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How to handle a grumpy interviewer

Subject: An mean and unfriendly businessman signing a paper document on a white background.

You can come into a job interview 100% prepared, and you may be extremely qualified for the position, but there are some things that are outside of your control.

For one, you have no idea what’s going on in the personal life of the person who’s interviewing you. They could’ve just gone on a bender the night before, or maybe there’s been a death in the family. Perhaps their favorite sports team suffered a particularly painful loss, or they recently had an intense conversation with a colleague or family member that they’re replaying in their mind.

Regardless, you have to do what you can to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. Here are tips for salvaging a job interview when the interviewer is in a bad mood or doesn’t seem to be paying close attention to what you’re saying.

Ask good questions to spark conversation

Ask the interviewer what is keeping him or her up at night, suggests Donna Svei, executive resumes coach, retained search recruiter and the founder of

“Get them talking about what really matters to them,” she said. “Draw on examples from your experience to help them see how you can be the person who can lead the charge on a great opportunity or lead the solution to a big problem.”

Amy Adler, a career coach at Five Strengths, agrees with that approach. “Engage the interviewer with a human connection,” she said. “For example, ask the interviewer some probing, interesting questions about his or her career path and industry interests.”

Examples include: Why did he or she choose banking over another career? Did he or she major in finance in college? What drew him or her to the company when he or she first interviewed? What does he or she love about working here? And did he/she read that great article in ABC industry publication last month? Or attend XYZ conference? If not, what conferences does he/she typically attend?

Don’t be afraid to go off-script – within reason

Most candidates have several talking points that they tend to work into the conversation over the course of the interview. But if the interviewer’s body language is telling you it’s not going as well as you’d like, it may be time to improvise a bit.

“The interviewer is human – if they’re having a rough day, say they’re going through a divorce, just had a fight with their kid or were told they had to work on a day they wanted off, how do you deal with that?” said Kim Ann Curtin, executive coach and the author of Transforming Wall Street. “You have to connect with them as a human being – ‘It seems like your desk is full’ or ‘You seem tired, how’s your week going?’

“Connect with someone as a human being at the beginning of the interview if possible,” she said.

Consider that it could be a test

A gruff demeanor or space-cadet behavior could actually be a deliberate tactic by the interviewer to see how you respond in a stressful situation, said Alyssa Gelbard, from career consultants Resume Strategists.

“You never know, so stay positive and focused, and don’t let it deflate you or throw you off your game,” she said. “If they’re distracted, a deal could have just blown up that they were working on, so take a step back.”

Crawford has heard of that happening as well.

“Keep in mind that sometimes, interviewers may act this way on purpose to gauge your response and see how you handle yourself,” she said. “Don't let this throw you off. Regardless of if they are doing it intentionally, stay calm and confident.”

Keep cool and non-confrontational

If the interviewer is grumpy or mean, resist the natural inclination to become defensive or respond in a similar tone of voice, Crawford said.

“Don't become defensive or sound confrontational,” she said. “This will show them how you may react to a grumpy client, so regardless of how they behave, act professionally.

If the interviewer seems distracted, try to gain their attention, but not too much.

“Stay level-headed and continue with the interview, trying to highlighting another aspect of your work experience such as teamwork or a soft skill to see if that piques their interest,” Crawford said. “Remember, if they are not in a good mood, most likely it has nothing to do with you."

Ask to take a short break

“Try saying, ‘I feel like we’re starting off on the wrong foot, can we take a coffee or tea break?’” Curtin said. “Do it in a certain way so they’re not offended, although if they’re really being a jerk, just cut it short and try to reschedule.”

Photo credit: YinYang/GettyImages

AUTHORDan Butcher US Editor

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