Surviving an Interview Slip Up

Ever come away from an interview knowing that you could’ve done better? Maybe you think you don’t have any recourse or way to remedy a misstep. But you do, depending on the type of blunder, although many chapters on interviewing in job hunting books don’t directly address this problem. Here are some ways to back track and hopefully improve your chances.

Lilia Babé, senior scientist at Genencor International Inc., a biotech company in the Bay area, remembers one extreme and embarrassing example of what could safely be assumed to be an interviewee’s worst nightmare. A candidate for an academic faculty position where she once worked fainted after right after the lunchtime seminar. “It was just one of those unfortunate things,” she remarks. “Some people, even though they’re very comfortable with what they’re talking about, and even though they have given talks many times before, still get very anxious and nervous.”

He immediately regained consciousness, and fortunately there was a medical doctor in the crowd. But how do you recover from this? Babé says that this candidate was actually a good example of how you can salvage an interview that has taken a wrong turn, in the sense that once he came to, he was quite articulate and apologetic, picking right up where he had left off in answering questions. “I was very impressed,” she says. (She doesn’t remember whether he got the job or not.)

This particular example does draw attention to one piece of advice for remedying a mistake: “We look for someone who doesn’t dwell on any problem that may come up,” says Babé. “The ability to recover from a false step, that’s what you look for, even in less dramatic situations.” So try not to freeze up if you fail to answer some question properly or if you don’t have the answer on the tip of your tongue, managers advise.

Supplemental Information

But what if you completely forget to provide a piece of information and think of it post-interview? “I’ve had examples where candidates have sent me preprints later,” says Babé. “They want to give me more supportive evidence about what they’re trained in and what they know how to do.” She says that candidates might send more references or they might write in a cover letter accompany supporting material: ‘I’ve done x, y, and z, and it didn’t come up during the interview, but in hindsight, it’s relevant to my application.’

Adding more detail and evidence of how you’re the right match for a certain position is perfectly fine, say hiring managers. It’s not considered a strike against you. It usually takes a little time between the day of the interview and when the position is filled, so you probably have some leeway. But do act quickly and respectfully.

“I think any communication from a candidate who the hiring group is taking seriously, is going to be looked at and welcomed, unless the tone is really strange,” says Christian Fritze, senior manager, technology transfer at Covance Research Products Inc., another biotech in the Bay area. “I don’t think that there’s anything that you could e-mail or phone or leave on a voice-mail with clarification or information that people would disregard.” There’s no stigma attached to coming back with information after the interview.

By trying to provide the most complete picture of yourself during and post-interview can also make you stand out. “We’re always trying to differentiate between candidates, so the more information we have the better,” says Babé. She adds, with a laugh, remember this is science and it’s all about “data, data, data.”

Blowing a Question

Filling in extra facts is one thing. Another is a misunderstood question or realizing after the fact that the interviewer might have interpreted a remark you uttered in the wrong way. This is a different issue entirely. It needs to be to handled with another approach, but could be trickier.

“In supplying more information there’s already a supposition that you’re a candidate in contention,” says Fritze. “If that first blunder is serious enough you may have removed yourself from contention, so how you address the person in the follow-up is very important.” Also do you want to bring additional attention to a mistake? The answer depends on the nature of the oversight and how much you want the job.

“I would discount the worry about accentuating the problem,” advises Fritze. “I guess it is true that we retain in memory so much better the things that we mess up.” But in reality, he adds, probably the other person will realize a faux pas for what it was, not some fundamental flaw in the candidate’s character. “If that’s the case, then bringing attention to it will show that you’re sensitive to what happened,” he notes. “So I think the downside to coming in with a follow-up is usually pretty small.”

If you feel you really must correct a mistake, Fritze recommends a phone call over e-mail. “I find there’s something facile about an e-mail where a phone call would be better.” The immediacy and less of a chance of being misinterpreted a second time are two good reasons for a follow-up phone call versus e-mail. You might say something like this: ‘This morning when we were talking about issue x,y,z, I think I left you with an impression that is really the not the way I feel, or the answer I gave you does not fully reflect my views on this topic. I’m concerned that it materially affects my chances in the interview process and I would really welcome the opportunity to talk to you again about this issue.’

“I think people would respond to that,” says Fritze.

Take Home Message

Managers say that avoiding these mishaps in the first place is the best advice they have to give. Come to the interview as prepared as possible to minimize the need to back pedal. For example, research the company or institution to which you’re applying and match your experience to the position. Have questions of your own prepared. And, have answers prepared to such commonly asked questions as “Tell me about yourself.”

One part of the process that many interviewees forget, says Annette Lewis, scientist at Entelos Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif. is to follow-up. “If the interviewer was lukewarm about a candidate to begin with, one way to help your chances, whether you botched up or not is to write a thank-you letter.” In addition to demonstrating your polite and professional manner and reiterating your interest and fit for the job in the letter, it’s also a chance to correct mistakes and give additional information.

“The whole process starts when a jobseeker sees an advertisement,” says Babé. “There’s information there. Then there’s a phone interview where they can ask questions to get more details on the position, and if they’re called for an interview there’s more interaction.” So there are plenty of opportunities to exchange information.

“So much of what we see in interviews is disappointing because with many candidates the interest level just isn’t there,” concludes Fritze. So when he sees an interviewee coming back with supplemental information or a clarification, “that kind of interest is usually appreciated.”

Lewis concurs. Part of the problem, she says is that you have only one chance to show what you’re about in an interview setting, and if you come across as dull and uninterested in the position, it’s hard to remedy. But, if it’s something as seemingly innocuous as filling in supplemental information or correcting a misinterpretation, then go for it, say managers.