Smoothly recovering from an interview faux pas can help a candidate's cause. The problem is: Most people who slip up are unaware they've done so.
This is another reason post-interview follow-up is critical. And although none of the experts we consulted said so explicitly, it's also a reason to have a third party in your corner who can advise you - and maybe obtain feedback on your behalf - after an interview.
"We had someone who was eminently qualified for a position," says Alan Geller, managing director of AG Barrington, a New York firm that recruits and places financial technology professionals. After the interview, the hiring manager - who happened to be the chief executive - told Geller, "It was odd, because he kept crossing his legs during the interview, like he had some kind of physical ailment."
The candidate later explained that after donning his freshly cleaned suit and proceeding to the interview, he noticed a hole in the pants. Too embarrassed to disclose the problem, he wound up magnifying the damage from his wardrobe malfunction. He never anticipated how he'd project himself when he sought to cover it up.
The story ended happily: After the recruiter relayed the explanation, the employer decided to proceed with that candidate.
The Value of Following Up
When candidates relay that an interview went poorly, it's usually not because of some conspicuous blunder. Instead, it's because they failed to address an employer's concerns or present their own strengths in the best way, says career coach Win Sheffield. Either circumstance can be dealt with through a follow-up contact.
Even if you're aware of flubbing a question, your best bet might not be to try to address the mistake right away, suggests Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a nationwide career counseling network. Give yourself time to compose a thoughtful response and send it as soon as possible after the interview, she says.
Wendleton believes interviews are less important than many people think. "In real life, thinking on your feet isn't what most jobs are all about. Most jobs are more contemplative than that. You have a chance to think and to plan." So Wendleton paints it as counterproductive - and unfair - for an employer to base a hiring decision on a candidate's instant, on-the-spot responses in an interview.
Undoing a Faux Pas
Still, if you do catch yourself in a faux pas, Sheffield says backtracking immediately can work to your advantage.
"In recovering in the interview, you're showing an ability to really recover in real-time, in whatever you do. Everyone screws up some time, and if you can recover gracefully, that shows you up pretty well," he says.
For instance, here is Sheffield's advice if while being interviewed you exclaim something like, "My last boss was a jerk!" Stay calm, take a deep breath and explain that although you were hurt when your former boss chewed you out over some failing, you were able to work together afterwards even though "we were never best friends."
Or, if you catch yourself saying something that could give offense, you might say, "Oops, I didn't mean that."
Don't Leave Without Asking This Question
Faux pas or no, Geller says no candidate should leave an interview without probing for and addressing the candidate's own weaknesses as seen by the employer.
Only one in 10 job-seekers, he says, are brave enough to ask this "must" question: "Are there any concerns you have about me that in your mind would prevent me from becoming a top performer if I came on board?"
If your interviewer answers candidly, you've won yourself a free shot at overcoming potential objections before you leave the meeting. If the response is that there are no concerns, then Geller recommends asking, "Will you be recommending that we move forward to the next step in the process? When might that happen?"
He relates the following cautionary tale: A candidate was interviewing at a client employer's premises for six hours, with no end in sight. Finally, he asked to end the meeting so he could eat. In so doing, he was not just seen as rude; he damaged his chances more severely, in a way he couldn't have foreseen.
It turned out that the employer had misconstrued the sales volume the candidate was responsible for. The firm believed his numbers were below the range they were seeking, when in fact he was well within their preferred range.
Geller sees this happening quite frequently. "Clients make decisions based on false assumptions and false data very often," he says. That's why it's vital for candidates to take the initiative to drill in and ask for a prospective employer's concerns. If you don't, then your candidacy could get derailed by a misconception, and you will never know.