As soon as Mike walked into the room, the recruiter opened with, “I can’t believe you’re 15 minutes late.” Then, in a louder voice: “Don’t you have any respect for the company, for me, for my time?!”
Mike was floored. Just as he was recovering enough to respond, the recruiter cut him off. “What have you got to say for yourself? Anything?”
“I’m sorry–I thought we were meeting at 11:15,” he stammered, still panicking. “Was it supposed to be at 11?”
For a moment or two Richard, the interviewer, just stared at Mike and tapped his pencil. Silence. Mike felt his face redden. His heart raced. He couldn’t imagine how he’d gotten the time wrong. But he must have.
“Just kidding!” the recruiter smiled. “I just did that to see how you’d react.”
Mike felt his anxiety begin to drop, with a touch of anger creeping in to replace it. He thought to himself, “Keep your cool–this guy is clearly an asshole. But you’ve got to get past him to meet with the actual hiring manager.”
Recruiters and candidate screeners pull this kind of thing occasionally for all sorts of ill-advised reasons; others are just curt and pushy in less dramatic ways. Intentionally or not, their bullying behavior tends to put job seekers on edge rather than at ease, creating a tense, confrontational dynamic that makes it a lot harder for candidates to show themselves in the best light. Here’s what to do if you find yourself in this kind of predicament.
COMPLIMENT, DON’T COWER
Deep down, bullies doubt their own power and overcompensate by being brusque and pugnacious. If you show fear, they’ll continue and often escalate things. But if you compliment them on their expertise, and they believe your compliment is genuine, they’re more likely to back off.
Regaining his composure from Richard’s ploy, Mike let out a deep, exaggerated exhale. “Yeesh, that was really effective, Richard. It really got to me.”
“Good. That’s what I intended.”
Then Mike followed it up with a powerful compliment: “I can see why you’re in charge of interviewing candidates for this position. You’re really good at it. Have you been in recruiting long?”
“No, just a year. But I can tell you that I’ve placed more of my candidates than anyone else in this office,” Richard boasted.
The best way to continue the conversation with a bully is to use clear, simple, unemotional language. You need to seem in control of yourself, but not fearful or intimidated. Neutral language is non-judgmental and non-controlling. For example, “Could you elaborate?” is neutral. But “What do you mean by that?” has a judgmental edge.
With this brief exchange, Mike lets Richard bask in his authority while quietly gaining a little more power of his own.
SHOW YOU’RE WELL-CONNECTED
Bullies are less likely to continue with their bad behavior if they believe you’re well connected within a professional community, because they secretly fear being exposed as frauds. So over the course of your conversation, make sure to mention any professional groups you’re in, both on- and offline. Include industry associations and user groups that you’re active in as well.
ALL OUT WHAT’S HAPPENING (RIGHT AWAY)
If you feel the interviewer has laid some kind of trap for you or is trying to throw you off your balance, call them out on it: Ask, in effect, “Did you mean to scare me?” By drawing attention to what the bully has done, you remove some of their power. This is especially true in professional situations where they don’t want to be seen as being inappropriate (even if what they’re doing absolutely is).
The underlying dynamics here resemble a schoolyard tussle, where your in-the-moment response to bullying determines the outcome. So don’t wait to let the bully know you know what’s going on. By saying, “That was really effective, Richard. It really got to me,” Mike was letting Richard know immediately–in a very neutral manner–that he was on to his behavior.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
Recruiters are frequently paid on commission and may feel the need to move fast and take risks as a result, so you may be more likely to encounter unsavory behavior from third-party recruiters than from hiring managers or in-house HR officers. So try to remember this going into your interview. The upside is that if you pass their tests (however off-putting or unfair), many recruiters are great at selling candidates to their corporate clients.
With this in mind, Mike continued, “I know the position requires that I deal with lots of suppliers who support the company with their services. And I expect that the company feels they need someone who will be tough as well as fair. Would that be a proper assessment, Richard?”
But before waiting for an answer, Mike asked a second question: “Would you like me to describe a couple instances where I needed to get tough with a supplier?”
By asking questions in a way that reinforced Richard’s misguided belief that bullying is appropriate–that it’s an effective way of handling others–Mike ensured that the bully’s feelings of satisfaction and control remained high, without allowing him to continue his bullying.
Of course, there’s a caveat here worth underscoring: Forget this entire approach if the bullying interviewer works for the company you’re interviewing for–you don’t want to work there. It’s a huge red flag that the work culture is toxic and aggressive. But when the interviewer in question isn’t part of the organization and represents just a hoop you have to jump through in order to score a meeting with somebody on the inside, allow yourself this slight disingenuousness.
The goal isn’t to reinforce bad behavior. It’s simply to avoid letting that tank your chances unfairly and prematurely. Do that, and you’ll win over a champion who can talk you up to the team you’d actually wind up working with–which hopefully shares much better values.