03 April 2013

Interviewing: Are you comfortable when people are uncomfortable?

Recently I observed an interview conducted by a relatively new recruiter (let's call him Dan). He did an adequate job asking the (moderately experienced) candidate (let's call her Sarah) about her previous work experience. However when it came to Dan probing a gap of three months between Sarah's jobs, things didn't go so well.

Dan asked Sarah what she was doing in that period of time between jobs and she said 'it's personal'. Then when pressed a little by Dan -'what do you mean by that?', Sarah said, somewhat unconvincingly, 'I was looking after a sick family member'.

I could tell from Dan's reaction that he wasn't really satisfied with Sarah's response but in the presence of a clearly uncomfortable candidate, he was obviously also uncomfortable to probe the matter further.

The interview was completed without the issue being raised again.

After Sarah left, I sat down with Dan to debrief the interview.

To his credit, Dan immediately identified that issue when I asked him my standard post-interview question 'How did you assess your own performance?'

Dan: 'Ross, I knew I needed more information than she was prepared to give me but I could see she was uncomfortable about my questions and she did say it was personal.'

Ross: 'Dan, let me ask you this: Are you prepared to refer Sarah to either the job you interviewed her for, or another job, with that question mark hanging in the air about how she spent those 3 months between jobs?'

Dan: 'Umm, err, I'm not sure. I mean she had some good experience'

Ross: 'Is that a 'yes' or a 'no'?'

Dan: 'I suppose it's a no.'

Ross: 'It's definitely a 'no'. Unless you can confidently recommend a candidate then you shouldn't recommend them. My firm view as a recruiter was that any candidate I referred to a client was one that carried my personal stamp of approval. Unless I was prepared to argue for my candidate in the face of a doubting client then I wouldn't refer them!'

Dan: 'So how should I have responded when she said she was looking after a sick family member?'

Ross: 'Ask her for more specifics such as: Which family member? What were you doing for them specifically? How many hours per day or week of your time was this taking up?' These are all perfectly valid and reasonable questions to ask a candidate because it is your job to know the answers to these questions! In my experience, candidates who don't wish to answer these questions are those who are not telling you the complete story'

Dan: 'What if the candidate doesn't want to answer those sorts of questions?'

Ross: 'The candidate is perfectly entitled to decline to answer any question you ask them. Your role as the recruiter is to explain why it's in their best interest to answer any and all of your questions. You simply say to the candidate; you don't have to answer the question but if I did refer you to my client and that client asks me the same question about you and I can't answer it then that reflects poorly on my credibility. The result is that it's highly unlikely you will gain an interview. By answering this question you significantly increase your chances of gaining the job. Not answering it means you have almost no chance of obtaining an interview for the job'

Our cultural upbringing and social experiences have conditioned a vast majority of us to deliberately not put other people in an uncomfortable situation. If an uncomfortable situation presents itself then our cultural and social conditioning has us immediately act to remove or lessen that uncomfortable atmosphere.

This is not appropriate behaviour for an interviewer.

An interview is (for the interviewer) about understanding the full picture (as much as time allows) of a candidate's skills, competencies and motivation. The candidate is trying to present themselves as positively as possible (as they should).

The interviewer should be asking probing questions and examining every relevant element of a candidate's background. Areas of that background that the candidate may believe are less helpful to them in gaining a client interview, and ultimately a job, are ones the candidate would prefer the interviewer not to delve into. This is likely to create an uncomfortable period of time during the interview.

This scenario is completely okay.

If you have built sufficient rapport and are speaking respectfully and without aggression, then you will not damage the quality of the interview nor your relationship with the candidate.

Although a political media interview is a very different type of interview to a job interview there is much to be learned from Leigh Sales doing her job in making Tony Abbott uncomfortable with this famous 12 minute interview on ABC's 7.30 program late last year.

Are you comfortable when people are uncomfortable in your interviews? You should be.


  1. I tend to agree with Ross almost on all points but for his last question and position; "Are you comfortable when people are uncomfortable in your interviews? You should be."
    This is strange as well as paradoxical conclusion from Ross considering his earlier position, and I quote, “If you have built sufficient rapport and are speaking respectfully and without aggression, then you will not damage the QUALITY (emphasis mine) of the interview nor your relationship with the candidate".
    Point to ponder; if the candidate is uncomfortable and you are unable to put them at ease, could it be an indication that you might have failed to build sufficient rapport yet during the interview?
    Any student of influence mastery, just like any interviewer, knows that the worst situation to be is when your target (in this case interviewee) is uncomfortable! How can you hope to elicit cooperation of the candidate and gain accurate insight under such condition? On the contrary, I dare say that you should be very UNCOMFORTABLE (if permitted to use this word), though concerned seems to be more appropriate within the context, when people are uncomfortable in your interviews! It should raise the alarm bell-ding, ding ding in your head that you have probably failed to build sufficient rapport with the candidate. Are you too inquisitorial in your interviewing approach? Maybe you need to back off a bit?
    It is not uncommon for some people to be uncomfortable, could be due to several reasons, during interviews. Interviewing is a critical skill in the selection process which an interviewer must possess to be effective. Thankfully, it is a skill that can be taught and learnt. It is trite to mention therefore that it is part of your duty as an interviewer to seek ways to build rapport and put your candidate at ease.
    Never ever forget the main purpose of the interview: to help you gather enough evidence to assess the suitability of a candidate for a specific role. Anything or act that could detract from this is undesirable. Period.

    1. Thanks for your considered comment, Law. I certainly don't suggest it's a good idea to have the candidate uncomfortable during the whole interview. I agree that there needs to be sufficient rapport to gain high quality information. The 'uncomfortable' that I am referring to is during what might turn out to be difficult questions. The interviewer may be asking (relevant) questions that the candidate may prefer were not asked (eg reasons for leaving, referee list does not include any recent managers etc) and then becomes uncomfortable. It is in this sort of specific interaction where the interviewer needs to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Our human tendency is to want to relieve the other person's discomfort but this is not advisable in an interview as we need to uncover the truth about relevant issues, situations, competencies etc.

  2. Thanks Ross for your valued clarification that "the 'uncomfortable' that I am referring to is during what might turn out to be difficult questions". And that is where the rubber get to meet the road! That is when the interviewer should probably back off a bit, anything that he can do to re-establish rapport again, maybe get to other questions and come back to those questions and reframe them. If I understand the point Ross is trying to make; don't fail to do the needful just because a candidate is 'uncomfortable'.I cannot agree any less with him on that.But what I want to add is that it is your duty as an interviewer not to revel in the candidate being 'uncomfortable' but to seek ways to quickly put them at ease when you notice that they're uncomfortable with certain questions.