A few years ago I applied for a job that it seemed like I was qualified for (a mix of admin and marketing work) based on the description. However, once I got into the interview, I realized it required more complex graphic design and publishing experience than was previously indicated (not my area of expertise). I felt so stupid at the time; maybe it should have been clear to me earlier that this was what the role entailed, but it wasn’t. It was so obvious I was unqualified. I wanted to leave the interview rather than continuing it, but I was quite new to the workforce and I was desperate for work. I didn’t even know if you could wrap up an interview early and regardless, I don’t know that I would’ve felt like I could do that. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get the job, and I was like, “Duh, I was wildly unqualified in ways that I wouldn’t have known before the interview!”
What’s the best way to prevent this? For example, is there a way to screen jobs in depth before the interview? Obviously, you’d read the job description and do some research on the company, and reach out to contacts there if you have them. Am I missing anything else? Since you can’t interview the interviewer to ensure it’s what you want before you apply, you kind of have to apply and hope that it lines up with your goals. Right?
Or is there a script where if you get into an interview, you can be like, “I feel like X and Y details weren’t mentioned in the job description when I applied. How big of a thing are those?” Or, “I just realized I don’t want this job at all”? Or do you just have to sit in the interview and get through it? If an interviewer told me mid-interview that they weren’t going to hire me, I’d think it was incredibly rude, so maybe it’s not okay for the interviewee to short-circuit things in the moment, either. But I’m genuinely curious how to handle it if I encounter another situation where I think I’ve applied to X and it’s really more like Y.
Well, first, know that you’ve done nothing wrong if you end up in an interview for a job that turns out to be wrong for you. The employer knows what they’re looking for in applicants better than anyone else can, and they reviewed your materials and thought you were likely enough to be a good fit that they wanted to interview you. So if they couldn’t tell ahead of the interview that it wasn’t the right match, there’s no reason you should feel embarrassed that you didn’t know either, or worry that you somehow mis-stepped.
This will happen to you occasionally. It’s normal. Sometimes it’s because whoever wrote the ad didn’t do a good job of capturing what the position is really about. Sometimes the role has changed over time and the job description hasn’t caught up. Sometimes the hiring manager has a different idea of what’s needed in the job than whoever placed the ad did, or is refining their idea of what’s needed as they talk to candidates and test their assumptions about the role.
Because of that, you’re right that as a candidate you can’t always know for sure that the job you’re going to interview for is the one you envisioned when you read the listing. Savvy employers conduct phone screens before inviting people to participate in more formal, in-depth interviews, so that both sides have a chance to assess whether the job does in fact seem like a reasonable match before they invest more time. But not every employer does that, and there’s always a chance you’ll find yourself sitting in an interview thinking, Whoa, this is really not for me. And that’s not even always because of the job itself. Sometimes it can be due to things you had no chance to learn about before the interview, like the boss’s management style or an offhand mention of 60-hour weeks.
But you’re not obligated to finish an interview if you become certain during the conversation that it’s a mismatch. In most circumstances, it will still make sense to stay and finish the meeting — they might have a different opening in the future that you would be considered for if you make a good impression now. But there are also times when it does make more sense to speak up, like if you’re in the middle of an all-day interview or if your interviewer is so unpleasant that you can’t stomach continuing on.
If you realize that the role is simply not one you would want, one option is to be straightforward about that: “I hadn’t realized the job was so focused on X. I’m looking for Y and purposely moving away from X at this point in my career. Given that, does it make sense to keep talking or is this not the right match?” Or, “It sounds like you’re looking for someone with expertise in X and I want to be up-front that that’s not me. My background and skills are in Y. Does it make sense to keep talking, or do you really need someone with an X focus?” After all, a good interview is a collaborative, two-way conversation about whether it would make sense for the parties to work together; you’re not merely there to be judged, but also to form your own judgments about whether you want this particular position.
And in situations where you don’t particularly want to explain the nature of your qualms — an actively hostile interviewer, say, or just a manager you know you’d never want to work for — there’s no reason you can’t say, “As we’re talking, I’m realizing this job isn’t quite what I’m looking for, and I don’t want to take up more of your time now that I have a better understanding of the role.”
For the record, it’s also okay for employers to do this if they realize partway through an interview that it’s an obvious mismatch. I’d only recommend that interviewers do this if the reason is something unambiguous and easily articulated, like a specific type of experience that the candidate doesn’t have despite what it appeared from their résumé. But there’s no obligation for either party to continue on if it’s clear that it’s not going to work.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.