While it’s usually candidates who make the mistakes in interviews, interviewers can screw up, too. Handling that kind of situation can be tricky.
If you back down completely, you’ll be “confessing” to a factual error that you never actually made, which may damage your interviewer’s perception of your performance. If you argue too much, though, your interviewer may perceive you as hostile and arrogant, and could reject you. And, there’s always the off-chance that your interviewer is testing you to see how you handle those sorts of situations. Whatever the case, you want to proceed with caution.
These steps will help you challenge the error without losing points.
#1: Take a Step Back
Usually, when candidates think that their interviewer is wrong, it’s actually the candidates who are wrong. This isn’t because interviewers are always smarter than candidates. Not at all! It’s simply because your interviewer has usually asked this question dozens of times. Any incorrect knowledge by the interviewer has usually been corrected by then. The odds are, frankly, against your being right.
This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge the interviewer, but it does mean that even when you’re pretty sure you’re right, you need to remember that you might not be. Haven’t we all been wrong even when we’re really confident that we’re not?
#2: Clarify and Question
If you’ve decided to challenge your interviewer, approach the situation by clarifying (or at least pretending to clarify) where you might be mistaken.
For example, if your interviewer is explaining that your solution won’t be as good as another solution when a data set is large, repeat back what she’s saying in your own words, so as to clarify the differences between your perspective and hers. For example:
“So, you’re saying that on a large data set, this database design will end up being slower than the other one due to joins during operation Foo. Won’t the other database design also have to delete with slow joins during operation Bar?”
Taking an approach like this lessens the feeling of being “attacked. And, if it turns out that you’re wrong, you’ll wind up looking a lot less stupid.
#3: Find a Middle Ground
In some cases, it may not be an issue of someone being 100 percent wrong. Look for different assumptions or situations that could affect the “right” answer, even if that means conceding to a bad design being better given seemingly bizarre assumptions.
For example, if you were debating which of two designs was better, there may be a specific set of cases – however unusual or unexpected — in which the interviewer’s design is superior. Express that.
#4: Back Off (But Not Necessarily Back Down)
When all else fails, it’s time to back off from the debate. This doesn’t mean saying that you’re wrong and the interviewer is right. It just means conceding that you might be wrong (which you might be!). You need to find a way to peacefully end the debate without engendering hostile feelings.
Ultimately, your goal in an interview is to land a job that you will find personally and professionally rewarding. Vigorously fighting with your interviewer over some simple matter might soothe your ego, but it won’t help you achieve your true goals. In interviews, just as at work and in your personal life, it’s important to be able to speak up for yourself without squashing other people.