Interviewing: Overcoming the Defeat from False Negatives

posted by Dilip on November 20, 2017

Candidates go into their interview rounds, both with great anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation, because they want to get that job offer after the demanding rounds of interviews; apprehension, because they are afraid of flubbing interview questions that they are prepared for, but are not sure that they will have the presence of mind to deliver what they know in a cogent and compelling way. Yet another concern most candidates have during such interviews is that their ability to reason through a tough problem posed to them to arrive at a strong answer to impress the interviewer.

There are so many factors that go into the selection process that providing all correct and compelling responses to the interviewers’ questions is only a part of the calculus. There are many indefinable factors—subjective factors—that go into the final decision that it is almost impossible to pin down the actual reason for final rejection. Although providing correct and compelling responses is necessary, it may not be sufficient. Even not being able to respond to all the questions is not a sine qua non for someone in the interview circuit to reject you. On the flip side your je ne sais quoimay trump all your flubs to win you that job! This is how unpredictable the overall selection process is! Making sense of its rationality is often futile, especially when you are competing with an internal candidate!

Yet another set of factors that go into an interviewer’s decision is based on their personal biases (gender, race, age, ethnic background, chemistry, and personal appearance), which are all very difficult to isolate and identify. So, despite all your preparations, answering all the interview questions with strong responses, and doing all the things right, a rejection—a false negative—can be puzzling to someone who is otherwise expecting a positive response from the process.

So, how does one deal with such an outcome, where you are sure that the rejection you received was a false negative? Here is my checklist:

  1. Do not stalk the recruiter or hiring manager about the reasons for their final decision. Legally they are not required to provide you that information. Moreover, they may get into legal jeopardy themselves if they disclosed the real reason for their rejection (too old, too difficult to understand because of your accent, argumentative, etc.). If you are going through someone who presented you to the hiring manager then you may have an avenue to explore the reasons through your contact. Ask them for that favor and learn from it; do not argue.
  2. Objectively assess your overall interview performance and see if there is a pattern to how you perform in certain situations and if there is something you need to change about that pattern through better communication, preparation, or conscious awareness. Here, reviewing your past interview performances can help you identify what this pattern may be.
  3. If you are having difficulties with your technical part of the interview (coding, algorithms, circuit design, legal precedents, modeling, accounting principles, among others in your claimed expertise) make sure that you are adequately prepared. Search for resources that provide interview boot camps in your areas of expertise. It is worth the expense and effort.
  4. When it comes to the “HR” part of the interview (why are you looking, why this company, why were you out of work for three years, etc.) find an interview coach who can help you package your responses to better serve you. Especially in such discussions it is not what you say, but it is what they hear that drives their perceptions. So, before you just rattle out a response make sure that it is what you want them to hear. A coach can be a good sounding board for these inputs.
  5. Be aware of your verbal ticks that unconsciously can get in the way of a fluent interview. Verbal ticks are uums, oohs, and other sounds that you make thinking through your responses to interviewers’ questions. Record your practice interview and listen to yourself. Also, see if you come across as a clear communicator throughout the interview.
  6. Do not ever ask the interviewer, How did I do in this interview? It shows lack of confidence and that you did not have enough self-awareness of your performance. A better way to ask the same question is, What are the next steps in this process? If they were not sure about you their typical response would be, “Oh, we have several other candidates to interview, so we do not know what the next steps are for you and its timeline.” With such a response, you better keep your pipeline and push for your next target company.
  7. Sometimes, you are rejected because they have you as a back-up candidate. In such cases someone will call you (not an email) and tell you that you were #2 candidate and their first choice has accepted the offer. In such cases do not despair. My own experience is that when you are told that you were #2, their top choice does not work out in about 50% of the hires, especially for management and leadership roles. However, this takes about 4-6 months to evince. So, if you are still in the market follow-up with that company and remind them that you are available if anything has changed at their end. Many of my clients were able to get in because their first choice was a false positive!

False negative from an interview selection process is not the end of the world. Disappointing as it may be in that moment, there is always a way to make something of it for you to benefit from.

Good luck!