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I recently had a phone interview and it went so-so. I think I asked a couple of good questions, but I also think I asked at least one bad one.

This is how to conversation went...

  • Me: "What do your developers complain to you the most about on a daily basis?"
  • Manager: "They usually complain about other developers not doing their job well because they are not qualified."
  • Me: "Why are there so many unqualified developers in the team? Is it due to interviewing practices?"

Note... the wording might not have been exactly the same as above. I am also not a native English speaker (not like that would be an excuse)

I think my last question was out of line. I did not mean to suggest that they are not conducting a good interview. It was just pure curiosity but thinking back it is definitely a black mark on my record.

Is there a good way to recover from this after the fact? If I realized my stupidity then, I would have said something, I would have admitted it was a bad question. But what can I do now? Hours, possibly days after the interview?

In general, what can one do to recover from situations like this?

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You performed better than I did - I laughed out loud when I read the manager's response. One way to handle a shocking remark like this might be to simply ask a probing question rather than suggest a root cause. "Really? Do you agree with this?" "Why do you think that is?" "Is it just a few people or is it widespread?" If you've already said something you regret, a recovery strategy might be just to re-engage - "I'm really curious about the perception some team members have that others are unqualified - tell me more." –  Scott Wilson May 3 '12 at 13:05
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If they have so many unqualifed devlopers that the other devs complain about it, I probably would not want this job anyway. What you said was not the best thing and tehre aer some good answers to what would have been better to say. But I wouldn't worry about losing a job where they told you they don't care to hire quality people. –  HLGEM Dec 31 '12 at 16:29
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Best recovery would have been to carry it forward as a joke. "Wait a minute. Are you trying to hire me because you think I'm unqualified?" –  Erik Reppen Jun 16 '13 at 7:37
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Least said, soonest mended. –  Brad Thomas Mar 20 at 2:45

6 Answers 6

up vote 29 down vote accepted

You can always recover to some extent from a miscue in an interview, but the key is timing.

First, I would agree with your assessment that your response was not the greatest thing you could possibly have said in that situation. But, learn from it (don't do it again!) and move on. Also, more often than not in phone interviews, not everyone (especially if there are multiple people in the line) is hanging on your every word, and more so at the end (it's often a time for compilation of notes before moving on to the next person to call).

So, how to recover from a miscue? Some thoughts:

  • If it's early in the interview and you're being asked something factual and you just mess up, just say something to the effect of "wait a minute, let me backtrack" and restate what you were trying to say.
  • If it's in the middle of the interview, do the same, but try to make a split-second decision if your explanation is really valuable or puts you in a better position than not, because they will have a script they want to get through in a certain amount of time.
  • In your specific situation of a miscue at the end, in the "discussion" phase, I would just let it go especially if they didn't give you any indication that they were upset, and if you are not immediately comfortable smoothing it over (many people can't, and end up making it worse).

Sometime between "just after" and "a few days", you should be writing a polite thank-you note anyway, to thank the company for the opportunity to interview and reinforcing your desire to work for them. What I would actually not do is say "Oh, remember when I insulted your hiring practices? Please don't hold that against me."

Instead, be brief, polite, and grateful -- remind them why they wanted to interview you in the first place, and don't specifically call out something that they might not even have heard, taken seriously, or even remembered to the extent that you do. Let that be the last impression they have of you, and do that as soon as possible.

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It is Time Dependent.

  1. If you realize it on the spot, "as you are saying it", give a quick chuckle and "of course, I don't mean you" to disarm them with a little humor. Don't go overboard though, no hysterical laughing or being too loud in comments.

  2. If you realize with 5 minutes say "by the way, just now, when I said about poor interviewing, I just meant generally not you or recently"

  3. By the end of the interview - bring it up during the "questions" period if it bothers you.

  4. After you've left / when you get home / the next day / week / month, forget it. Reaching out at that point would be seen as peculiar.

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Disarms can backfire: "Of course I don't mean you"; Well, who do you mean? Are you creating office tension or gossip? Of course you'd say not me, I'm sitting right here! If you forget about it when you get home, there's no chance for them to pull your résumé out of the trash. Always follow up on your interviews! –  stslavik Apr 24 '12 at 19:50

In The Hot Seat

Be immediately direct. Admit your mistake, but don't dwell. You're showing that you, like everyone else, make mistakes, but that you're able to correct them quickly and quietly with minimal embarrassment to you or the other party (i.e. the business).

I once had an interview years ago where I caught myself saying something similar. Here was how I corrected it:

I'm really sorry; I've been extremely nervous about this interview for days, and I tend to have a rather sarcastic sense of humor. When I'm nervous, I tend to say things that are rather inappropriate for the situation, but that in a more relaxed setting would probably be considered humorous... I apologize for my lapse in professionalism.

At the end of the interview, he shook my hand and said:

When you caught your mistake and corrected it, I really was impressed. Being able to admit your faults is a sign of a strong ethic.

Later I went on to write an email to the interviewer, thanking them for the opportunity to interview, and again apologizing for my mistake. I was called back for a second interview, and made sure I was much more careful the second time around.

Know Your Weaknesses

Making the same mistake twice is professional suicide. I'm not going to sugarcoat this for you: If you know you have the tendency to make a mistake, you'd better make sure you have the ability to learn from it.

If you're lucky enough to get a follow up interview, you'd better demonstrate a more professional demeanor the second time around. Likely, the first time you're interviewing with the HR director. The second time around, you're likely to be ganged up on by the HR director, and at least a VP you'd be working under. You won't get another chance at this point.

If you are so lucky to get the opportunity to meet with the same HR director, thank them for the opportunity respectfully. Don't gush, but make it clear that you owe them. After all, the time it takes to interview you is generally in the neighborhood of 30-60 minutes on the lower-limit; the time it would have taken to shred your resume was approximately 45 seconds.

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Perhaps you could write a thank-you email to this effect:

Greetings so-and-so,

It was a pleasure talking to you about x position over the phone the other day. I wanted to thank you for the opportunity as I am very excited about this prospect.

In addition, I wanted to let you know that I was mulling over our exchange in my head, and I felt I may have said a few things that kind of crossed the line. If this is the case, I assure you this was out of zealousness and I didn't mean any ill-intent.

If you have further questions about my qualifications, feel free to contact me. I am looking forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

c_maker

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I think addressing a specific comment would be better - a general note like this may be really confusing if the interviewer didn't notice or think much of the over-the-line comment to begin with. –  oksayt Apr 20 '12 at 6:23
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@oksayt Hmm, good point about confusion... On the other hand, I'm having trouble seeing how one would phrase it and address a specific comment without sounding awkward. So I think I'd say that if you're pretty sure they interviewer did notice the comment, the email above is fine, and if you're not sure you made a negative impression at all, it's best not to say anything. –  weronika Apr 23 '12 at 1:13
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This is totally the wrong thing to do. What you are doing is cementing your mistake in their head, by over-acknowledging it. This either a) highlights something they might not have noticed or b) just reminds them of something you hope they forgot about. –  bobobobo Jan 23 at 21:40

Rule #1 is "think before you speak". That said, slip-ups can happen when under pressure.

In the general case, I would advice immediate backtracking. "I'm sorry, that last remark did not come out the way I intended. May I rephrase that?".

I'm thinking from the perspective of the interviewer here. I interview a pretty fair amount of people and quite a few very junior candidates that can sometimes be very nervous. In general, I try to give a fairly wide latitude for this. If I like the candidate and it's obvious that a bad remark was due to stress or nervousness, I will prompt the candidate and offer the opportunity to rephrase or rectify. In any case, I would not respond negatively to a candidate who asked to backtrack and rephrase a bad answer. Quite the opposite, I would see it as a sign of maturity and humility.

I would not respond well to someone who tried to "smooth over" over joke away something that I would consider a seriously bad remark. That, to me, smacks of insecurity and an inability to recognize and handle mistakes which is indicative of far worse shortcomings than interview-jitters. An interview can (and should) be relaxed but it's still a very serious affair and I expect a candidate to stand by every word they say.

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@MichaelDurrant Oh, you are totally correct, a humorless workplace is not enjoyable. There is a difference between humor and attempting to hide your mistakes by joking them away. Equally, there is a place for joking and bantering in an interview, but not while discussing serious issues, like the one the OP used as an example. –  pap May 4 '12 at 7:10

Me: "Why are there so many unqualified developers in the team? Is it due to interviewing practices?"

You screwed up on your second question, which in court would be described as "leading the witness" - the problem may not be in the company's interviewing practices but in every way the company screens its applicants. I suspect at this point that the developers on the team are not participants in the interviewing process. Hence the grumbling.

What's done is done. Send an email to the interviewer thanking him for his time and taking the opportunity to reiterate whatever it is that actually makes you a qualified and in fact, an outstanding applicant. And if the interviewer has any questions or needs any clarifications, to contact you.

Next time, ask for a clarification: "What do they mean by "unqualified"? Is it lack of basic expertise in the languages that they claim they know? Lack of familiarity with the frameworks and libraries they are using? Poor coding practices that introduce bugs that cause the team to rip up their hair? Not knowing the difference between programming to do the homework at school and software engineering to get the job done at work? Failure to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing?"

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