Interviewing/Negotiating

Post interview advice: How to handle that flub you made during an interview

Thankyounoteblog

photo credit: new box of stationery via photopin

The take-away? Use your references, not your thank you notes, to address interview missteps.

Post interview, it’s suggested that job candidates send a thank you note to an employer within 48 hours of an interview. That means that you have two whole days to replay every moment from your interview and find something  that at best, you wished you’d done differently, or at worst, you think you bombed.

In those moments, if you’re like most people, you will probably be thinking about damage control, and bat around the idea of writing something in your thank you note to explain, clarify or redeem yourself.  I’m writing this post just to say: don’t do it. There is a better way to handle a misstep during the interview than writing an cringe-worthy,  “Hey, about that awkward or inappropriate thing I said/did” thank you note.

First things first – what’s a thank you note supposed to do?
Most advice about thank you letters  (like here and here) do a great job of explaining the purpose and structure of a thank you note (it’s an opportunity to tell an employer that you appreciated meeting them, are still interested in the position, and remind them of your value.)

Whether you’re their top candidate, or not even in the running,  your thank you note will leave a positive final impression, suggesting that you recognize the importance of professional etiquette.  It’s the very definition of keeping it classy.

What might such a letter look like?
Say you were asked a question that caught you off guard, like, “Tell me about a time you failed?” and you
forgot every strategy there is about behavioral questions, and flubbed it with a long, rambling story about what happened. Perhaps you think you came across as blaming others, defensive, or aren’t sure you addressed the point of a question (showing the employer you can handle failure professionally).  Your first inclination after the interview might be to write a thank you note like this:

Dear Dr. Wayne,

It was a pleasure meeting you. I remain greatly interested in the Outreach Educator position. Over the past weekend, I was thinking about my response to the, “Tell me about a time you failed?” question that John asked.  While I think I described a situation quite thoroughly, upon further reflection, I should have clarified that in the future, my the first step after recognizing my error, would be to assess the impact, determined next steps and and alerted impacted parties, including my supervisors.

In any event, thank you once again for the opportunity to interview. I am certain the selected candidate will have an rewarding experience with your organization.

Regards,
Diana Princ
e

When I asked a client who was thinking of writing such a note, she insisted that a letter like this would illustrate that she had hoped her answer to the question should have: that she was reflective, and had the ability to admit mistakes and correct them.

But in reality, it’s almost impossible to write something that doesn’t come across as defensive, since you’re using your note to defend yourself.  There are two issues:

  • One: It’s the wrong time and the wrong place: The length and format of a thank you note is way too limited to give you the space needed to tactfully address whatever shortcoming you feel you presented during the interview. Between reminding the employer of what you said, and then explaining what you meant to say (perhaps including why you didn’t say that in the first place), you’ve missed a chance to tell the  employer why you’re more interested in the position, and how you think your skills and experience can solve their problem.
  • Two: It wasn’t as big of a deal as you think: Whatever happened: your awkward answer, your unexpected sweat-fest, or your late arrival to the interview because public transportation let you down, may not have been as big a deal in relation to the overall interview performance as you may think. After all, our brains are built to remember things we perceive as negative than things they perceive as positive.But using your thank you note, even with the most professional tone, to explain yourself still means that basically just spent the majority of the valuable space in your letter digging out of a hole that you might not actually have been in. It’s not the strongest last impression for the employer before they make a hiring decision.

So how should you write your letter instead?
A stronger approach is to press ahead with your strengths in the thank you note.  For the example I gave above, a rewrite of the letter like this might be in order – one that doesn’t mention the candidate’s flub at all:

Dear Dr. Wayne,

It was a pleasure meeting you. I remain greatly interested in the Outreach Educator position.

Over the past weekend, I was thinking about some of the outreach challenges that several of your staff mentioned and consider it an exciting prospect to lead the effort to develop successful engagement strategies across social media platforms. Recently, I’ve particularly been impressed with the efforts of the Case Foundation and the innovative ways they’ve been using social media to foster a dialogue between their organization and the community. (You might have seen the article here, in Nonprofit Quarterly:  bit.ly/1MLilph)

In any event, thank you once again for the opportunity to interview. I am certain the selected candidate will have an rewarding experience with your organization.

Regards,
Diana Prince

This is a much stronger thank you note, as it expresses her continued interest in the position, and briefly reminds the employer of what skill set she brings to the table, and that she is familiar with issues in the non-profit sector. Does it address her flub? No. Because she assumes that her interview misstep was something that tripped her up, but didn’t mortally wound her candidacy.


But, is there anyway to address a perceived or actual flub during an interview?
If you’re truly concerned, there is one way to address your possible flub: your references. Since it’s polite reach out to your references to let them know they might be getting a call, prep them to help you.

Dear Dr. Kent,

I hope you’re well. Thank you again for agreeing to serve a reference during my job search. I’m writing to let you know that I am a finalist for an Outreach Educator position with the Red Cross. I’ve attached the job description and my application materials for your review.

I noted that during the interview there was a focus on questions that highlight  my ability to work independently, communicate effectively and take responsibility for (and correct) mistakes.  As such, anything you feel you could speak to about my behavior on those points to give them a fuller sense of my abilities and work ethic as an employee would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you once again,

Diana Prince

As an employer, I’m much more likely to believe three data points about how you handle failure from your references than a single note from you.

So, In sum:
It’s natural to replay every moment from your interview. It’s also normal to find mistakes. But that itchy feeling you have to use your thank you letter to ‘explain yourself’ if you feel you made a misstep during the interview is absolutely understandable, and you really, truly, need to ignore it. Thank you notes can’t overcome perceived weaknesses. They can only remind the employer of your strengths as they consider you against the pool of candidates when making a final decision of who to hire. Lean on your references instead.

In the longer term, it’s frustrating if you don’t get the position, but know that everybody has got their Well, that didn’t go well interview, and now you do too. Learn from this experience, take steps to correct it during your next interview.

But more importantly, let it shape you into a compassionate interviewer who expects excellence, not perfection, when you’re on the other side of the table as an employer interviewing candidates. Interviewing is a skill that most people only get to practice and develop while they’re looking for  job. Ultimately, employers don’t need a person who can interview well – they need a person who can do the job. If you have questions about some aspect of the interview performance of an otherwise strong candidate, call them up and give them a chance to address your concern, or ask all of their references for insight about the situation.   It can take only fifteen minutes to ask:

Asking the candidate:
I wanted to follow up with a question about your interview. Basically, when we asked you about a time you failed, our goal was to understand your approach and response when you make a mistake. Your answer was rambling and I don’t feel I have a good sense of how you would handle a mistake. Can you specifically tell me what steps you would take to address a mistake? Feel free to use as many examples as you need to make your point. 

or

Asking a reference:
Thank you for speaking with me. I know she’s a strong candidate, and  wanted to start with the main concern we had about her. Basically, when we asked her about a time she failed, her answer was rambling and I don’t feel I have a good sense of how she would handle a mistake.  Our goal was to understand her approach and response when an inevitable errors are made – even from top performing staff. Can you specifically tell me about a time she made a mistake or failed? What steps did you see her take? Feel free to use as many examples as you need to make your point. 

In fact, ask both the candidate and her references about your concern. Look for consistency in their answers to build your confidence that you’re hiring someone who has the emotional maturity and professional skill to  manage mistakes effectively. A candidate who who doesn’t perform well  in some area probably isn’t going to suddenly give a compelling answer that is backed up by her references.

Bonus Question I:
The employer said, “feel free to follow up if you have any questions”… couldn’t I follow up and address my flub this way?
No. Speaking to the employer  means you have more time and space to  clarify whatever point you were trying to make, but you still hit the wall of potentially raising an issue that the employer might not have considered to be a problem. Also, it’s a little misleading – you don’t actually have any questions – you just want another shot at making your case. Employers tend to frown upon that, because you’re interfering with their process. They are done gathering data from you, the candidate, and you’re trying to reopen the interview.

If an employer does have a question or a concern, they have the ability to reach out and clarify.You can  use your thank you note to signal that you would be open to further dialogue (see text in orange):

Dear Dr. Wayne,

It was a pleasure meeting you. I remain greatly interested in the Outreach Educator position.

Over the past weekend, I was thinking about some of the outreach challenges that several of your staff mentioned and consider it an exciting prospect to lead the effort to develop successful engagement strategies across social media platforms. I’ve particularly been impressed with the efforts of the Case Foundation  and the innovative ways they’ve been using social media to foster a dialogue between their organization and the community. (You might have seen the article here, in Nonprofit Quarterly:  bit.ly/1MLilph)

In any event, thank you once again for the opportunity to interview. I am certain the selected candidate will have an rewarding experience with your organization.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can provide any additional information or clarification about my skills, experience or work style.  I would certainly welcome the opportunity to speak further about the position. I can be contacted via email at diana.prince@gmail.com or 123.456.7890.

Regards,
Diana Prince


Bonus question II:

Are you sure there is never, ever a situation where you can address a misstep during an interview?
Okay, so I have seen one example. The text looked something like this (
in orange):

Dear Dr. Mxyzptlk,

Thank you for the opportunity to interview for the Outreach Educator position. It was a pleasure meeting you.

Over the past weekend, I was thinking about some of the outreach challenges that several of your staff mentioned and consider it an exciting prospect to lead the effort to develop successful engagement strategies across social media platforms. I’ve particularly been impressed with the efforts of the Case Foundation  and the innovative ways they’ve been using social media to foster a dialogue between their organization and the community. (You might have seen the article here, in Nonprofit Quarterly:  bit.ly/1MLilph)

Finally, a member of your team kindly brought it to my attention that I mispronunced your name during our time together. I deeply regret the error, and appreciate the correction. It was heartening to see that your team has a work ethic that includes giving constructive, corrective feedback; it’s a sensibility that I share. 

Please know I remain greatly interested in the Outreach Educator position.

Regards,
Diana Prince


Why did this work? Because the candidate still spent the majority of the letter reminding the employer of their value, and folded the ‘whoops, my bad‘ section into a larger, final point about feeling her values aligned with the organization (that being okay with giving and hearing corrective feedback). If you can hit both notes, then by all means, do it. But in this case, the letter would have been just as strong without the final paragraph.

All the best in your job search, folks.