Don’t grieve over job interview failure: learn from it

If anything, you were over-qualified for the position. Your answers were informed, fluent and confident and there was good personal chemistry between you and the interview panel.

On your way out, the CEO even let the cat out of the bag when he said, ‘hope to see you later’.

You’re already thinking through possible solutions to that anomaly in their software algorithm that they mentioned and mentally calculating your relocation costs.

Then an email lands in your inbox and, before your eyes have had a chance to properly focus on the text, your mind has already processed the words ‘we regret to inform you’.

By the time you’ve thrown your smartphone at the cat, you’re already entering the first stage of interview failure grief: hate.

You couldn’t stand that smarmy git of a CEO and his creepy band of pusillanimous water carriers, anyway. Now you think about it, that head of HR was a little squirt and his smile just a bit too ingratiating. Why would you ever want to work for them? You’re better off staying where you are. You’d have been miserable from day one.

An hour later, you have seamlessly entered the second stage: more hate.

Who the hell do they think they are with their rubbish company? Their product probably won’t even work. It might be in the final stages of clinical trials after three highly successful funding rounds, but what the hell does that prove? That CEO couldn’t empty a bucket of dung over his own head, even with the instructions printed on the bottom.

Before you know it, you’re deep into the third stage of grief: paranoia.

Why didn’t they want you? What disqualified you from the position? It must have been personal. You admitted to yourself at the outset you were overqualified. Perhaps they were just picking your brains to see if you could solve their algorithm problem for them. There was no job – it was all a sham. And why do they sent these emails out on a Friday, anyway? The whole process is contrived to ruin your weekend.

 And so, it goes on. At these moments, it’s tempting to retreat into feelings of failure and self-doubt and to convince yourself you’re never going to make the next rung of the employment ladder.

But, in fact, this is the most important stage of your career progression because, when it comes to job interviews, you learn more from those you fail at than from those you land.

Employers always look for a very specific combination of skills and qualities and the further up the career path you go, the more detailed the employee specification becomes.

When there are several candidates with similar qualifications and levels of experience chasing the same job, the vaguer are the factors that set them apart.

Failing at an interview doesn’t mean you weren’t articulate, personable, confident and well-prepared. It doesn’t mean you don’t have the right capabilities or that the interviewer didn’t think you’d do a great job.

It may be that there were two others in the same position as you and that the winning candidate did something in the interview that game him or her a slight edge. To be honest with you, it wouldn’t be the first time that a CEO made a decision by pulling a name out of a hat and today it wasn’t your name.

That’s why, for as long as you want to boost your career by changing jobs, constantly seeking feedback is so important.

The very fact that you’ve landed the interview means you’re qualified to do the job. From now on, it’s down to other factors as to whether you land it.

Interview manner, poise, clothing, delivery, the quality of your answers, how well your answers match the job requirements are all things that can be the difference between success and failure. Ultimately though, people tend to hire people they “like” no matter how much HR might dress it up with pseudo psychology. My outgoing, ebullient leader is your crashing bore and vice versa – there really is no accounting for taste.

Inevitably then, asking for feedback can make us feel awkward. We might think it should be obvious why we didn’t get the job and even asking will make us look stupid. Clearly, if we set the building on fire or got into a fist fight in reception the feedback will contain few surprises. But in reality, almost all feedback is quite nuanced and employers, quite understandably, find it difficult to just come out and say “we liked the other candidate more than you”.

Given all this, we may not want to impose on the interviewer’s time, or fear what we might learn about ourselves. So, we make our assumptions and move on.

This sort of post interview self-evaluation is all very well but it’s still the case that the best way to find out why you didn’t land the job is to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth and the truth is that most employers will be genuinely happy to provide post-interview feedback on your performance. Okay, they might not admit that your name didn’t come out of the hat but they will respond.

If you do ask for feedback, it’s important to ask the right questions in the right way. Storming back and making the interviewer tell you why they were so stupid as to pass you over isn’t going to make you many friends.  You’re going to have to accept you were unsuccessful and focus on what you could have done to improve the outcome.

In summary: Strike the right tone – you’re more likely to get constructive criticism if your questions are asked with the right intent – and don’t argue about your candidacy or signal that you feel angry or injured.

Getting constructive feedback is important for several reasons.

  • It will give you better insight into how you’re perceived by employers. You may be highly qualified but perhaps you were slumped in your chair or your constant fidgeting put the interviewer off. In many roles, social skills are as important as professional experience and one of the things an interviewer will be evaluating is how you will be viewed by their colleagues and clients.
  • You may discover things about yourself you didn’t know.  Perhaps you talk over people or finish their sentences for them. Maybe you are too familiar or alternatively, you come across as cold, aloof or even arrogant because you’re nervous or unsure of yourself. As with stand-up comedy, it’s not the joke, it’s how you tell it.
  • It may force you to accept some uncomfortable home truths about yourself. Many of us believe we’re open to constructive criticism but struggle to name an occasion when we have taken something on board and changed our behaviour accordingly. We’ve all been successful in our careers so far and it’s hard to make a positive out of being told “no” for once. Reaching out and asking for feedback is a sure-fire way of demonstrating that you’re willing to learn and grow, to yourself as much as to anyone else.
  • It may open doors for future opportunities. It may not feel like it at the time, but there are other, even better jobs out there waiting for your application. It may even be that the company that has just turned you down has another vacancy coming up for which you’d be perfect. Sending a ‘thanks for the opportunity’ email and asking for a few pointers on improving your interview technique will show you’re considerate and willing to learn.
  • It will help you to move forward in the knowledge that you gave it your all. One of the worst things about being turned down for a job can be the hit that your confidence takes. Swallowing your pride and asking for feedback can often seem like the first step in getting over the disappointment and moving onto the next challenge.

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