38

Today I was a candidate in an interview for a management trainee role. There were 3 panel members interviewing me. The one sitting at the center was questioning and the other two were observing. After couple of questions, the one sitting at my right started tapping his feet vigorously and after some time the two panel members who were observing went outside and then came back in after few seconds. This made me wonder if I should have asked if there was anything wrong with them, or should I stop instead of just carrying on with my answer?

I am not sure what they were trying to test me about, but it made me a bit nervous and confused. I kept on answering, but I was wondering - should I have dealt with it differently? I did not get selected for the role.

Note: they did the same thing with 5 or 6 other candidates as well.

91

I am not sure what they were trying to test me about, but it made me a bit nervous and confused.

Most likely they weren't trying to test you at all. It was probably a completely unrelated matter.

should I have dealt with it differently?

No. You did the right thing by just carrying on.

The interview panel is in control of the interview. If they had wanted it paused, they could have done so.

There's no way to know what the issue was. Perhaps they needed to use the restroom. Perhaps it was going on longer than they anticipated. Perhaps some question or answer came up over which they needed to confer.

Since you now indicate that they did the same thing with 5 or 6 other candidates as well, it was likely done to confer privately at some point during the interview - perhaps about an answer the candidates provided, or to determine what other questions to ask later.

Either way, it was not your role to halt the discussion, no matter what the reason for the panelists' departure.

  • -1: "The interview panel is in control of the interview." I largely disagree. An interview is a 2 way process. It is not only not unreasonable to ask why members who are meant to be assessing you are not doing so (it's very rude do just leave an interview in the UK); but I would expect it. In addition; any questions I had would not get the attention that it should. You can not expect a fair assessment if the people making the assessment are not present. If I was running this ploy - ignoring it entirely would be a fail. Managers can't afford to ignore elephants in the room. – UKMonkey Dec 20 '19 at 16:32
32

It's hard to predict why the panelists behaved this way - perhaps there was an emergency, or perhaps they wanted to make a comment to each other but weren't comfortable doing so in front of you. Or maybe they needed to get their lunch order out before the deadline! At the end of the day, as odd as it is, it's important to remember that many people conducting interviews are not "professional" interviewers, and they may not realize that their actions have such an impact on you. It may also have nothing at all to do with the interview - in other words, they may not have been "testing" you, and they may not have been looking for you to respond in any particular way.

Considering that you were apparently in the middle of an answer when this happened, you may have been best off pausing and asking the remaining panelist,

Sorry, I just wanted to pause and ask - shall I wait until they return before continuing with my answer?

This way, you give the interviewer a chance to direct you. Having a panelist step out in the middle of an interview is rare enough that it's arguable that there is no "best standard response" so it makes sense to clarify. If anything, showing that you can go with the flow, look for direction, and remain comfortable during unexpected circumstances will come off as a plus.

18

I heard long, long ago (pre-voicemail) of an interviewer who would excuse himself, leaving the candidate alone in the office, then have a colleague call his office. There was no right or wrong answer but they wanted to see how the interviewee handled it--agitation, calmly wait, answer and take message, let the interviewer know.

Given that they do this to everyone and seem to have a practiced agitation about them, this seems like a behavioral test. I'd suggest a simple acknowledgement while being prepared to move on.

"Shall we go on or do you prefer to wait?" It acknowledges the elephant in the room, while not wrestling control from the interviewer and without spending more than a couple seconds. Then continue as though all is normal in either case.

Personally, I understand the desire to test some outside of the box considerations but find them a poor choice. An interview is already an artificial environment in terms of what the candidate will actually do in their job. Inserting something else artificial may or may not tell you about how the candidate handles a generic odd situation or may just get in the way of having a natural discussion and really learning more that pertains to job functions.

  • 8
    I believe you are right that it was a rehearsed test in this case, but these tests do serve a purpose. Many candidates are really good interviewees, but poor employees. They get through the interview process by following well rehearsed scripts that they've refined after many failed interviews and long hours studying interview best practices instead of standing on their actual knowledge base. A small distraction such as this will typically fluster a rehearsed candidate much more than an actual veteran who does not need their whole focus to keep the facade of confidence up. – Nosajimiki Dec 19 '19 at 22:54
  • 5
    @Nosajimiki It's a trade-off. I've known of good candidates being skipped over because they failed to meet the interviewers perception of handling a situation that had nothing to do the prospective job function. I do see and agree with your point, but it's very much a gamble for many roles. – John Spiegel Dec 20 '19 at 16:02
  • “I heard long, long ago (pre-voicemail) of an interviewer who would excuse himself, leaving the candidate alone in the office, then have a colleague call his office.” What’s the best course of action, in your opinion? – user76284 Dec 20 '19 at 16:42
  • 4
    Personally, I would sit calmly and let them know when they returned that someone had tried to reach them. I'd be a poor receptionist and as a non-employee, it would not be my place to be representing the company. – John Spiegel Dec 20 '19 at 16:46
4

In a comment to an answer you said

"I am asking this because they did the same thing with 5 or 6 other candidates as well".

This is UTTERLY VITAL information that you should include in the question.
If they do this in a number of interviews then it is nearly certain that it is a "ploy" to see how you react.

There is no right answer to that, but, not responding at all is probably as good as any choice, and is probably what I would have done (or tried to do).


A not too serious suggestion - perhaps one only for the bold or stupid is, when they return, to say "Welcome back", and perhaps add "would you like a quick summary of what you missed?" :-). This would just-possibly impress them beyond words - but may instead ensure you never got an invitation to work for them, and were not placed on their Christmas card list.


A similar "ploy" that I experienced

Long ago (40+ years) as an "Assistant Engineer" at the lowest tier of the engineering staff in a company, I had an annual interview with "The Regional engineer" - the most senior engineer in the company. This was done to assess promotional merit - an arrangement I've not met anywhere else.

The interviewer invariably provided two chairs for the candidates - one a standard hard backed office chair and one a comfortable armchair where you could not easily sit upright. You were asked to take a seat, the choice of chair being yours. I always chose the office chair. As far as I know, so did all the other interviewees :-).

  • "not responding at all" doesn't seem like a normal "reaction" to me. Simply ignoring the fact that 2/3 of the interview panel just walked out the room doesn't seem like the sort of retiring quality that a potential assertive "manager" should possess? I would expect the interviewee to acknowledge and respond to the situation... "Is everything OK, shall I continue?", and then continue unphased... – MrWhite Dec 20 '19 at 23:43
  • perhaps add "would you like a quick summary of what you missed?" :-) Yeah... no. – RonJohn Dec 21 '19 at 7:12
  • @RonJohn Noting the :-) at the end. They KNOW what they missed. It's done to test you and they don't care about not having experienced the interim part. – Russell McMahon Dec 21 '19 at 7:22
  • @MrWhite Normal? Who mentioned normal ? :-). You say "doesn't seem" x 2 and "I would expect" . I'm trying to get the job. The interviewer is still talking to me. The others have business that they deem more important. Bomb on. And yes - I don't know if I'd actually manage that. Maybe some body language "acknowledging while not acknowledging" might be useful. As the going and coming is liable to impact the Q&A a brief pause on each occasion shows you are aware AND THAT you have chosen to take it in your stride. – Russell McMahon Dec 21 '19 at 7:26
1

The people who are already hired are in charge of the interview. They determine the priorities of the people there, who may or may not leave according to whatever reasons they decide.


I've been involved in interviewing people, and often some of the interviewers cannot stay for the whole length of the interview. That is because of some other task that the interviewer must attend to, and has nothing to do with the person being interviewed.
As for how to respond to what seems like games: I once worked for a company because they bought out the previous company I was working for. The owner once commented that he liked the interview questions used by the company they bought out, which were much better than the admittedly-bad questions of their old written-interview process. As an example, one of their old interview questions was, "Star Wars or Star Trek?"

They were actually a very great company to work for, but just had a lousy interviewing process. And they knew it. But fixing it just wasn't a huge priority for them. Judging the company by their bad interviewing process would have only led to many misjudgments, because their lousy interviewing process was not an accurate reflection of what it was like to work for them. Still, they recall someone who responded to several of these "off the wall" questions by simply answering, "Ask relevant questions." As you can imagine, it was decided that person just demonstrated they weren't very interested in being a team player who would cooperate with what they were asked to do.


Imagine you were interviewing someone. They didn't like what you were doing. Do you want them to disapprovingly challenge what you're doing? Does it matter much to you why they don't like what you're doing? If you are the person being interviewed because you want something, then it is probably just best that you be very cooperative with their program, even if something you don't like happens.
A real scenario: I remember once being in an interview. The owner of the company and his lead manager spoke to me for a while. At one point, the owner of the company left to get something (maybe some papers). He remained gone for at least a few minutes, perhaps several. I figured I probably lost him, and the interview may have effectively been over. I wanted him around, but I cooperated with the interview scenario. I kept interviewing with the lead manager.

To this day, I still don't know just what the owner was away getting. He was already part of the company, and he made the determination to step out, for whatever reason he determined. As a person who had no authority over him, and did not know his schedule, and did not know what other emergency task might have priority over the meeting, it was not my place to challenge his decision to step out (no matter how much I ended up not liking that at the time).

Later, the owner and I ended up getting along very well. Within about a few weeks of when I got hired, the technical manager (who interviewed me) unexpectedly needed to quickly depart for medical reasons related to a family member, and I quickly rose to effectively become the number two person in this company. I never bothered to ask the owner about what he went to go get during that interview. It just simply didn't matter.

Much later, after I successfully got the position, I spoke with my other interviewer, who had been the lead manager (before he left the company). The result of my interview was that right after I left the interview, the lead manager told the owner, "In my opinion, we can just stop interviewing other candidates right now. This is the right person."

He also let me know what I said which led to this decision that I was the perfect person for the job. I remembered that point of the conversation, and I remember it was during the one-on-one portion, when I was alone with the tech manager. While I was busy winning over that person, I was silently wishing that the owner wasn't missing out on that excellent part of the interview which was making me sound very good. Still, I wasn't in charge.

Keep using your time in the interview to try your best to look like the wonderful match for the position. Maybe your time alone will be a chance for the remaining panelist to ask you about a topic that the remaining panelist cares most about, but is something the panelist didn't want to bring up with the larger group. The reason doesn't matter that much. What does matter much more is that if the interview is still active, it is still a potential opportunity. Addressing what the panelist wants to know could be your best chance to sway that person onto your side. When the interview is over, you want as many people saying as many positive things about you as possible.

1

tl;dr- For low-level roles, just smile-and-nod as people leave, but let them guide it. As you move up the totem pole, you should acquire the skills and grace to read the room; appropriate behavior starts to shift from the compliance expected of a good cookie-cutter employee toward a more proactive style of engagement. Ideally you'll go into an interview having some feeling of what'd be appropriate for the role that you're going for.


Whether or not they were testing you or just doing their own thing, generally it's best to present yourself as someone appropriate for the role that you're interviewing for.

  • Are you interviewing for an entry-level role at the bottom of the totem pole? If so, presumably they'll want someone who's a good soldier – probably best to show that you can follow instructions and won't get in anyone's way.

  • Are you interviewing to be the next CEO? If so, presumably they'll want someone who can engage them – you don't want to be aggressive or off-putting, but just sitting there like a good little soldier isn't very CEO-ish behavior, either.

In neither case would you want to sound insecure or/and aggressive. Just, the higher-up the role you're applying for, the more appropriate it'd be for you to try to take a collaborative role in guiding the meeting vs. taking a subordinate role as they review you.

More specifically:

  • If it's more of an entry-level role, probably just sit there and let whoever's present guide the process. Perhaps a small nod or subtle smile toward whoever's leaving to acknowledge them in a non-disruptive way as they head out.

  • If it's more of an upper-management role, presumably you should be in-tune with the situation. You should have some idea about who the people interviewing you are; what their body language means; what the significance of them walking out might be in that particular situation; and how to respond optimally to that exact situation.

  • If you're somewhere in-between, you should probably err on the side of being a good soldier who lets them guide the interview process, but opportunistically showcase your people skills when/if you're able to demonstrate a bit of more social grace than that.

The really easy thing about low-level positions is that they're cookie-cutter roles that're easy to fill by just following some basic rules. The higher-level positions can require more subjective people expertise that'd be difficult to broadly generalize in a short answer like this, but presumably if you're right for the role, you'd be able to show it.

0

There's always the possibility that this person had to leave the room for reasons you're not aware of (work-related or personal). Since all candidates have had this happen to them however, I can assure you that this is very much intentional, and that it was in fact a test.

In my country we have a system where you are offered a course when a company fires you, in order to be able to find a new job as quickly as possible (an outplacement course). I was let go several years ago, and during such a course I learned about this practice, but I must admit I've never heard of anyone actually experiencing this particular test in real life.

The test goes as follows: either the person leaves the room, becomes very uninterested in your story, or starts using his/her smartphone during your answer. The idea is to see how you react - do you ignore what's happening and continue answering? Do you stop talking? Do you say something about it? That sort of thing. What's strange about this test is that, even though several recruiters told us about it, none of them could explain what would be a correct reaction.

Personally, I consider such a test a game which should not be played during an interview, and I would consider it an additional tick on the list of reasons why I would no longer want to work there. There is a line between testing whether or not a person fits within the company profile, and messing with someone's head. A test like this belongs to the latter category imho.

Should it have happened to me, I would have indeed asked whether or not I should wait until this person returned, or if I should keep on answering the question (you never know why this person got called away, in case it wasn't a test).

If during an interview someone started ignoring me or playing with their smartphone (the other scenarios above), I would have reacted less polite, and I would have walked away from the interview there and then.

-2

I think the other two answers cover exactly what you can do during the interview: you can either simply continue or ask if you should wait for the other person.

After the interview, you have a few options:

  1. You can write a review of the company on any of the various websites that discuss the interviewing process and note how they had people getting up and leaving the interview room during interviews with no explanation as to why while you were in the middle of answering a question. In my opinion, this is unprofessional in the extreme and something others might like to know while considering applying at the company.
  2. You can offer feedback to your point of contact with the company that you found it distracting that members of the panel of people interviewing you left mid-interview. There's some chance that this will be completely ignored, but at well-run companies people care how interviews are conducted, so there is some chance of it being acted on.
  • 3
    As the action was almost certainly an intentional part of the interview process, I'd only do what you suggest if I never wanted to have them offer me a job ever. – Russell McMahon Dec 19 '19 at 23:59
  • It may be something that is intentional, but that doesn't change the fact that it is unprofessional. It's also a bad idea for the company, as doing things to distract people, making them nervous, etc are only going to increase the number of good people you pass on. I'm regularly involved in hiring people and have been for a long time; I do not think that honest, respectful feedback would impact whether or not a company offers you a job (if it's offered disrespectfully then sure). – dbeer Dec 20 '19 at 20:32

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