How to React When an Interview Doesn't Go as Planned

By Alison Green

You've spent hours prepping for your job interview and arrive at the employer's office ready to impress. But in an instant, your careful plans can fall to pieces if you're thrown off by a change in the interview that you didn't know to plan for.

Here are five fairly common ways an employer might inadvertently surprise you and how you can make sure these unexpected changes don't throw you off your game.1. Your interviewer is switched at the last minute. Don't get thrown off if you've been planning to meet with the vice president of communication and now find out that you're meeting with her deputy instead. This stuff happens. People end up calling in sick or having emergencies to attend to; it's not a sign that they're uninterested in your candidacy.

When this happens, job applicants tend to the worry that their interview won't "count" or that they'll be at a disadvantage from not meeting with the person they were originally scheduled with. The reality is that you may or may not be at a disadvantage when this happens, but it's impossible to know from the outside – and you'll definitely be at a disadvantage if you let the last-minute switch throw you off your game. Instead, stay cool and show that you can roll with the punches without getting rattled.

2. You've scheduled a phone interview, but no one calls at the scheduled time. This one is surprisingly common; many employers will schedule phone interviews and then never call. If that happens to you, the best thing to do is to wait 15 to 20 minutes and then call the interviewer yourself.

Say something like: "We had a 3:00 call scheduled, and I'm checking in since I haven't heard from you. Would you like to reschedule or is now a good time to talk?" If you get voicemail, change that last sentence to: "I'd love to talk with you; I'll send you an email to see when we can reschedule." (And then send the email.)

Equally common is the reverse of this ...

3. An employer calls you without warning and wants to conduct a phone interview on the spot. There's an epidemic of employers calling job candidates and trying to interview them on the spot, without any warning or advance notice.

Many applicants are afraid to say that it's not a good time for them and to try to reschedule, because they often never get called back after that (see No. 2). So they end up trying to do a phone interview outside the grocery store or with their kids in the car, frantically trying to remember which job this was at which company, with zero preparation.

It's obvious why this isn't good for the candidate, but it's not good for the employer either. Interviewing a candidate who just woke up, is late for a meeting or just hasn't had time to focus on the employer's needs isn't going to produce the most useful information about him or her.

If you find yourself in this situation, it's reasonable to say something like: "I'd love to talk. I'm at work right now and only have a couple of minutes – will that be enough time, or should we schedule a time for later?"

4. When you arrive for your interview, you're taken by surprise by assessment tests that you weren't prepared for. Employers are increasingly testing job candidates' abilities through writing tests, skills assessments, simulations and work samples. You should assume that this might be part of any interview you go to.

If this rattles you, remember that assessment tests can benefit you too, by giving you insight into the type of work you'd be doing on the job and making sure your skills are well-matched with it.

5. Your interview is cut short. You thought things were going well, but suddenly your interviewer is explaining that an emergency has come up and she needs to wrap up your conversation more quickly than planned. It's easy to assume that your interviewer has decided you're not the right match and is politely trying to move on, but it's entirely possible that her excuse is legitimate.

Regardless, you can't know from your end, and the best thing that you can do is to gracefully roll with the change. Thank the person for meeting with you, offer to set up another conversation and wait to see if the person gets back in touch about next steps.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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