4 Sticky Job-Interview Situations and How to Handle Them

The person you are supposed to meet isn’t in the office. Or they want you to dish gossip on your previous employer. Here's how to finesse such awkward moments.

Job interviews rank way up there on the stress-o-meter, along with traffic-court appearances and car-buying negotiations. Something about a job interview puts most people on edge -- even people who are natural conversationalists. And unease can quickly turn into panic when sticky interview situations arise. Here are four of the stickiest I've run into as a human resources professional, with tips for navigating such traps in your job search:

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: 7 Job Interviewer Pet Peeves (and How to Avoid Them)

They Aren't Expecting You

It's a nightmare scenario that happens in workplaces every day: You arrive for your job interview, and the person you're supposed to see isn't there, or is out sick, and no one at the organization seems to know you were expected. What to do?

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Stay calm and upbeat. It's sometimes best to retreat and come back at a later date, when the employer gets its interview-scheduling act together. Don't insist on an interview with someone who doesn't want to meet with you and isn't prepared to answer your questions. Remember that you are interviewing the company to see whether it is a good fit for you, too. Maybe they don't value talent in general, and the universe wants you to flee.

Then again, it could be an opportunity. If you do speak with a hiring manager or top executive, show that person that you have poise and polish. Ask about what fell through the cracks in your interview scheduling. Maybe the team is growing so fast they're overwhelmed; you might suggest that you could really help.

If you're not put off by the disorganization, here's what I would say to the receptionist or whoever greets you: "Oh, I understand! Everyone has so many balls in the air. Shall I call you tomorrow and set something up for next week?” If the employer really needs and wants someone like you and just doesn't have its interview-scheduling act 100% together, they'll be glad you stuck around -- and, very likely, so will you.

They Seem to Want Free Consulting From You

"I had barely sat down in the interview chair," said my ex-workmate Janette, "when the manager asked me if I could create a PowerPoint deck for her sales team. A minute later, she asked, 'Can I have that by tonight?'" Sometimes on a job interview, you can begin to wonder whether there's a real job opening at all or whether a firm is simply looking for free consulting help.

Stick with the process only as long as you feel comfortable. You can inquire about the reason for any request that seems out of the ordinary. If a recruiter says, "I'll need you to write a communication plan for me," feel free to say: "I wouldn't do that project justice, based on just what I've learned in these interviews. If you want to talk about a small consulting project, we can do it, but I imagine you'd rather wait and have your new Marketing person create that plan, with the benefit of all the thinking you've been doing here with your team."

They Want the Dirt on Your Old (or Current) Firm

It is not uncommon for interviewers to dig for information on their competitors. If you're still working for a rival firm (or have just left one, with warm feelings all around), how do you answer such prying questions? Here's a typical scenario:

THEM: So, word is that Frank Haines is on the outs and Sarah James is going to take over as Production VP over at Acme Widgets. Is that your take?

YOU: I'm sure there is a lot of talk about that in some circles at Acme. Truthfully, I've been so focused on my work that I'm not much in the loop on the political machinations. I saw this opportunity posted, and it grabbed my attention mainly because of my interest in social media. Can you tell me more about that?

Nobody Can Agree on What the Job Entails

Sometimes you'll go on a job interview, spend a pleasant hour with one manager, hearing all about an interesting assignment. Then you'll walk ten feet down the hall into a different office and spend another hour hearing about a completely different assignment, with different priorities and perhaps even a different pay scale! Corporations aren't always so great with inter-team communications. Trouble is, you can be stuck in the middle when managers don't agree on what's needed in an open position.

How to deal? Bring up the issue with the hiring manager (and no one else). Here's what to say:

HM: So, you've met Stacy and Carl. Good meetings, I assume?

YOU: Definitely, and it was great getting their perspectives. There seems to be a gap between what you and I talked about -- this position's focus on inventory management, specifically -- and what Stacy and Carl see in the role. Stacy seems to really need some help on the online catalog, and Carl is interested in vendor quality.

HM: Oh, geez. We need to have more conversation about that at Acme. Thanks for letting me know.

When it comes to sticky interview situations, the key is to trust your good instincts and remember your manners. No matter how awkward or annoying unexpected interview road bumps can be, they're all part of the job-search journey. Just keep your cool. Someday, such episodes might even be fodder for your autobiography.

Liz Ryan
Contributing Columnist, Kiplinger.com