“Where did you get that number?” he scoffed.
After 15 minutes of him telling me why I wasn’t good enough for the job I was interviewing for, I finally found my voice.
“Because it’s what I make now,” I fired back in a less-than-pleasant tone.
I knew within 60 seconds of sitting down in his office, that I was not going to get this job. He didn’t understand why I’d applied. Or why he should trust me to stay at his company for many years. Or why I’d had a side-hustle instead of devoting all my waking hours to my previous full-time jobs.
I was in interview mode. I mustered up the most appropriate responses that I felt would help me land the job. But there were no right answers to his questions. He’d made his decision already. When he rolled his eyes at my requested salary I couldn’t help but snap back. At the time of interviewing, I was a full-time freelancer. I knew better than ever what my worth was. I was fighting every day to ensure I was being paid what I deserved and that I used my skillset to the best of my abilities. I knew I wasn’t going to get the job, so there was no way I was going to let him lower my worth.
Six months later, my income is double that number I gave him. And I’ve had time to reflect upon how I should have handled such a belittling and hostile interview. I still don’t understand why they invited me for an interview if the owner felt I was so under-qualified. But I do know I could have done a better job at standing up for myself. Until that moment I had never had a bad interview experience. Every interviewer I’d ever met treated me with dignity and respect. Without fail I was always offered the job.
This interviewer caught me off guard, but you can be more prepared than I was. Before your next interview have a game plan for how you’ll handle a belittling interview. Just in case.
Weigh the Risks
Before taking action, you may want to consider the risks involved with ruffling any feathers—whether they deserve ruffling or not. For me, the risks were low, which should have given me confidence. I’d applied for the job on a whim on LinkedIn in under 60 seconds. It wasn’t my dream job and I was happy freelancing. There was little chance of crossing paths with this man in my professional network. Meaning, there would have been no repercussions for me telling him what I really thought about his rude questions. Until that day, I thought you should always try to land the job once you’ve made it to the interview stage. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.
Take a Breath
You don’t have to fire back a response to any questions immediately. Yes, you probably have some of the basics rehearsed. But if you’re caught off guard with insults and interrogations like I was, you can pause for a moment. Tell your interviewer you need a second to think about their last question. Or simply don’t speak until you have an answer. Feeling defensive can make us jump to the first possible answer that pops into our heads. But an interview is a two-way street. You deserve the opportunity to think carefully about what you want to say.
I came across an acronym recently that is a helpful way to check yourself before responding. The acronym is THINK:
T – is it True?
H – is it Helpful?
I – is it Inspiring?
N – is it Necessary?
K – is it Kind?
I like that this acronym is easy to remember and helps prepare an argument quickly and appropriately. Of course, in a job interview, not every letter may apply, but this seems like a good rule to follow in many situations.
Turn it Around
Need more time to collect your thoughts? Ask the interviewer a lengthy question. Allowing them to grill you repeatedly will only make you feel worse and make them feel more in control. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. If I could do it all again, I would ask the owner who insulted his writers’ work, why he doesn’t pay any of them. Which considering his magazine relies on that free labor, is a fair question.
An interview should never be one-sided. You can ask the interviewer as many questions as they ask you. You both have decisions to make. So feel free to ask away about company culture, policies, or what your day-to-day would look like. If you’d be working directly under your interviewer, ask them what their strengths and weaknesses as a manager are. Put them in the hot seat for a minute while you compose yourself. You may even impress them by not standing down.
There were some questions I couldn’t have seen coming. Especially since I’d never had an interviewer be anything less than thrilled with my experience before. But upon reflection, I should have gone into the interview ready to argue against any weak spots in my resume. In the past, I’d experienced the typical “what is your greatest weakness” question. But I had not prepared to handle any other awkward ones. Fun fact: The greatest weakness I always share is that I am not assertive enough. This interview was proof that my greatest weakness is real and something I need to work on.
Be prepared to defend any gaps in your resume. Confidently explain why you left a job after a short (so subjective) period of time. Or why you are missing a certain skill. In my experience, freelance writing on top of working full-time was a benefit at past jobs. It helped me make connections for my employers, learn new skills, and brought a different perspective to the table. This interviewer saw my freelancing as a sign that I would never commit to my employer. If I ever do decide to leave freelancing to pursue a new full-time opportunity, I’ll be ready to defend my past choices. And to share how valuable they were to my previous employers.
Defending yourself can, for obvious reasons, sound defensive. Instead of thinking “how can I make myself sound in the right?” try “how can I show them why this is good for them?”.
I had a lot to do that day. And you know how long interviews can take. I’d done my hair, gotten there early, spent the morning researching the company. Not to mention, ruined my heels running through the rain. All the meanwhile my inbox was growing and my to-do list was begging for my attention. If I could go back in time, I would have left. This is a last resort step, but I wish I’d done it. Not only would the power dynamic have shifted, which this man needed to experience, but I wouldn’t have wasted any more of my valuable (despite what he believed) time. This doesn’t have to be a dramatic moment. No yelling or cursing or storming out. You can simply say, “Thank you so much for inviting me in today. It’s been lovely learning more about the work your team does. But unfortunately, I don’t think this job is the right fit for me. Thank you for your time.”
And then bounce.