the participants share at least one goal, which is to use their time productively. The other nice thing about work meetings is that there’s usually another one coming, so the opportunity to start fresh is right around the corner. Knowing this, the meeting leader can leverage any number of options to pull things back on track, including the decision to adjourn early and start again at a later point. 

If only this were true for job interviews! Like any other meeting, these conversations can also go off the rails. Unfortunately for the candidate, however, interviews don’t come with do-overs. If this meeting goes poorly, you won’t get an opportunity to convene with the same group for the same position next week. 

Luckily, not all is lost. If you’re the candidate in an interview that’s taking a bad turn, you may be able to save the situation. Even though you don’t have the same power as the interviewer, you do have some options for steering things back on course. The actual remedy will depend on who is pulling things off track – you or the interviewer. Here are tips for both sides of that equation. 

Correcting course when you cause the derailment 

How do you know you’re doing poorly in the interview? You don’t always, which is why this can be a tricky situation. In a work meeting, someone might state directly, “I’m not sure I see it that way. Would that really work?” But in an interview, the recruiter or neurology team could simply note to themselves that they don’t agree with your answer. Meanwhile, you might feel the room getting a little colder, without knowing exactly what has happened. 

Not agreeing with your answers is only one of the reasons interviewers might pull back from you as the candidate. This could also happen if they didn’t understand your answer or mis-interpreted it. Or if you didn’t respond to the question, perhaps because you leapt to an assumption about what they were asking. In a rare circumstance, you may have even insulted them by phrasing something awkwardly. Think about how this could be taken the wrong way: 

“You’ve asked why I’m interested in this position and one reason is that I like how medicine is practiced in a smaller facility. Sometimes too much sophistication gets in the way of building relationships with the patients.” 

Wait, did you just call this hospital small and unsophisticated? Don’t hold your breath for an offer. 

Whatever the reason, if you sense things are going poorly, you do have some options. 

1. If it’s something you said and you recognize it in real time, you can correct yourself. In the example above, the candidate could try this: “That didn’t come out the way I meant it. What I want to tell you is that I like having opportunities to build relationships with patients and that’s the feeling I’m getting from this hospital. That’s one reason I’m attracted to working here.” The point is to offer the corrected version and then move on; you don’t want to linger on the faux pas longer than necessary. 

2. If you’re not sure what happened to derail the interview, you can ask directly. For example, “I want to be sure I’m providing the information you need, but I’ve noticed you’re not asking follow-up questions. Am I on the right track with my answers?” This is a risky strategy, but it can have a big payoff. On the one hand, your direct approach could make the interviewer feel defensive, but it could also open the door for a better conversation. Which way it goes will depend largely on your manner, with a humble demeanor more likely to succeed. 

3. Another option is to stay calm and carry on. It’s always possible that what strikes you as a failing interview isn’t how it’s being perceived by the others in the room. The challenge is to not let your discomfort overtake you–that’s the perfect setup for add-on problems, such as talking too much or showing a distracting level of nervous energy. 

4. Go for a big close. Regardless of whether you made an evident course correction during the interview or let things play out without an intervention, you can still control the end of the meeting. 

Using the example above, imagine the department chair saying, “Well, thank you for your time. Did you have any questions before we finish?” That’s pretty dismissive, which is not encouraging. Here’s what you could say in reply as part of a “big close”: “No questions for the moment but I’d like to confirm that I like your hospital and what you’re doing here. I know you have more candidates to talk to, but I feel I could do a good job and I’d be very interested in moving forward in the process.” 

Too much? Maybe, but maybe not. If it’s an accurate reflection of your interest, the only way they’ll know that is if you tell them. 

Correcting course when the process derails things 

It’s infrequent but not unheard of for interviews to go off track because of something happening with the recruiter or hiring committee. Sometimes that’s a matter of unlucky logistics, such as a meeting that starts late, compressing the time you have together. Other times, it could be something more awkward, such as an interviewer who is unprepared or distracted. Even one member of a hiring committee tapping away on their phone can change the tone of the meeting. 

Obviously, the candidate can’t tell an interviewer to pay attention. Here are some better options: 

1. If you’re meeting with just one person, you could do a check-in such as: “You seem a little distracted. Would it be better for us to reschedule?” As you might expect, the success of this strategy will lie in the delivery. Say it with aggravation and you’re probably done here. But said with compassion, this inquiry could let you make a stronger connection with this individual. 

2. Redirect the conversation as part of an interview answer. When someone on the interview team seems disengaged, you can sometimes bring them back with a well-placed question. That might look like this: “…and that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in this position. With that in mind, I’m curious to know…” Whatever the question might be, the hope is that the process of answering it would nudge the conversation to a better level. 

3. Stay calm and carry on. This is another case where your perceptions might differ from the reality. The texting panelist, for example, could be asking an assistant to double-check the salary limit they can offer, or making scheduling changes to accommodate a second interview with you. 

4. Send a summarizing email after the interview. If you’re really concerned the process didn’t go smoothly, you can summarize key points in a follow-up email to the panelists or recruiter. This replaces the traditional thank you letter as it incorporates the thanks. Here’s an abridged example: 

“To Dr. Jackson and the hiring committee, thank you for the time you spent with me yesterday to discuss your hospital’s current need for a neurologist. I’m quite excited about this opportunity. 

It occurred to me after our meeting that some points may not have come out in our conversation with as much detail or emphasis as you might find helpful. Assuming we might meet again in this process, we’d have that opportunity but, in the meantime, here are the three main things I wanted to leave you with…” 

Depending on how important the points are, each one could take a paragraph or more. Your goal is not to sell yourself, but rather to create a summary of the information they would have gotten in a smoother process. This can be especially helpful if someone else picks things up from here and finds the original meeting notes aren’t as complete as they could be. 

What to do when the interview derails by itself 

Zoom connectivity issues? Evacuation fire alarms? Power failures? Sometimes you just have to laugh. Send a note with a humorous touch soon after the not-so-great meeting. Include a brief summary as noted above, telling them what you would have said if fate hadn’t intervened. Then offer to reschedule. 

Done with warmth, this communication can build a bridge as strong or stronger than could have been done with a less eventful interview. Since building bridges is one of the key goals of the hiring process, count yourself lucky for this derailment.