How to Best Handle Difficult Conversations in Job Interviews

6 min read

It’s perfectly understandable that job candidates might feel trepidation in broaching certain topics in the context of an interview. There is the worry of being immediately discounted, of that issue becoming the real reason one is not offered the job, and of feeling judged by strangers who may or may not become colleagues. There’s risk involved, or at least the perception of risk, especially at a time of feeling heightened vulnerability and more exposure in an interview.

Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

The reality is that most of the time the issue looms larger in our own minds when we are in the position of the job candidate to the point that whatever it is can feel like the proverbial elephant in the room. The other reality is that most everyone is bringing an elephant to an interview in addition to their legal pad, pen, and water bottle. Even search committee members are aware of either their own elephants, the departmental elephants, and the organizational ones.

This is definitely a moment of “it’s not what you say but how you say it.” It’s about how you frame it, the confidence with which you speak about it, the ways in which you articulate any needs and desires, and your openness and ability to handle any resulting questions that your disclosure brings up for a hiring team. People who are able to do this with grace and emotional intelligence show their capacity for dealing with challenging topics and difficult conversations, and institutions and organizations benefit from people who can do this and model it for others.

I’ll share a personal example to illuminate my points. In 2010, I applied for a job at my current university, was offered it, and turned it down. In 2011, another tenure-track assistant professor position became available in this same department, and I applied again, was offered it, and accepted it, and it is here that I earned tenure and promotion and am now a full professor. I just dug up the cover letter I had written that second time around in which I said this in the very first paragraph:

“I can appreciate the various ways in which it might be an unusual and challenging experience for a search committee to re-consider a candidate who did not accept a previous offer. Understandably, a situation like this raises questions. I felt very lucky to cultivate a rich rapport with a number of you so please know and trust that it was for various personal reasons that I was unable to accept the offer to work at USCB in 2010; those issues have since been resolved and, consequently, I hope to have another chance to be considered for this position. Please also know my willingness to answer any of your questions and my openness in discussing this further should we have the opportunity to do so.”

As it turns out, when I visited for my campus interview in the spring of 2012, one of the search committee members I had met in 2010 picked me up for breakfast at the hotel, and as I was climbing into her SUV to venture to campus, she said, “Okay, I’ve gotta finally ask you, why didn’t you take the job last time?” Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting the question right at that moment, without the other committee members present, but it goes to show that interviewing is always happening, in all the moments of interactions. And, trying to seem non-plussed by the timing and setting, I simply thanked her for asking (I wanted them to ask, and I wanted to have the opportunity to explain things) and proceeded to tell her that I had realized I first needed to get a divorce and then move across the country. And in 2011 when I wrote that second letter, I was prepared to do just that.

There is a clear advantage for the job seeker in being able to navigate hard conversations because how that information is received and discussed is likely to reveal a lot about what it would be like to work somewhere. Most of us need and want colleagues and bosses who are mindful of the whole of ourselves and the whole of themselves. The more authentically people show up to interviews—on both sides—the more informative and productive the process is for everyone. This doesn’t mean that we should approach and engage with no sense of boundaries or awareness of what’s appropriate, legal, and ethical to ask, but it means that openness, directness, honesty, and compassion go a long way.

Many years ago I was interviewed for a position I wound up not getting. At a conference awhile after that, I ran into the chair of the search committee who told me I had been their first choice, and he asked me if I wanted to know why I had not been offered the job. Of course, then I was even more curious. He told me it was because I was too honest with them and should have just said I’d teach statistics. The reality is that I had zero interest in teaching statistics, I knew that they would not have the best of me if I were to teach it, and I was clear with them and with myself. “What kind of colleague would that make me had I been dishonest with you before even starting to work with you?” I replied to him. I have never regretted my decision to tell the truth, and he and I have remained friends.

We’re living at such a difficult time globally, and it’s seeping into people’s individual lives. We see this in terms of complicated family dynamics, burdens of caregiving for ill and elderly parents, children, and spouses, some of whom may also have chronic illnesses and disabilities. Threats surround us in terms of war, the climate crisis, gun violence, systemic racism, and a world still very much reeling from the pandemic. The economic fallout greatly impacts people’s lives, and shock waves are felt through countless industries. This is felt in workplaces with various closures, drastic cuts that are gutting organizations, and significant understaffing. It’s very reasonable to think that both candidates and employers come to the table with a great deal on their minds and in their hearts, and it behooves all players to negotiate these conversations with empathy and curiosity.

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