How To Interview: Hitting those Curve Balls

Career Enrichment, Confidence, Interviewing
12/28/19 - John Roccia
how to interview: how to hit curve balls

In the first three installments of this series, we laid out the proper ways to prepare mentally for an interview, how to navigate the Q&A process, and how to effectively follow up with your interviewers.  Taken all together, that provides a nice road map for a clean process with no surprises. This edition we’re going to focus on hitting those curve balls in an interview, because the reality is that the planet I live on is FULL of surprises!

That means the process is never going to go exactly like that outline.It’s essential to have a plan so you’re not just running around in the dark, but plenty of interviews will take unexpected turns.

The hiring managers and recruiters who conduct interviews aren’t perfect.  They’re flawed humans, just like you are. They’re trying their best with often limited tools, attempting to make an accurate assessment of you in order to predict your future behavior and performance in that role.  Sometimes they’ll be very stressed, overworked, or lacking in knowledge of good interview techniques. All of these things can contribute to an interview that’s less than perfect, but still might be the gateway to a job you’d love.

In this installment, I’m going to cover some of the common types of unexpected incidents I’ve encountered over the years, what’s usually going on behind the scenes when they happen, and how you can best navigate them.  Ready to hit some curve balls? Let’s dive in!


3 Types of Curve Balls

Scenario 1:

You walk into the interview, early and well-prepared.  You’ve done plenty of research and you know you’re a great fit for the role.  You’re excited! Your interviewer, on the other hand, seems like the opposite.  They’re scrambling and late, as if they just learned about this interview at the last possible minute, and right away it’s clear they don’t know a thing about you.  They ask your name and what position you applied for. They ask for a copy of your resume and rush to read it while you’re walking to the office. Overall, your confidence gets shot – clearly this interviewer doesn’t care about you or this interview.  So: what do you do when your interviewer isn’t prepared for the interview?

The Reason: 

It might be tempting to think this person just doesn’t care or is unprofessional, but even if it’s true that isn’t helping you any.  Instead, take a moment to consider what might be happening. A million perfectly natural things could have resulted in this person being told about your interview at the last minute. Maybe they weren’t the one that was originally supposed to interview you, but that person had an emergency.  Maybe the fact that they’re interviewing people at all is because they’re desperately short-staffed and stressed. The likelihood isn’t that the person is being intentionally disrespectful, but rather that they’re overwhelmed.

Your Best Response:

You might be perfectly within your rights to be annoyed or frustrated at being treated this way, but you also have a golden opportunity to be somebody’s superhero.  If you act put out by the frustrations of your interviewer, you miss the chance to be empathetic and supportive, which can immediately put you in a great position, especially relative to other candidates that might not behave this way.  Imagine the power of the following statement, said in response to everything happening in the above scenario:

“I can tell that it’s a pretty hectic day in here! I’ve had plenty of those myself, usually because there were big changes happening. I’d love to hear more about the changes happening in this department. Where do we start?”

Have you ever had an incredibly stressful day with far too many responsibilities and deadlines?  Of course you have. How would you have felt if one of your responsibilities got up and said something similar to you?  You’d probably be relieved and delighted, so giving your hiring manager that same gift is a big win. Not only do you show empathy and consideration, you also get to set the tone for the entire interview. You are able to frame it as a conversation instead of an interrogation.  So go ahead and make a friend!

random questions

Scenario 2:

You’re engaged in the interview process, and it’s been going well so far.  There’s been lots of discussion about your previous work, your skill set, and the future goals of the company.  You’ve felt great about all your answers as they relate to your area of expertise. Suddenly your interviewer grins slyly and asks, with their pen poised over their notepad… “If you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?”  Not only do you have no idea how to answer, you don’t even understand the point of the question – so suddenly your whole flow and confidence are shot as you scramble to find something intelligent to say. So: what do you do when you get asked a nonsense question?

The Reason: 

 For as long as there have been interviews, there have been people who think they’re clever in asking things like this.  Some of these questions are practically designed to trip you up, like asking “if you won the $10 million lottery would you still work for us?” (They actually want you to say ‘yes,’ by the way.) Others are designed just to try to see if you’ll come up with a Tweet-worthy answer. Like the person who answered “describe yourself in one word” with “hired.”.  Ultimately though, even though these questions are horrible and ineffective, hiring managers often still use them because they haven’t yet learned that they don’t reveal anything relevant. The interviewer is looking for some intangible quality in you.

Your Best Response:  

If you can figure out what the interviewer is actually trying to learn about you via this question, it can be possible to answer “correctly.”  Just like the lottery ticket question, “trick” or “trap” questions like that aren’t a great sign of good company culture. Though, one hiring manager’s eccentric practices doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole job isn’t worth taking.  Because of that, it’s still worthwhile to try to answer in many cases. Play along, and answer the question in the spirit it was asked. Just tell them you’d be a pine tree, because they persevere in all conditions or something.

However, don’t be afraid to take control of the conversation and turn it around.  If you’re asked a question and you genuinely don’t know what it could mean, say so!  Be polite, but ask, “That’s an unusual question that I’ve never been asked before. I’m curious, will you share with me what you learn by asking that question?”  This is your chance to really see the true colors of your interviewer. Asking a strange question might not be a deal breaker but refusing to discuss it almost certainly is.  On the other hand, an interviewer that cheerfully says “I like it as an ice-breaker to discuss how positive traits and qualities can translate from one scenario into a seemingly unrelated one,” then that’s worth engaging with – and now you’ve opened the door to do so.

the phone call

Scenario 3:

You’ve absolutely crushed all your interviews so far and are feeling great about the process.  It was a little lengthy and involved, and sometimes you worried you wouldn’t advance. However, you always received that great phone call.  You’ve had your final interview, and you’re eagerly waiting for a response. Your phone rings and that’s a good sign. However, instead of a congratulations on getting the job, you’re being asked to come in for another “final” interview, with people you’ve already spoken with.  This leaves you confused and frustrated. So: what do you do when you’re asked to interview again after your “final” round?

The Reason: 

When this happens, it’s almost always a “tie-breaking” interview.  What has most likely occurred is that more than one person made it through each interview round. Now the hiring decision-makers are unable to reach a decision based on the information they already have.  The good news is that means you’ve probably done as well as you can do in the interviews you’ve already had. The bad news is that most people don’t recognize the reality of this opportunity and miss out just inches from the finish line.

Your Best Response: 

Where most people falter in this scenario is that they come in and deliver a repeat of their last interview performance.  They think, “my answers last time moved me forward, so I’ll just make sure to stick to that script.” They respond to questions with things like, “Well, as I said last time…” or “Just like I was telling Mr. Smith in our last meeting…”  Not good.

Instead, you need to recognize that this scenario has to build on all your previous work and deliver an amazing capstone.  This isn’t the time to rest on your previous laurels, it’s the time to push hard for the brass ring. The winner in this competition is going to be the person that rises above. The person who goes beyond the requirements in the most impressive manner.

If you were asked to just come in and have a conversation, show up with a detailed professional development plan for your first six months in the role.  If they just wanted to hear your thoughts on the marketing project, show up with a presentation that includes your best pitches for that campaign. Treat it like it’s your first day on the job. Act like you’re already trying to impress the boss, and you may find that’s exactly what’s happening!

The Common Theme

The central lesson to take from all these scenarios is that showing some understanding of the other person’s reasoning can take you very far.  Even if their reasons for unusual behavior aren’t necessarily good ones. It Is still possible for you to find answers and insights buried in what the hiring manager thinks.  You don’t have to assume they’re perfectly rational and flawless, but you should at least assume they have reasons for what they’re doing. They think they are getting them closer to their goal, which is making a great hire.  The easier you make that goal for them, the more likely it is that the great hire will be you.

You won’t accept every role. Some scenarios like these will make you reconsider accepting a role that’s offered to you.  That’s okay – in fact, you should absolutely do that! But even if you ultimately don’t accept a job offer, you still stand to gain the most by making sure that it’s your decision.  That means you want the best chances of getting the job offer, even if you don’t take the job itself in every case.

Remember, hiring managers are humans too. The more you treat them like it, the more likely it is that they’ll not only be your path to this job – but also to future ones.  Remember, hiring managers have career tracks too, and you never know when you’ll meet again!

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