Tips for Surviving a Hostile Job Interview

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Is there a way to win over an interviewer who’s in a foul mood?

Yes, there are strategies that can help you win a battle with an aggressive interview jerk, which you can use to potentially transform a difficult endeavor into something worthwhile for everyone.

Prepare for All Contingencies

“The key to being effective in an interview is being prepared for anything, whether it’s a question, or someone’s personality,” said John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology. “I can’t say this enough. Do your research and mentally prepare. It takes a lot of disciplined practice but it’s half the battle and it will allow you to stay calm and focused in the face of an onslaught.”

What’s Their Motivation?

Reed suggested you consider what’s motivating the interviewer. “It’s one thing if they’re asking really tough questions, or are short when they speak with you,” he said “but it’s another thing if they’re rude or abrasive. You really want to determine if they’re trying to see how you respond under pressure, or if they’re taking their bad day out on you.”

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Reed noted that you have to keep your objective at the forefront. If you’re committed to getting the job, try to power through the unpleasant interview: “You want them to come away feeling good about you as a candidate.” If you’re less inclined: “Be courteous and professional and use it as practice.”

You’re the Boss

Having confidence can work like a suit of armor. Janine Davis, principal at Fetch Recruiting, believes that most candidates become meek when faced with an interview jerk. But that’s not the solution: Since the interviewer is trying to make you feel insecure, it’s important to remain composed and self-assured while expertly illustrating what you know. ”If the bully fires off a list of acronyms to see if you have experience with each and every one,” she said, “don’t just give deer-in-the-headlight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.”

By answering anything that’s being thrown at you without having an emotional response, you can diminish the coercion. Whatever you do, don’t crumple in a ball and give in to the abuse.

If you feel a battle brewing, have two or three really strong points about your credentials at the tip of your tongue. Be ready and able to walk your interrogator through examples of what you’ve done and what you can bring to the table. If you don’t have experience with something that’s thrown at you, Davis advises that you remain neutral and detail your comparable or similar proficiencies.

Re-Balance the Interview

A good best practice in any kind of interview is to ask your own questions. “When you’re feeling the heat, one of the best ways to re-balance is to start talking,” Reed said. “It’ll get them talking too and give you time to collect your thoughts.” This tactic may also determine the interviewer’s mindset. “If they refuse to answer or give very abrupt answers,” he continued, “this is at least a yellow flag. They may not be a good person to work with. But if they come back and are responsive and open, they may be tough but they’re also invested in the process and interested in you.”

When to Walk Away

What if you’ve determined your interviewer is really just an abusive jerk? You may want to back away slowly, counseled Randi Bussin, founder of career-coaching firm Aspire, without giving any indication that you’re amenable to the position.

“My advice,” she said, “is to not manipulate the situation but to give signs that you’re not that interested and hope the person is smart enough to sense the lack of engagement and end the interview.”

In the off chance you wind up with the sort of mean-spirited dolt who enjoys torturing candidates, she strongly recommended you take charge and terminate the interview. Don’t engage, either. It’s liable to set them off and could make it difficult to leave. Depending upon how offensive the conduct, you may consider contacting the company’s internal recruiter as well (if he’s not the interviewer!) to give him a heads-up.

“Would you really want to work with someone who makes snide remarks and offensive jokes, who is demeaning, who yells and has a temper?” Bussin asked. Probably not.

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18 Responses to “Tips for Surviving a Hostile Job Interview”

  1. Reminds me of one case. After passing a hands-on coding test, I was called in for an interview. When I went in, as soon as the interviewer/PM saw me, he tossed his pen on the desk, let out a heavy sigh and made it look like I was wasting his time. I felt like just saying a quick thank you and walk out.

    Needless to say, I didn’t get the offer.

  2. Eric Price

    “Would you really want to work with someone who makes snide remarks and offensive jokes, who is demeaning, who yells and has a temper?” Bussin asked. Probably not.

    I think that says it all.

    Who wants to work for a bunch of pinche putos?

    • Eric, had to look up pinche putos because I had a general idea and apparently it has multiple meanings, using one would mean working with a homophobic person (You, not the interviewer) and I’d find that uncomfortable and no, I’m hetero. I’ve never met a “heterophobic” person, but I’d find it uncomfortable around him/her too, maybe more so because that’s just not seen.
      Also, it may not be a bad day for the interviewer, it could be a test to see how you react to an abrasive situation, using the techniques described seems best for both situations.

  3. I had the unpleasant experience of waiting for 45 minutes past my interview time, while my “interview team” rudely waited for one of the interviewers to leave the building to go pick up and bring back their lunch, then eat while I sat in the reception area. Without apologizing for their arrogant behavior, I was then called in to walk these people through a .ppt presentation that I was instructed to prepare, when I had absolutely no chance of being offered the job. Not surprisingly, they were hyper-critical and rude throughout the hour that I spent answering their questions. My guess is that they had found the perfect candidate in an earlier appointment and just went through the motions with me. I should have followed my instincts and walked out after the first 20 minutes of waiting, because that was a clear sign of trouble.

  4. One thing the article missed or brushed lightly is the fact that if you interview long enough, you will be confronted with a situation where the interviewer and the interviewee will immediately dislike each other –to put it mildly. Over my career I have been subjected to some extremely rude and insulting interviewers. I have found from my own personal experience that the best solution is to immediately terminate the interview and provide input to the firm’s human resources dept. One good tweak will do wonders when the company’s reputation is at stake, you would think, but then it depends on the company. Just mark it down as an “Oh, well!” and move on. There are greener pastures, elsewhere.

  5. The Jedi_Donkey

    The last thing most interviewers ever want to see is someone with way more experience and knowledge than they themselves have. It doesn’t matter what the job is but you see this more often than not in the Tech Sector where people are heavily promoted by who they know vs what they know.

    In an interview like that, you will never get the position so you may as well have a little fun at their expense.

    • You are absolutely right! This actually occurs on a day to day basis in the tech sector. An additional issue is being interviewed by someone who is younger, less experienced, and less knowledgeable than yourself. They will sometimes perceive your presence and abilities as a threat and will try to lure you into a confrontational situation…your brain vs. his or hers. The more senior members may recognize your abilities as an asset to the organization, but will probably yield to the recommendations of the junior members who would insist that you are a distraction and that you were argumentative during the interview. I have had this situation in which my chances of landing the job were shot down like a blind duck during hunting season.

      • Exactly. Example ” Your (millions of accomplishments by age 19 working for Fed. agencies and prestigious companies) has nothing to do with cutting meat in a store.. yeah? You worked fast food, but you’ve never worked a meat counter? It’s complicated”.

  6. Interviewers can be a problem but a bigger problem can be the corporate culture. I’ll keep harping on this. Always ask about their employee evaluation system. If it is a ‘stacked ranking’ that openly puts employees in competition with each other, just say sorry, and leave. You can thank me later.

  7. Lots of politics in the tech sector. It’s all about who you know. It didn’t used to be that way. No doubt I’ve had more than my share of dolts trying posture and ensuring I know I’m not welcome. During interviews I’ve learned to be on my toes, and if things go south, I say one concise sentence that I’m not comfortable with their track and if they feel strongly about staying there, then I’m fine with ending the discussion.

  8. Tim Niles

    During the height of the boom/bubble I was visiting the Silicon Valley area and was being offered a LOT of interviews as well as finding jobs relatively plentiful. One interview I accepted without complete knowledge of how far away from Sunnyvale it was; on 101 it would have been a miserable commute. But having set everything up, I went through the interview anyway. It was one of those 3 on 1 interviews, which normally are as easy for me as one on ones… but for some reason one of the interviewers was actively hostile, like I had somehow threatened one of his children or something equally hideous. I was surprised; his two colleagues were embarrassed as he got increasingly rank. It wasn’t like I was going to be hurt: I was doing a contract in Minnesota and could see that my skills were in high demand… so it was easy to disconnect. Although I have an easy sense of humor and enjoy crossing swords (in casual banter) I let it pass, responding to his emotional and threatening attitude as if he was a wimp. Again, his colleagues were embarrassed. I left the interview knowing that I’d wasted the trip from the start due to my geographical ignorance. Here’s what I found out later: that some consulting organization – which ‘specialized’ in preparing organizations for interviewing candidates had set down this kind of hostile nonsense as being USEFUL! I later had another where BOTH interviewers were equally hostile (these inquisitions seemed to be designed for panel type situations so the grillers could supply support and rest for each other. The last one was about a position requiring object oriented skills…and although I had been aware and used such skills for over a decade, they were dissing me throughout (I was laughing silently) it really was quite funny. Anyway, that inquisition fad disappeared in the course of a couple of months. I think everyone should encounter it because it will wake you up to the nature of the business climate: fools will believe anything for a while.

  9. “… suggested you consider what’s motivating the interviewer…”

    Some folks don’t need “motivation” to be, or simply behave like, an ass. It’s just the way (s)he typically behaves.

    Life is too short to waste time with such nitwits.

  10. Tim Niles

    This dependence on the ‘networking’ is characteristic of the general corporate culture in the US. Networking is sold as the way to work around ALL the ineptitude involved in the hiring process… and in specific the hiring done by people who have no clue about achievement (outside of the mirror game – look up Lucy and Harpo on U tube – which often passes for substantive accomplishment) and are useless in interviews. Supposedly, there is a major downside to hiring someone who turns out not to have the appropriate skills or attitudes… and thus companies hire only those known to others… in short they ‘game’ as a group to minimize risk.

    I agree with the comment that this was not the approach taken in companies – generally – when I started my engineering career in 1972. It was a pretty formal procedure where other engineers read the resumes and decided which fit the position and experience level, and then brought people in for interviews. The preliminary filters of resumes were where the failures happened. I remember sitting in the HR office at Sperry-Univac in 1974, waiting to fill out hiring docs, and listening to someone who was a low level clerical person flipping through resumes while talking on the phone: “Oh, look, here’s another resume with an advanced degree! Probably wants to tech!” She tossed the resume in the reject file. AHA! When I was working there one of the supervisors mentioned Masters degrees – one of his charges had a Masters in engineering – and he said something like: “Well, when you have someone with an advanced degree, you have to work harder to find tasks that match his skills and there aren’t as many openings here for advanced skills… so it’s trouble for me and trouble for the employee.” And there was some truth in that statement… in the early years of my career, people with advanced degrees seemed to act like they needed a job that allowed them to continue writing theses in a very specific tech area rather than stretch out and use that extra knowledge to benefit everyone. Unfortunately, that attitude resulted in a general attitude about advanced degrees. Which still existed in the 1980s and 1990s.

    By the way, the LAST thing to do with hostile bozos in interviews is to get upset. When things didn’t go my way and an interview was being run by someone defective in many ways, I never let it affect me. Then again, I’ve done things that few people had done, so in a sense the opinions of those with less ability never really touched me. Then again, I LIKE interviews. Too often engineers are relatively silent in their daily work, and I always liked to talk and share ideas with other engineers. I also liked being out in the field with customers because my talents with communications played very well with them (and my work ethic and my total lack of annoyance with anyone who DIDN’T understand EVERYTHING I DID! Yeah, lots of software people who were like that in the early days. Should have been obvious: if you know you have skills several sigma from the norm… then most people are not going to run with your hunt instantly and why should they?

    On the other hand… when ignorance is masked by these new ‘networking’ dictums and consensus decisions are made on hiring based on risk minimization for individuals… who cannot conduct technical interviews or read resumes… then the overall process of hiring becomes corrupt and subject to ridicule.

  11. I have many hostille interviews. One person asked me Java questions. The job description clear said c#, and no one at that company used Java.

    One person was hostile. Obvious, she did not read my resume. She just told me the position was senior level. She was very mean and wandered why I was there. 3 minutes later, I was out. Oh, she knew nothing about technical stuff

    Another time, a company was looking for intern/entry level position. The requirement did not require any experience. It just needed people who had knowledge. I just graduated without any experience, so I applied. The human resource asked me to come to interview. The person whon interviewed me had strong technical background, but he did not resume before talking to me. He spent 30 minutes lecturing me how weak I was. He said he was worried about how I survive in this environment with this backgrouund. He went on and on and humiliated me. It was a long session. Finally, the lecture was over. He never asked my background. I knew I did notbget job

    Hiring managers, I know you are busy. You don’t want to spend time to interview. However, you have no choice. Filter out the resumes. If you, human reource, or other failter filter out. It is. Your fault, and not candidates’ faults to waste your time. Instead of giving hard time to candidates, blame yourself, HR, people who read the resumes. Candidates don’t deserve this treatments

  12. I am a 24 years experience IT professional. As I am having more diverse technical knowledge and more Experience, it is actually working against me. I used get job very easily even with lack of certain skill for that position. Now I am facing interview with younger hiring manager who clearly lacks in-depth knowledge. These younger hiring managers feels insecure, gets intimidated by my overall experience, tends to be confrontational. They never take time to read the resume before my interview. Never prints my resume and shamelessly always ask me whether I have printed resume for them. They don’t even bother to write any comment on my resume (may be, I am old school because when I take interview I write note on candidate’s resume for future comparison with other candidates).

    Rather than asking me on my skills that reflects on my resume, they tends to concentrate on the skill that I don’t have and they would keep pounding on it. Doesn’t matter what the job requirement is, they would ask question on Tech area that they are good at.

    Recently, I had a Interview with a 8 yrs IT exp lady at Fannie Mae for an Enterprise Architect position and she kept asking me questions about relational database design. As I was explaining different types of Enterprise Architecture framework, she looked bored and disinterested. After coming back from the Interview, I checked her background online and she has extensive experience in database, but no other IT experience. Nowhere in my resume had I mentioned, I have experience with designing database. She never took the time to read my resume beforehand. I wonder, why she even bothered to ask the HR to invite me for an interview. She totally wasted my time and money.

  13. George

    I somewhat disagree with the approach recommended in this article. If someone is being overtly hostile or rude in an interview, I think it is best to call them on their behavior. While keeping your calm and not engaging with the hostility, turn it around on them by saying something like “That last question seemed very provocative. I’m curious what lies behind it. Are you just testing how I respond to hostility, or have I done something to create bad chemistry between us?” You might also ask if the interviewer if the tone of his or her questions is intended to convey something about the firm culture or the types of personalities you would be working with.

    People who seek to intimidate an interviewee or put him or her on the defensive are either (a) testing how they react to stressful situations, and whether they can be intimidated or (b) jackasses with whom you wouldn’t want to work. By answering in this way you get to the bottom of what is really going on, and show that you can stand up for yourself. If you don’t get the job after standing up to this apparent bullying, you wouldn’t want to work there anyway, and you can feel good about yourself for not getting pushed around. Remember, the best interviewees make it clear that the firm is interviewing for their services just as much as they are interviewing for a position.

  14. I had an interview where one of the panel members was recruited a year earlier at the same level. He seemed to be very insecure and started criticising methods that I used in my studies (for which I had won awards for my research from multiple places!). I just told him that I disagree with him due to X Y Z (and I am 300% sure that he was wrong and had no clue what he was on about) but then again I just politely mentioned that – I believe working in academia means that we should have an open mind to new methods but I respect diverse opinions but the beauty of working in academia is that I will learn something new from my colleagues and in return they will also be able to learn something from me. I thought that was a good response at the time rather than becoming intimidated and proving him wrong infront of his colleagues (which woulnd’t have been very difficult.. as a matter of fact the other colleagues were looking at each other and laughing at him whilst he was talking and going on and on and ON!). Usually some jerks would always try to show you that they know more than you but in this case the dude didn’t know much at all, I am more concerned how they hired him with such outdated knowledge and such a terrible accent considering he was only hired a year ago!…..Anyways….I would welcome any response from you guys!

  15. Some interviewers will “rattle your cage” to see what happens.
    With situations like YAS saw: being criticized in a panel interview… (even when you are sure you are right about the facts) there can be a couple of things going on… Somebody can be seeing how you react, and whether you have the ability to think on your feet, and deal with stress, and possibly redirect the group dynamic.

    Maybe he wants to see if you will stand your ground or back down… even get intimidated, defensive, agitated, flustered, and escalate the situation or adapt to diffuse a conflict and move forward in a reasonable direction.

    You could demonstrate your people skills by stating reason X,Y, Z that your methods+facts are correct; but that when working with teams of people who disagree, you prefer to focus on the best way to get things done productively, rather than get stalled about who is right or wrong… and then get back to better job & interview topics. If you are still interested in getting the job, you may offer to read more on HIS methods and your own approach, then let him know the compared results. This gives you a good reason for a follow up call to discuss the job in a day or two, which is even more useful than the specific answer. If no longer interested in the job, it can give YOU a bit of extra flexibility or control. Either you can consider this a “practice” interview, developing interview skills to be used next time… or you can pick up control of the interview, ask a couple more questions about the company, and tell interviewer(s) that this job does not appear to be the good match that you were looking for… You appreciate their time; but you will finish the interview and let them focus on their other candidates… If they have other jobs that are a better match, then feel free to contact you. That stops wasting time, takes a slightly unexpected pro-active turn, and can change a “weak” no-fit interview into a perspective that “This guy has some direct initiative, without being abrasive” and they may remember you if a different job comes up.

    Even if your job description is almost entirely technical, shipping or accounting, you still need the ability to deal with people, keep personality conflicts from getting in the way, and be able to keep moving forward with a productive team.