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Bad Interviewers Exist

An excerpt on what happens when interviews go really wrong from my book, Running Start: How to get a job in tech, keep that job, and thrive.

Alex Karp

I hate that I have to write a blog post like this, but I think it’s important that people know that bad interviewers do exist. And unfortunately, the less that you conform to the software engineer stereotype — young, white, cis-gendered male with a degree in CS from a well-known school (bonus points if you have a beard) — the more likely it is that you’ll encounter these types of interviewers.

First, there are the kinds of interviewers that are bad to everyone. These are the ones who have something more important to do than interviewing you. Or they like to use interviews as an opportunity to show off their “superior” intellect. Or they are bored and aren’t paying attention to what you’re saying.

Second, there are the kinds of interviewers that are gatekeepers. These are the interviewers that are explicitly trying to keep you out. I’ve heard stories of interviewers who would change their interview style based on the candidate’s race. If they were white, they would ask standard questions, provide support, and generally be a good, collaborative interviewer. But if the candidate were of a race that they thought represented an “affirmative action” hire, they would ask difficult questions, not provide any support, and really put the candidate through their paces. These interviewers don’t see anything wrong with this. In fact, they think that they’re doing their part to help the “people hurt by affirmative action.” It’s disgusting.

If you find yourself in a situation with an interviewer like this, there is honestly not a ton you can do in the moment. Often, if you try to call out the interviewer in these situations, they’ll just double down on what they’ve been doing. So unless you feel like you feel prepared to deal with a defensive interviewer, I recommend just trying to do the best you can in that sucky situation. If you have the confidence to call out your interviewer, that’s awesome. But it takes a lot of nerve, self-confidence, and emotional energy to do something like that, and I don’t blame anyone who wouldn’t feel up to it. I know that I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do something like that when I first started looking for a job.

Another thing that you can try is ending the interview. This really depends upon how you think things are going. If you feel like you’re not being given a fair chance, and you don’t think it is going to get any better, ending the interview early is a totally valid choice. You do not owe anyone your time, and there is no reason to waste your time sitting there and putting yourself through an interview with an interviewer who isn’t giving you a fair chance. This also takes a bit of courage, but I find that it’s a lot easier to do now that we’re in the age of virtual interviews. If you’re interviewing in person, once you announce that you’d like to end your interview, the recruiter will usually come collect you. They might ask a few questions about your interview experience as they walk you out. In a virtual interview, it’s even easier. Once you end it, just end the call. An recruiter might reach out to you to hear about your experience, but you’re under no obligation to talk to them about it.

If you’re looking for language on how to end an interview, try: “I’d like to end my interview here, please. I don’t want to continue with the process.” I’d recommend being as polite as possible, but in no circumstances are you required to be nice, to say you’re sorry, or to cushion your words in any way.

One thing that people might worry about confronting their interviewer or ending the interview early is that they might appear to be uncooperative, stubborn, or just straight up mean. But in reality, what you’re doing is setting boundaries. You have the right to set boundaries around how people interact with you. You have the right to be given a fair interview. You have the right to protect yourself and your emotional well-being. And if a hiring manager or a company sees that boundary-setting as negative, that’s a bad sign. People, teams, and companies should respect your boundaries. That’s your right.

Can a bad interviewer tank your chances at getting an offer? Unfortunately, yes. In an ideal world, the team interviewing you has data from multiple sessions, and would be able to see your interview with the bad interviewer as an outlier. But that doesn’t always happen. It’s really up to the recruiter, the hiring manager, and the rest of the team to think critically and call it out.

But honestly? You don’t want to be working at a place like that. I know that I say this with an immense amount of privilege — I have an established career as a software engineer; I have an emergency fund that allows me to focus on finding the right job, not just the first offer I get; and I’m able to pass as someone who mostly meets the above stereotype — but I still think it’s true. If you didn’t get an offer because of a bad interviewer, it means that either they’re all like that and think that’s okay (which means that you could expect the exact same sort of behavior while working there), or they’re not like that but didn’t notice that one of the interviewers was bad (which means that the team itself might not be gatekeeping, but they’re not doing a great job of thinking critically and being an active ally). Neither of these are recipes for a happy work experience.

Now, I didn’t just write this section to tell you that there is nothing you can do about bad interviewers. Nor did I write it to remind you that you don’t want to be working at places that let bad interviewers be a part of the interview process. I wrote it because, in situations like this, it’s really easy to cast doubt upon yourself. Was that interviewer really uninterested or did I just not keep them interested? Was my interviewer really giving me harder questions because I’m not white or are their interview questions just harder than I thought they would be?

When it comes down to it, I think it’s important that we acknowledge this fact: bad interviewers exist. If something doesn’t feel right to you, you’re probably right. My advice at that point is to do your best to put it behind you, thank them for showing you their true colors in advance and move on to your next opportunity.

In situations like this is, if you feel comfortable, let the recruiter know how you felt about the interview process. Hopefully, they listen. But if they don’t, that’s their problem.

This is an excerpt from my book, Running Start: How to get a job in tech, keep that job, and thrive. If you’d like a digital copy, you can find it here. If you'd like a physical copy, it's available on Amazon.

Let me know if you’d like to see more excerpts from the book!