What to Do When an Interviewer Stonewalls You

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Ivy Exec51
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April 20, 2024 at 7:31AM UTC
You show up to an interview in the best possible state of mind, ready to blow them away. Only instead of interviewing with a flesh-and-blood person, you seem to have encountered an impenetrable wall. They stick to a script, don’t ask follow-up questions, and keep glancing at their watch. They’re so unengaged, you start to wonder why they invited you to interview. What can you do to seize their attention?
If a hiring manager stonewalls you, there could be three possible culprits:
  • This is the hiring manager’s personality or approach to interviews. Interviews can be nerve-wracking for everyone, including the hiring manager.
  • Something about you is making them clam up. For example, they might know you’re talking with a major competitor and worry you will leverage the two companies against each other. 
  • The company has a standard script they use for every candidate. It’s not personal—it’s just company policy.

How to Connect With an Interviewer, Even if They Seem Unengaged

1. Identify with the interviewer and turn them into an ally.

People will relate better if you can project a multidimensional picture of yourself. Talk about a moment you struggled in your career, like the 3 years you spent working as a Senior Director, juggling an MBA program on nights and weekends, somehow keeping your family life intact through it all. The interviewer is likely to have similar experiences and see part of themselves in your story. They might even feel some level of emotional investment and camaraderie.
After opening up about your experiences, pivot the conversation to focus on them. Ask the hiring manager questions about their journey through the company. What inspires them to keep moving forward? Don’t try too hard to impress this person—treat them as though they were a trusted ally, someone who is an individual apart from the company. Breaking the wall of formality can help you understand what’s really going on behind the scenes. Be respectful but open and warm.

2. Redirect the conversation with forward-thinking ideas.

You’re a natural leader. If a hiring manager emotionally stonewalls you, it’s time to lead! Walk into every job interview with at least a few research-based ideas (no matter how general) that describe how you can use your strongest abilities to move projects forward at the company. Now’s the time to stop waiting for a response and use these notes to your advantage. Try saying something like, “I know we have a limited amount of time for this meeting, so let me just take a moment to run through a few ideas.” Then make your pitch.
Remember: It’s not your job to have a perfectly thought-out plan of attack. You want to draw attention to the unique value you bring to the table, and get the conversation to a more productive place. This approach also demonstrates your creativity and investment in the company.

3. Call out the elephant in the room.

If you suspect the hiring manager is being standoffish because they think they’ve found a red flag, address the issue so you can control the narrative. If you’re interviewing with a competing company, for example, be transparent. But make it clear that you want to find the right fit and won’t settle on the first opportunity that presents itself. You genuinely want this to work out and respect the interviewer’s time. Frame the conversation to highlight your interest in their company.
Maybe you’re not interviewing at other places at the moment. Do you have anything concerning in your work history that the manager might know about? Share a story or anecdote from that time that broaches the issue—but integrate it within the context of your broader professional journey. When you reveal a mistake or flaw with tact and sincerity, it’s one of the most powerful ways to drop someone’s defenses and get them to talk straight with you. Just make sure you explain how you resolved the situation or what you would do differently today.

Reflecting on the Interview Process

If these tactics don’t seem to work and the interviewer refuses to open up, the company could have a policy that standardizes their interviewing process. In a situation like that, you can either accept this as a normal state of affairs…or politely bow out. The final decision is yours to make, but it’s important to understand that a company’s hiring process is often a microcosm of how how things operate overall. An impersonal interviewing process can point to discord and an unwelcoming company culture. So unless you have compelling reasons to stay, this could be a sign to walk away.
If the organization has integrity and a positive group dynamic, then you can expect a fair amount of transparency throughout the hiring process. The manager might take a moment to warm up in an interview, but you can maneuver past those defenses by asserting control over the conversation.
— Anish Majumdar
This story originally appeared on Ivy Exec. Anish Majumdar is a nationally recognized Career Coach, Personal Branding Expert, and a fierce advocate for transitioning leaders. His posts and videos on disrupting the "normal rules" of job searching and getting ahead reach a combined audience of 30M professionals every month. Go down the rabbit hole of Anish’s career videos at HelloAnish.com, and connect with him on LinkedIn to receive daily career tips and advice.

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