How to Save a Disastrous Interview

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A job candidate – let's call him Carl – had all but sealed the deal for a new job. The only remaining step was to meet his prospective team of peers. The tone of that meeting was casual and chummy, so he loosened up.

And then he made a Rogaine joke to a bald team member.

And then he said, "You can strap a saddle on my ass and ride me" to express what a work horse he is.

And then he used the, uh, cute phrase "tough [rhymes with kitties]" in conversation with the human resources manager.And then Carl didn't get the job.

Jenny Foss, founder of the career blog JobJenny.com, uses her (real-life!) former client "Carl" as a go-to example of what not to do. So, however convinced you are that you monumentally failed your interview, take some solace in that you (probably) didn't pull a Carl. And even if you did, we've got you covered.

Here's how to handle various levels of interview catastrophes:

Major Mess-Ups

Offending your interviewer, getting called out on a résumé lie or being rude to the hiring manager before realizing who he or she was – these are more head wounds than boo-boos. And according to Mary Ellen Slayter, Monster's career advice expert and founder of the marketing company Reputation Capital Media Services, these kinds of mistakes will likely lose you the job.

Even if you know you've doomed the opportunity, email the interviewers later that day to apologize and thank them for their time. "[The interviewers] will have more respect for you if you acknowledge and apologize for it than if you just act like it never happened," Foss says. "Because then they might just think you're just a jerk."

Hopefully Forgivable Goofs

You spill coffee on your interviewer. Slayter points out that interview etiquette is more or less about using everyday manners. So if you land in a nightmare situation like this, use common sense. "Just be a decent person," she says. "Apologize, and try to make it right." Offer to pay for dry cleaning, too, she adds.

You're late to the interview. Say you sleep in, run into unexpected traffic or accidentally take the wrong bus. You already know you'll be late, so call the employer's office while you're en route, and give them a heads up. "You don't address the issue 32 minutes later when you get there – you call from the road," Foss says. "Otherwise, you come across as: I care so little about your time that I'm going to leave you hanging." Once you arrive, "apologize upfront, and then move on." Slayter says. "Don't dwell on it."

You're underdressed. First, banish whatever devil on your shoulder told you to wear khakis to meet with fully suited interviewers. Then, immediately address the issue. Foss recommends something like: "I was under the impression that this was a casual work environment, and I'm very embarrassed that I'm dressed in a way that's clearly not lined up with your dress code."

Performance Problems

You misunderstand a question. Your interviewers ask a question. You answer. They stare for a few beats too long before reacting. Rather than dwell on that awkward moment – I bet I sounded like an idiot! – ask your interviewer: Does that answer your question? Now the interviewers have the opportunity to clarify the question and veer you in the right direction, Foss says. "Then you have Round 2 to come at it from a different angle," she says.

You botch an answer. If only you had simply misunderstood the question and clarified your answer a minute later. Sometimes, you just draw a blank. The interviewers hammer home how important Excel knowledge is for this role, for example, and then ask you about your experience with the program. And you've got nothing. Of course, the minute you leave, you remember the intense data project you completed last fall, when you were more or less seeing Excel pivot tables in your sleep. "It's very normal to forget things," Slayter says, so don't beat yourself up. Plus, you've got the perfect opportunity to give a better answer in your thank-you email. Try something like this: "We had talked about Excel skills, and it might be worth mentioning this project in which I ..." With this tactic, Foss says, "you're pointing out the example that you came across as weak in without being apologetic."

A Few Tips for Saving Face – Whatever the Mistake

Don't try to be funny. Slayter points out that many people turn to jokes when they're nervous or uncomfortable, particularly when they're trying to make light of a mistake. But, she warns: "Most people in high-pressure situations like job interviews are just not that funny."

Don't make excuses. If there's an extreme circumstances at hand – you find out on the way to the interview that your best friend was in a car crash, for example, or a loved one just died – and it has negatively affected your interview performance, consider divulging it during the interview or follow-up email, Foss says. "But run-of-the-mill excuses? They don't care," she says. Apologize and give no excuses if you let your mind wander during a question, acted rude to the receptionist or arrived late because you slept in.

Don't ignore mistakes. One of the worst things you can do for any of these blunders or elephants in the room is to ignore them. Whatever you're anxious about – whether it's the jeans you're wearing or the gap in your resume – bring it up. Just be genuine and upfront, Foss says. "People are human; they get it," Foss says. "They've screwed up before, too."
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