At some point in your career, you’re going to have an awkward interview moment. It may be something you say; it may be coming from the interviewer; it could be anything. In the end, all you can do is laugh it off and hope for the best (or start working on the next opportunity), but there are also some strategies you can implement that can make things a little smoother in the meantime.
4 ways to ease interview awkwardness
1. When you don’t know the answer to a question
Your brain is shouting, “Stall for time!” while you think about the answer to a question you don’t understand—or just plain don’t know. The problem is that the interviewer can tell that you’re a) stalling for time or b) bluffing your way through if you try to get around the answer. Your best bet is just to be honest.
“I don’t know” isn’t a great response, but try framing it differently. “That’s a good question! Can you clarify what you mean by the [X-Y-Z] process?”
2. When you’re trying to avoid an elephant in the room
Let’s say you’re interviewing at Y Corp, and Y Corp just happens to be infamous for shady corporate behavior or poor reviews by former employees. You definitely don’t want to lead with that, but you might have legitimate concerns about what it would be like to work there. Instead of putting the interviewer on the defensive, try framing it as a question about what the culture is in the office, and whether the company is addressing some of the issues raised in public. If your query comes from a place that’s thoughtful and curious, rather than accusatory, it creates less friction with the interviewer.
3. When you’re being asked about highly personal information
It’s illegal for employers to hire (or not hire) based on factors like religion, family status, or ethnicity. So if you find yourself being asked questions about this (either directly or in an indirect way, like through small talk), you can redirect. You don’t have to come on strong, talking about legal employment statutes, but it’s okay to steer the conversation away.
For example: if you think the interviewer is trying to figure out if you’re likely to have children in the near future, emphasize that you’re committed to the job as a priority, regardless of what is going on in your personal life.
4. When you got fired from your last job
It happens. Not every job ends with a seamless transition to the next one. If you’re trying to cover a firing (even if you were fired for something you did), it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, and you should be prepared to talk about it. Practice your response ahead of time for a question like, “Why did you leave your last job?” or “Can you tell me about the circumstances when you left your last job?” Practicing it beforehand can decrease anxiety in the moment—a plan in place means you know exactly what to say. It can also help you modulate your tone, because you really don’t want to seem angry or defensive in front of a potential new employer.
Be sure to limit your answer to just the pertinent info. If you find yourself inclined to start with, “Okay, here’s the story of what really happened. My boss was a total jerk, and…” then it’s time to edit. Keep personal details and opinions out of it. And it’s fine to give a brief, one-or-two sentence discussion of what happened. The interviewer isn’t looking for a saga—just the basic understanding.
And above all else—be positive. Even the worst situations can provide valuable learning opportunities, so you can say, “It was a challenge, but it taught me much more about how to handle a situation like this proactively and helped me refocus my energies on the skills I needed to build.”
Being able to get through these awkward moments can make the difference between a failed interview and a saved one. Staying calm and talking through it can usually fix an embarrassing moment and help you get things back on track.