Job-seekers: Dealing with Incompetent Interviewers – by Lou Adler

Caution is urged: the advice that follows will not help you get a job you don’t deserve, but it will help you get one you do.

In a recent post I suggested that these were the three primary causes of interviewing mistakes:

  1. Interviewers don’t really know much about the job
  2. Interviewers use invalid techniques and questions to assess competency
  3. The voting system is rigged

Getting past the interview is less an assessment of a candidate’s ability to do the work, and more an obstacle course. Worse, the ability to deftly handle the obstacles has little or no correlation to a candidate’s ability to do the actual work, his or her interest and motivation to do the actual work, or the person’s ability to fit within the culture and environment of the organization.

Faced with this knowledge, there are some things job-seekers can do to improve their odds. Caution is urged though: the advice that follows will not help you get a job you don’t deserve, but it will help you get one you do. When I was a full-time headhunter, I always prepped my candidates for 15-30 minutes before the interview. Here’s how this started:

First, quickly switch the conversation. If you sense the interviewer is just box-checking skills, or if the person is asking irrelevant questions, you’ll need to take control right away. The best way is to ask a question like this: “the job description was unclear regarding the scope of work and the big challenges the new hire would be involved in. Could you give me a sense of these? Based on this I’ll be able to provide some examples of similar work that I’ve handled.” This will stun the interviewer, especially someone who is not prepared. Ask some follow-up questions to gain a better understanding of the focus of the job, the resources available, and some of the specific challenges. Even ask why the job is available and what happened to the person who previously held the position. Once you understand the focus of the job, you’ll need to respond by using the SAFW response described below. Just by asking these types of questions you’ll be branded as assertive and insightful, even if you’re a little quiet. Big Point: interviewers rank the quality of a candidate’s questions as highly as the candidate’s answers.

Two, answer questions using the universal answer. Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago describing the SAFW response. (Here’s almost a whole book on this.) I refer to this as the universal answer to any question. Basically it suggests that a complete answer to an interviewer’s question consists of four parts: an opening Statement, an Amplification of the opening, a Few examples to prove the opening statement, and a Wrap-up to conclude your answer. You need to practice this for a few hours with each of your strengths to get it right, but it’s essential if you want to be accurately assessed. Start practicing by answering The Most Important Interview Question of All Time. The example chosen is the heart and soul of any answer. Interviewers quickly forget general statements, like “I’m a real problem-solver.” However, they will remember the example of the real problem solved.

Three, force the question. Few candidates possess all of the skills and experiences listed in the job description, so you’ll need to make sure you’re assessed on work you’ve done that’s most comparable to work that needs to done. While asking a question like “can you tell me about the actual job?” is a good first step, it might not be enough. In this case, you can subtly reframe the conversation and have the interviewer ask you questions that target your core strengths. For example, if you’re strong at getting people to agree on how to handle technical bottlenecks, you can ask something like, “it seems like the person in this role is actively involved coordinating the activities of a lot of people in different groups. Is this a key part of the job?” Then you’ll respond using the SAFW format with your best example. This type of question forces the interviewer to assess you on your strengths. People who are quiet are instantly assumed to be weak at influencing others, or they lack motivation. You can use this “force the question” technique to prove the interviewer is wrong.

If you’re not a perfect match on skills and experience, you’ll need to control the interview to ensure you’re being accurately assessed on something more important – your past performance and ability to handle the real requirements of the job. Uncovering real job needs and giving full and detailed examples are a critical part of this. As Jim Rohn said, “things will get better for you, when you get better.” When it comes to job-seeking, nothing could be more true.

Lou Adler


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the Amazon best-selling author of Hire With Your Head (Wiley, 2007) and the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, is now available on Amazon. You might want tojoin Lou’s new LinkedIn group to discuss this and related hiring issues.