Handling a Job Interview When You’re Sick


Imagine you’ve scheduled your job interview, only to get sick at the last moment. In today’s world, where many employers seem to think work comes before anything, your inclination may be to grit your teeth, get out of bed, and suffer through the commute and the conversation. That way, at least, you’ll show how committed you are to landing the job.

But things aren’t that simple. For one thing, your coughing and sneezing will distract from what you’re saying (let’s not explore the possibilities of an intestinal flu). And when you’re feeling lousy, you won’t give your best performance. If that wasn’t bad enough, managers and HR staffers may think you’re rude to bring your germs into their office.

If you’re truly sick, you should probably postpone the interview; if you handle the situation properly, you won’t harm your prospects. As you’re weighing your decision, consider these five things:

The Employer Already Knows You

If you’re scheduled to sit down with the hiring manager and his or her team, chances are good you’ve already developed a positive relationship with the company, notes Colleen Hughes, vice president of human resources for the tech-industry group CompTIA, based in Downers Grove, Ill. “You’ve already been screened and qualified, and probably had one or two phone interviews, so you’ve got some checkmarks next to your name,” she said. Because you’ve established enough credibility to be invited into the office, postponing because of illness probably won’t do you much harm.

Be Proactive

If you’re sick, telephone everyone you’re scheduled to meet—and whose phone number you have—as early as possible, following up immediately with emails.

If you’re calling early in the morning or the night before, chances are you’ll get voicemail, and that’s okay. Leave a message saying you’re ill and think it best to postpone your meeting, then offer options for moving forward. Those ‘moving forward’ options might include a Skype or telephone session that day if you’re up to it. If not, propose a couple of days and times when you can reschedule.

“Don’t just say, ‘I’m sick,’” advised Katie Seal, staffing agency Randstad Technologies’s recruiting director in Dallas. “Give some details and be honest, but don’t be gruesome.”

Telephoning is important, Seal said, because many managers may think you’re trying to hide something if you only email. Besides, she believes, you’ll state your case better on the phone.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on the person who scheduled the interviews to reach out and keep everyone in the loop, advises Caliopie Walsh, vice president of human resources at Experian Marketing Services in New York. “You want to convey authenticity, so emailing everyone helps the situation,” she said. “You don’t know how the scheduler will present the situation, either, and you want to have as much control as you can.”

If you do decide to show up, call the employer ahead of time to let them know you’re under the weather. This gives them a chance to postpone the interview themselves—thus taking the heat off you—and also provides you with the opportunity to point out you might not be at your best.

Keep Things in Context

As Hughes pointed out, the company already has some feel for you. James Stanger, senior director of CompTIA’s products group, notes that the hiring process tends to be progressive, with interviews acting as just one step in the process. “This isn’t a one-shot thing,” he said. “We’ve all been in interviews that have been postponed, so we know it’s not fatal.” Still, he stresses, be sure to follow up with specific proposals for moving forward to emphasize your interest in the position.

Consider Their Reaction

How an employer reacts to the situation can say a lot about its culture and how it treats employees. “You may not want to work for an organization that gets snippy over this,” said Stanger, a sentiment with which Hughes agrees. Remember that “we’re all interviewing each other,” she said. “An organization worth working for is going to understand the situation.”

Be Brilliant

When you finally do interview, you’ll have to turn in a great performance. Acknowledge what happened and thank the interviewers for their understanding. Go into the session well-prepared (which you should do in any case) and with a positive attitude. You’re there and the awkward situation is behind you—almost. “Address the issue straightaway,” Walsh said. “Make it clear that you appreciate the interviewer’s flexibility. That shows you’re being authentic, sincere and are acknowledging the inconvenience they faced.”

Two cautions: If you postpone, make the phone calls and send the emails yourself—don’t have your spouse or another family member do it. And never postpone because of childcare issues, which Hughes would consider a red flag. As Stanger points out: “If you were working, you’d have a back-up plan in place. Have one ready on the day of the interview.”

Tech pros may have an advantage over those in other industries, because tech-centric organizations are often flexible in how they approach their workforce. “Managers are used to dealing with remote workers, so they may be a bit more understanding,” said Seal. While she has seen candidates lose opportunities because illness forced them to miss an interview when the employer was on a tight timeline, “if they behaved professionally, the bridge wasn’t burned and other opportunities presented themselves down the road.”

Image Credit: E.J.Johnson Photography/Shutterstock.com

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