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When you begin interviewing a candidate and realise early on that they really, really aren't suitable for the job (for example, for a developer role, perhaps you've discussed coding and discovered they can't explain a simple for loop), how do you wrap up the interview? Assume that they've passed an initial screening, e.g. phone interview or tech test.

Is it reasonable to continue and act as though they're still in the running, answering their questions and asking questions you no longer care about the answer to, or is it just cruel?

I've seen Joel on Software suggest continuing as normal, so the candidate leaves with a good impression of your company and can pass it on. Arguably though, if I knew I'd flubbed an interview and it was drawn out for a long time afterwards, I might disrespect the company for not just ending it.

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What type of interview are you asking about? An initial phone screen or something more formal (like an on-site with multiple people)? If candidates are utterly flubbing on-site interviews, I think the core problem is a deficiency in the initial screening. –  Angelo Jan 21 at 15:36
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I was referring to a secondary face-to-face interview. You make a very valid point. Nonetheless, I'm sure that no matter how hard you try to screen people, the occasional bad apple might slip through. –  yochannah Jan 21 at 17:48
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Why is this wiki? I spent a good 20 minutes writing my answer, and I didn't do so for "free" (no rep) –  bobobobo Jan 22 at 18:58
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Whilst it's referring to a different question, I suspect this meta question applies: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/2278/… –  yochannah Jan 22 at 19:04
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@bobobobo - There's a safeguard in place that limits answers to 15. Anything beyond that suggests there's a problem with the post, so it gets automatically converted to wiki. If you have a good argument for un-wikifying it beyond just the rep, please feel free to create a wiki discussion encouraging others to a) clean up the question and answers, and b) flag anything that doesn't meet the back it up rule requirements and that can't be edited. Before unwikifying, the posts should be high quality. Please see CW Threshold. Hope this helps! –  jmort253 Jan 24 at 19:24

17 Answers 17

up vote 57 down vote accepted

While I'm aware this is a common way of thinking when comes to interviews, I think looking at them as a performances, which can be failed, is a rather bad thing.

I know really great programmers who can't explain a simple proxy pattern or the difference between for, while and until, maybe just because they're really bad at explaining things in interview situations (see also this comment), or because they never had to put that difference into words and struggle to do so on the spot. And generally, being good at explaining things doesn't make you a good programmer, it makes you a good teacher.

I think of it as getting to know the other person, and once I can tell the person won't fit into the team there's no reason to keep the interview going, but there's also no reason to leave on a bad note. I talk about what I think, explain how I perceive them, why that image won't fit into our team and even offer to pass their application to other companies where I think they might be a better fit.

Be honest, polite and helpful and there's no need to part on bad terms.

This actually applies no matter what side of the table you're sitting on.

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+1 for positive and constructive feedback. I wish that were more common. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jan 21 at 18:07
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If (s)he's really bad at explaining things, (s)he's not a great programmer... –  Radu Murzea Jan 21 at 22:01
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If someone who is a "really great programmer" can't explain for, while and until easily, I would hate to see their comments. –  Michael Hampton Jan 21 at 22:06
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@MichaelHampton that assumes that you NEED to comment. Good code should self comment. You only really need comments when you need to describe weird business logic. If you are commenting how a for, while and until loop works, you are doing it wrong. –  Aron Jan 22 at 2:28
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Candidates can be great at what they do, but get nervous when public speaking/ at interviews. My first ever (on-site) interview I was sweating and stammered when explaining even the simplest of programming features. I was sure I hadn't made the best impression, however afterwards, one of the interviewers pulled me aside at the elevator and said "Hey, can you quickly explain X (something about my final project at uni) real quick?", which I was able to explain fairly well. I was told after I was hired that the interviewer made the recommendation purely on the response to that one question. –  Robotnik Jan 22 at 7:02

A big problem with cutting the interview short is that it leaves you open to legal problems. If you get sued, you want to be able to say that you provided the same interview situation to every candidate and treated them all equally. You don't want a situation where it could appear that you didn't take the interview process seriously because the candidate was female, black, ...

I work at a community college, not a software house, so maybe the attitude toward risk is more strict, but we're told very specifically by HR that when we interview someone, we have to ask the same questions to every candidate. They even have rules about follow-up questions.

The candidate has gone to a lot of trouble to show up for the interview, possibly flying in for it. You already have this time on your calendar dedicated to the interview. If it becomes clear that a candidate isn't going to work, you can still try to make it a positive learning experience for them. For someone who needs a job, just the experience of getting an interview is extremely valuable. It helps them to do better on future interviews. I think you owe them that experience if they show up and try their hardest.

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Why the downvote? Who knows, it's always hard to tell. Maybe someone didn't like the truth you are telling. You know, the "shoot the messenger" thing. Personally, I don't like the legal environment that makes organizations think they have to "give all candidates equal time" (I think it is stupid cowardly lawyering), but if you are in an organization that has made that legal judgement, you must either play by the rules or else leave to work for some other company you believe in more. Or, maybe the downvoter didn't find your answer relevant to their own personal experience. –  D.W. Jan 21 at 20:39
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Your point about HR guidelines regarding asking the same questions of every applicant is a very good one, and that is a guideline that will be very much enforced in state or federal organizations -- and is often a guidance provided (but not really followed) in private organizations as well. –  jcmeloni Jan 21 at 22:54
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Note that sticking to fair & objective HR guidelines may force you to cut an interview short, if the rules say so. The legal requirements don't touch on the exact details, but more on consistency & fairness. If the rules state that the interview ends after 4 wrong answers, that is neither unfair nor subjective, and you'd have a safe position should you still be sued. –  MSalters Jan 22 at 0:07
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While asking everyone the same questions seems nice and egalitarian, I feel that not tailoring the interview to the candidate can work to the detriment of both sides. If you've ascertained that they are lacking in one skill, you should investigate their other strengths rather than dwelling on a specific weakness. –  Gordon Gustafson Jan 22 at 3:39
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When I left univeristy I had no real practical programming skill/knowledge/experience and I failed a lot of interviews quite badly because I didn't know about dictionaries/maps/binary trees/sort-search algorithms, but after every awful interview I went home and the first thing I did was look up "what is a binary tree" etc etc. I left uni with a maths degree and self taught myself programming basics, Iv been a developer for 2 years now :) because the interviewers carried on torturing me with awful questions I couldn't answer at the time, now I can answer them. –  0xor1 Jan 22 at 13:13

As somebody who often had to look for a job every 2 years, I can say from experience that I prefer a short interview - and an on-the-spot response to the effect that it doesn't seem that I'm the correct candidate for the job.

Sure beats the long wait for the no-thank-you letter that often isn't even sent.

The shortest interview I ever had was about 10 minutes long. It ended with OK - I understand your skill set - and I have to discuss it with my partners.

I left feeling that at least I didn't waste more than 10 minutes of my life on this. A week later - surprisingly enough - I was offered the job - which I happily accepted.

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-1 You are not answering the question here. Yes, you are explaining your preference, but that is a single data point and not general enough, not without any supporting evidence that this is the general feel of people. –  Oded Jan 21 at 14:01
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@Oded I will counter with: No one answer is probably correct for every interviewee, and the variance is sufficient that the interviewer may elect to decide on a case-by-case basis which approach is best depending on what they can see of the interviewees personality. For that purpose, the importance is not how representative the answers are but how diverse and evenly spaced along the spectrum of possible answers they end up being. –  Superbest Jan 21 at 19:00
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This is a personal anecdote, not an answer to the question. Especially since your personal anecdote is not actually the situation being described by the asker. –  enderland Jan 21 at 21:05
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I like that the answer supporting a direct 'no thank you' gets direct '-1, no thank you' comments. –  bd33 Jan 22 at 5:47

It would depend on your role in the interview.

In many organizations, a candidate is interviewed in 3 or 4 stages. You have an interview with the intended supervisor of the candidate, and then a "team" interview with the intended coworkers, a quick one-on-one with a senior manager, and perhaps even a separate interview with an HR specialist to verify credentials.

If you are the sole decision-maker about the candidate, then I think it would only be fair to tell them, "Your experience doesn't meet our requirements for this position. Thank you for coming in, today. We wish you the best for your future." Then politely end the interview.

It may seem harsh, but it's even worse to let someone who is obviously unqualified think, "I might have a shot!" for the next few weeks and then wonder why you never got back to them. It may even be discouraging them from pursuing other opportunities if they are "holding out" for the job you interviewed them for.

If you are not the decision-maker, but you have an input into the decision, then you have to complete the task assigned. Go through all the questions you've prepared, and take note of the answers. At the end, if the candidates asks how they did, then you have to respond, "I'm not the sole decision-maker for the position. We have to complete the interview process before a decision will be made." and leave it at that.

When you report to your colleagues, don't mince words. Tell your them directly and honestly what your impression was. I saw an entire division of a major cable company go down in flames because the president was trying to be "polite" about the qualifications of a candidate for the vice-president that ended up in charge of our division. (It was WAY above my pay grade at the time, but it was such a spectacular failure that it became famous in that business.)

If you have any influence at all, encourage your team to tell the candidate as quickly as possible that they weren't selected. It's not fair to just "forget" about them. If you get as far as bringing them in for an interview, it's very unprofessional to just not take their calls. You're a decision maker, make the decision, stand by it, and don't hide from it.

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"It may even be discouraging them from pursuing other opportunities if they are "holding out" for the job" - I agree with your final paragraph on this. Quite aside from what you say in the interview itself, if someone is a definite "no" then I think it's completely unacceptable to fail to call/mail them within a day or so. There are companies that treat candidates like scum, but if your company is one of them then the answer to this question is really easy: "do anything you like, it doesn't matter what the candidate thinks of you"... –  Steve Jessop Jan 21 at 18:41

Having had this happen to me many times before, I believe the appropriate thing to say is,

"Thank you very much for your time. We'll be in touch if we're interested." //handshake

Since I'm assuming this person is not already intimately aware of your company's interview process, what does it matter if you "cut the interview short?" How would they even know if the interview is supposed to be 10, 20 or 45 minutes?

90% of the interview process is dealing with unsuitable candidates. If every position was best filled by the first person applying, there would be no need for interviews. Therefore, if you know the candidate you are dealing with is unsuitable, deal with it in a professional manner by concluding the interview.

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What if you told them that the interview will take roughly 4 hours? Can't possibly send them off after 20 mins. –  Vic Jan 21 at 20:33
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I had a recruiter for one job that told me how long the interview would take based on the average for people that he sent to this place to interview. In that case I would know if the interview was cut short. –  Matthew Green Jan 21 at 20:45
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"How would they even know if the interview is supposed to be 10, 20 or 45 minutes?" Well, from what I know, it's common (and good) practice to give a duration estimate right when they walk through the door: "We're going to do this and that, talk about this and that. It should take about 45 - 60 minutes". –  Radu Murzea Jan 21 at 22:03
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If your 4-hour interview was split into two stages of 2-hour interviews it would be perfectly normal to "cut it short" (i.e. don't invite everyone for the second interview that made it to the first). –  starsplusplus Jan 22 at 12:50
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I think it is clear from the comment that you should NOT specify a firm range if you wish to employ this strategy. I agree, that if you tell the client the interview is 4 hours long, and you do not have the backbone to cut it off, then you will be talking with them for the next three hours, forty five minutes. Have fun! –  itcouldevenbeaboat Jan 22 at 14:15

This will probably sound controversial to some of you but if someone

realises early on that the candidate really, really isn't suitable for the job

it means that the interview is conducted improperly (in most cases, excluding extreme situations like drunken or aggressive candidate).

The professional interview is just a tool to gather the data which will be used to assess the required competencies after the interview. Jumping to the final judgement during the interview, without analyzing and interpreting all the information gathered usually makes the interviewer vulnerable to typical interpersonal judgement errors and biases and leaves him/her with a decision taken prematurely.

This was one of the first things I had to learn as a recruiter and today after 10 years of interviewing I'm fully convinced that it's one of the best practices that helps to avoid a common bias towards more eloquent candidates. It simply reduces the number of "false negatives" - candidates who (despite of having required competencies) fail to make a good first impression (due to many factors).

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Ask him to explain anything (yes ANY thing) that he/she knows VERY well. Doesn't have to be any subject about the interview/position/company. It's actually more fun when it doesn't.

So at least you are going to end up the interview knowing more about something.

That's the approach Brin/Page used to do on the early years of Google and that's how they never wasted 1 hour on an interview, because you always learn something even if the canditate is not a good fit.

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I agree. It also loosens up the conversation and allows the candidate to think clearly. –  Peter L. Jan 21 at 21:53
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When I interviewed at Amazon a long time ago, they used a variant of this where you had an hour to teach an entire room full of interviewers "something". It didn't matter what it was, but you had to spend the hour teaching a class and answering questions about your chosen subject. Since my degree is in Land Surveying, I taught a bunch of Amazon engineers how to slope stake drainage ditches on a cut and fill slope. They really liked it, but I still didn't get the job... –  delliottg Jan 21 at 22:33

When you begin interviewing a candidate and realise early on that they really, really aren't suitable for the job, how do you wrap up the interview?

First off, the question presupposes that the mechanisms designed to prevent this situation have failed. (Reading resumes carefully, cheap phone screening, and so on.) If they are failing a lot, strengthen them.

To answer your actual question, let's step back and think about the goals of the exercise:

  • Prevent a bad hire.
  • If possible, make a good hire.
  • Leave the candidate on good terms regardless of the outcome. They might be a customer.

And now let's think about the people involved:

  • Coordination: someone, usually in HR, who is monitoring the whole process.
  • Interviewers: providing an opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate.
  • Hiring manager: making the decision, and "selling" to the candidate if an offer is going to be extended.

How each of these people reacts to a completely unqualified candidate is different.

  • The coordinator should be closely monitoring feedback. If there are three "NO HIRE"s from the interviewers in a row then the coordinator should consider cutting the day short or trying to find a different position that the candidate would be more suited for.

  • Interviewers should be prepared to make their questions easier or harder. I try to ensure that even the weakest candidate leaves feeling like they've solved at least some problem I've given them. (I have not always succeeded.) Interviewers should quickly provide clear feedback on unsuitable candidates to the coordinator ASAP.

  • If the interviewers and coordinators are doing their jobs then the hiring manager never sees a clearly unqualified candidate. The hiring manager's time is expensive, so don't waste it.

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Give him/her his proper time

I have had a number of candidates who I interviewed and who could not ask basic questions right in the beginning. For example,

  • I asked this candidate to write a query to pull student first and last name from the table. He could not do it (had 10+ years of experience).
  • I asked another candidate how would I bind data to database in C#. He did not have a clear picture and after explaining and giving hints, he still had no idea. This candidate has 20+ years of experience.

In both the cases I gave them full time (30 min) just to give them their opportunity and if they can be fit for something else. My director asked me, how it they do, I had one answer, two thumbs down.

In the same job, I interviewed another candidate for a developer role. She was extremely shallow with technology and basically out of touch. Right in the start I knew she is not a good fit. But gave her her 25 min or so. Our team later decided that she might be a good candidate for a project manager but not for developer.

So I think every candidate deserves his/her chance to sell himself. It comes down to etiquette and basic treatment. One can also ask them that he/she may not be a good fit for this role but I have other roles that he/she might consider? I did not in our case because we were strictly looking for developers and was small company.

After these experiences we decided to do phone screen first

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It depends on the interview style. At my current company, we have a scheduled set of interviews. From 1-2 you meet with Bob, 2-3 Alice, etc. This makes it really hard to cut something short because the candidate knows it.

At other companies, we did not advertise who would be interviewing the candidate or for how long. At these companies, we had a "safe word" that the interviewers could use to signal that they wanted to abort the interview. "Morocco" or "pineapple" or something similarly unlikely to arise in natural conversation. We would then wind down the interview as normal - "do you have any questions for us?" etc. etc. and let them be on their way assuming our interviews were just short.

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I suppose the high-tech equivalent of the safe word is to have the interviewers using laptops, and an IM screen the candidate can't see. –  yochannah Jan 21 at 15:15
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How did you work those safe words into the interview? "Have you ever been to our pineapple plantation in Morocco?" –  Nomic Jan 21 at 23:53
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@Nomic - places are easy. Ask about what they like to do in their spare time and then comment about going on a (fictional) vacation to X. The old standby of "describe one time you were faced with adversity" works great too. Then you can talk about that terrible time that Bob thought it was a great idea to eat an entire pineapple (or whatever). –  Telastyn Jan 22 at 0:13

Nobody likes being humiliated, and ending an interview abruptly after the candidate can't answer a question is likely to be perceived as such. Instead, try to find a couple of easier questions the candidate will be able to solve in the next 10~15 minutes, and then end the interview.

That way, the candidate will not associate the interview ending with his failure to answer, but will probably understand when you send them an e-mail saying that you prefer someone else.

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Several people on here have said that if you realize a candidate is not qualified, this must mean that your pre-screening was inadequate. I'm sorry but I disagree. If pre-screening was guaranteed to only leave qualified candidates, than there would be no need to have the interview. We would just hire the first person who passed pre-screening.

That said, I have two thoughts on the real answer.

  1. Use a multi-step interview process. Most companies these days seem to have at least 3 steps: review resumes, conduct a preliminary telephone interview, then have an in-person interview. Many have multiple telephone and/or in-person interviews. If, say, your plan is to have 3 one-hour interviews instead of one 3-hour interview, then if the candidate fails during the first interview, you don't invite him back for the next two. There's less of a question of cutting short an interview because each interview is already deliberately short.

  2. You can cut an interview short politely, especially if you have not told the candidate in advance how long the interview will take. I presume that you are going to give the candidate a fair chance to get over nervousness, and you don't want to reject someone because they didn't know the answer to one particular question. So I would almost never cut an interview off after 10 minutes. The person would have to be jumping up on the table and screaming obscenities for me to do that. If he flubs the first couple of questions, you give him a few chances to redeem himself. If after 30 to 45 minutes it's clear that this person just isn't qualified, then I'd just politely say, "Well, thank you for coming in. We have several other candidates to interview and then we'll be getting back to you." After he left I'd send him a polite rejection letter.

Just BTW, I wouldn't tell a person to his face that he didn't make it, because some people would find that embarassing. Also, some people will argue with you, demand to know why they were rejected, etc, and I don't want to argue with someone about it.

But I think in fairness you should send someone a rejection letter. (These days, probably an email.) Otherwise, if he thinks he still has a shot at this job, he may turn down some other offer waiting for this to come through, and that's not fair to the candidate.

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I'd disagree with your initial premise. The objective of each step of the interview process is to eliminate unqualified candidates. At the last stages with face to face interviews, the candidates should all be 'qualified' and capable, at that point the aim is to consider performance and fit. Performance and fit are vital considerations for a job, but are not easily determined from earlier stages. The OP's sounds like an unqualified, incapable situation, not a performance and fit issue –  stevenrcfox Jan 22 at 10:27
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What is the difference between "performance and fit" and "qualified"? "Mr Jones is not qualified for this job" and "Mr Jones has not demonstrated that he could perform adequately at this job" sound like synonymous phrases to me. Whatever you have in mind, we're saying, "Is this the person we want to hire for this job?" Whether you conclude the answer is no because the applicant does not know how to tune a diesel engine, or because you don't like his hair style, or whatever, you've decided you're not going to hire him for the job, and that's the point of the original question. –  Jay Jan 22 at 14:28

After asking a few questions that the candidate has struggled with, you can stop and see if they have any questions. There's no way they could know you intended on asking more. Of course they may feel you didn't do a thorough job vetting them with so few questions, but if they're aware they don't know the answers, they will probably get the hint.

As a side note, avoid playing trivia games with programming job candidates. The goal is to see if they can write code. In one interview, I was asked if I ever did top-down and bottom-up design. I should have been able to figure-out what those terms mean, but just didn't do it during the interview. Maybe I was nervous. Funny think is, I just said I had designed databases for new applications, as well as, broke down databases for third-party apps for ETL and reporting in a data warehouse. Unfortunately for me, I was being interviewed by a person with no technical skills who was convinced I didn't have any either. Maybe like loops in programming (which aren't trivial IMHO), a good database analyst should be able to explain standard design methodologies, but I'd rather work with people who can actually do it than label it.

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It depends on what type of "mistake" you're talking about. Small mistakes (like not knowing some bit of crystallized knowledge, or getting a single answer wrong) shouldn't cause you to write off the candidate entirely -- everybody makes small mistakes, and some get performance anxiety worse than others.

So if the person messes up during the interview, if they seem smart enough, you can take the interview to the end, and possibly schedule a 2nd interview and see if they don't make similar mistakes that 2nd time.

Or you can decide against the candidate based on the small mistake, until you find your perfect candidate, who you'll never find.

But

If you find yourself interviewing a programmer who's not really a programmer (as in your example, "for a developer role ... discovered they can't explain a simple for loop") then in the interests of your own time (you're running a business aren't you?), you should find a way to conclude the interview early and move on to the next candidate.

If the candidate basically misrepresented themselves, then you owe it to yourself to cut the interview process early and go do some other work. If they don't have the skills they say they have on their resume, you're wasting valuable business dollars, that you should spend on interviewing other candidates instead. That doesn't mean you should be rude, or end the interview after the mistake abruptly. You can make a bit of small talk before closing off the interview, and be nice about it.

A way to end an interview early, would be to say something like:

"Thank you for your time, Johnston. We interview remaining candidates and get back to you if you have made it through to the next round."

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Keep it relative to the work environment

Be honest with the person as per the style of the work place. Treat that person as you would a co-worker for giving the same answer. If there is a zero tolerance policy for ignorance of must know knowledge, then treat that candidate accordingly.

Far too often businesses represent themselves inaccurately during the interview process, by showing politeness, patience and very low technical expectations that simply do not exist in that work place.

It can be anything simple from offering a cup of coffee when employees aren't provided free coffee, or not making a big deal about for loops when an employee would be disciplined for making such a mistake.

Don't bring double standards into the interview, but understand they're not an employee. The standards apply but they cannot be enforced.

Asking a community how this should be handled is only going to give you answers relative to their standards. You can pick the nicest and politest technique to handle the interview, but is that really showing the candidate the company they applied for?

As the saying goes "keep it real".

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I think potentially the most important thing to do with a candidate who is performing badly is to give them a chance to redeem themselves. OK, so they may have miserably failed to explain what a for loop is, so move on to a different type of question: maybe something on design, maybe something about some other project they've worked on, whatever's appropriate for your situation, but crucially something that lets you learn something about the candidate.

I recall interviewing one candidate who, when they walked through the door, were so incredibly nervous that they had trouble saying their own name, let alone being able to explain anything that would convince me I wanted to hire them. However, by the end of the interview they had relaxed and it was obvious they were actually an exceptional candidate - we made an offer the next day.

On the other hand, if a candidate flunks on two, three, four, however many different skills the post requires, then it's time just to say "thank you for your time. We won't be hiring you. Good bye." - no point wasting either the candidate or your company's time any further. I know some other answers raise the question of legal difficulties from this approach, but in the very rare situations when I've done this, I and the other interviewers would be perfectly prepared to stand up in court and say (paraphrased) "The candidate was useless", and could back that up with notes we made during the interview. Of course, check with your HR department before doing this.

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Is ending an interview early unprofessional / unethical?

No, simple as that. Sure it could mutually be good practice, but could also be a complete waste of both people's valuable time. This is business, it could only be unprofessional or unethical if the reason is unethical or how it's cut short is unprofessional.

Above and beyond

I'm someone who tells it like it is. Once I know I won't be considering someone for hire I typically apologize, but let them know I won't be a good fit and why. If it's clear they are rusty interviewing I tend to offer to continue the interview for mutual practice and offer feed back if they'd like it. (Most younger people tend to take me up on this and I think it really helps, I have had one or two people feel insulted by this, but hey I'm trying to do them a favor.)

Should you cut it short?

This depends on the what and why you've decided they aren't worth considering. Some times a person seems to struggle to clearly explain the basics of their trade and why you should hire them, but then seem to relax and really turn the interview around by the end. If someone is struggling with nerves, communicating clearly, etc. Probably best to give them a shot. If someone comes in looking drunk, smelling of cheap liquor, and urine... (Which has actually happened to me) It's perfectly appropriate to cut the interview then and there.

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