In the June 19, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter is frustrated by last-minute interviews:

Here’s the harsh reality of job interviewing. You apply for a job, you are called in for the interview, and there is no time to do all the research and preparation that you recommend we do. I have been in this spot, as I know most people have. How many times has a headhunter called at 4:00pm and said, “I have a great job possibility for you. Are you available tomorrow at 9:00am?” How can you prepare yourself in the manner that you recommend? Should one just say no to the interview? I think not, especially when one has been out of work for a while. Your input/answer is?

My Advice

Why on earth would you want to go into an interview when you are unprepared, and likely to embarrass yourself?

I have three comments on this.

1. Don’t apply if you didn’t choose the job based on research.
If you selected this company as one you want to work for, I expect you selected it for several good reasons, all based on your research. Even if you were introduced by a headhunter, due diligence is necessary. Thus, you must know quite a bit about the company, or why interview?

2. Good headhunters always prep their candidates.
Any headhunter worth his salt has lots of information about his client company. If he isn’t willing to share some of it with you, you’re interviewing blindly. Why would you want to do that? If the headhunter doesn’t know enough about the company to be able to prep you thoroughly, then the company is not his client. (See “Is your resume spaghetti?“) You’re wasting your time. (Need help figuring out whether the headhunter knows what he’s doing? Learn How to Work With Headhunters.)

3. Preparation is more important than showing up on demand.
A request for an interview is not a command. It’s an invitation. You are allowed to say to the headhunter, “I need two days to prepare properly for this interview, to optimize my chances of success as well as your chances of earning a placement fee.” What idiot of a headhunter would want to send an unprepared candidate to an interview? (Hint: One whose placement strategy is scheduling as many interviews as possible.)

Please remember: Both you and the headhunter have an immense responsibility to make a job interview productive and profitable. Both your reputations are on the line. If you’re dealing with lousy headhunters, stop. If you’re desperate to interview as often as possible under any circumstances, stop.

My advice: Decline the interview until you are prepared. This isn’t a race. It’s business, and unprepared business people lose.

What happened the last time you went on an interview unprepared? Is there a way to fake it that actually works? How do you deal with situations like this?

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  1. If you don’t know what you’re getting into, then it’s a roulette.
    Wat if you show up and do well in the interview? What happens is you may get the job and it may not be a job you actually want. Or it may be. Matter of luck.

  2. Last night I met a gentleman who is considered my any in this area to be the best at networking\job searching\interviewing.

    He said in his last job search, he spent at least 100 hours researching each company before he approached them. His observation was most job candidates are not willing to put that amount of time in.

    In one case, he read the entire health care reform bill, so he could go in with a list of the 10 items that would have the most impact on the business.

    I am still digesting that, and some other things he discussed. This guy is a job-search deity.

  3. Greg – I have to assume that a person who does that sort of prep for an interview could also provide tremendous discretionary effort toward my company’s goals if we mutually agreed that we had a job-employee match. Before hiring him, I’d want some indication from him that he was looking to apply that talent and effort to my work, not just finding the next great job.

  4. An extension of declining is deferring. Don’t go into an interview including a phone screen if you’re not feeling good. I had scheduled a phone interview for a really good candidate for a job, and unfortunately she truly took ill (not the jitters etc). Had I known I would have rescheduled. She took the call & did as well as she felt…bad.
    If you’ve done all the right things, the research, etc, don’t throw it away by not being at the top of your game in the interview.
    While a recruiter may be hot to trot, HR or whatever anxious to get on with it, you have to drive the bus, just like you would if you were on the job.

  5. Greg,

    You mean a deity like this


    Who is this job search ninja you speak of?

  6. @Greg: I don’t know what deity you were talking to, but he’s right. To win the job, you have to be ready to do the job (not the interview).

    @Don: Right-o. When I say decline an interview, I mean do your best to defer it until you can prepare. Just tell the headhunter you want to optimize the outcome by preparing. Then ask the headhunter for info and insight to help you. If he won’t do it, then he’s treating you like a bit of bait on a hook, hoping to catch a fish. He’s in too much of a hurry.

  7. Just an opinion: Nick’s advice is right on the money; his recommended phrasing leaves something to be desired. Why say “I need two days to properly prepare,” when you can say, “I’m afraid I have prior commitments until Thursday. Now tell me something about the company, and the people I’ll be talking to.”

    Having prior commitments makes a candidate more valuable … the official economic consequence of artificial scarcity … and appear more confident. Needing two days to prepare can create the impression that the job seeker needs some time to build up the necessary courage to go through with it.

    On the other hand, being instantly available just sounds desperate.

  8. @Ed: Just “a god,” not THE God. He is not a “Nick Corcodilos,” you will not find any kind of “How To Land A Job” blog by him. He is just a local business man who is willing to share what his experiences. And a more modest man (or woman) you will not meet anywhere. If you find yourself in the Upstate, he would gladly meet you for coffee.

  9. I totally understand this line of thought. My challenge is for those who are currently unemployed for whatever reason. In my state there is a question which asks have you rejected or refused to attend any offer of an interview within the last week. I did follow the advice here and being honest said yes expecting to be able to explain why. This caused me to lose my UEI benefits for over two weeks and took many discussions to get reinstated. The state did not accept being ready and prepared as a reason to postpone the interview.

    Do you have any advice on dealing with this in such situations?

  10. Haste makes waste.

    We’ve all disregarded this truism, to our peril, at one time or another.

    First red flag is what amounts to an “emergency” interview. Most likely a clueless recruiter more interested in his pocketbook than your career.

    Reminds me of an my first airline interview. They called me within two days stating I scored the highest on their tests and that I would need to be in training (across the country mind you) within several days.

    I politely declined. The chief pilot was so shocked he repeated the offer and remained baffled as I told him good luck with his future staffing needs.

    The assistant chief that interviewed me leaked the fact that they had a rising simulator drop out rate…not good. Wonder why ??

    Anytime you are requested to rush into a decision, especially one that concerns your career, put on the brakes until YOU are positive you can move forward with your best foot forward.

    In my case, within several months I was offered a job at an airline I determined would be a better fit. Key words being “I determined”, not worrying about anothers agenda.

    Expanding upon Nick’s answer, when working with a recruiter you really have TWO jobs…preparing for your interview and screening recruiters. They are NOT all worthy to be throwing resumes at.

  11. Steve, my advise is to take the call or if perchance go to a face to face. At the very least you can always use the practice.
    However, if you are truly interested in the job/company, then try to be tactical and steer things to a one step-two step approach.
    Basically the purpose of a resume is to get an interview. the purpose of the 1st interview is to get subsequent interview(s), and the purpose of the interviews is to get an offer.
    If you follow Nick’s advise and have a conversation where you say, Hi how are you, I’d love to talk with you guys, but I’ve got other commitments and need to schedule in X days..etc. As far as the State goes…that’s an interview and you’re an honest man. You interviewed them & tested their business acumen..why wouldn’t I want to interview someone who had sense to prepare, and was prepared.

  12. To Safebeterm’s point, all he says applies to offers as well. A company confident in it’s worth and integrity will present an offer with ample time for assessment and consideration, and extend that time for good reason, including other offers. That’s what I mean by confident.
    Other’s will want to play hard ball. Speak now or forever hold your peace. Some to the point of presenting an offer on the spot with a requirement to say yea or nay. Always walk away.
    If you are a value to a company now, unless they radically change their line of business, you will be valuable next week, week after next year. There’s no need to rush to judgement on interviews or offers

  13. @SteveG

    Defering an interview is not the same thing as refusing and/or rejecting an interview. You did not tell the head hunter/recruiter “no” as you are willing to go on the interview, but at a better suited time. I don’t think it’s lying.

    I know the state has some quirky laws about refusing interviews, but I would look at it as practice in the worst case.

  14. @Steve: Your circumstances are very different from the job seeker who is currently employed and making the most of their next move.

    I put your circumstance in the same category as accepting the wrong position for the wrong company because we all need work to pay the bills.

    Defer if you can, go if you must.

    And good luck with the hunt.

  15. @safebeterm: Your story reminds me of someone I know in the banking business. She changed employers several times over a period of a few years, each time because she was recruited. It took her a while to realize that she kept jumping out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Why? A bank would interview her, flatter her, make her a decent offer, and she took that as good reason to move. It wasn’t. She was not choosing her next employer; it was choosing her. She never established criteria for choosing a company. Her career has stagnated, and it’s too late in her career to make a change without risking permanent unemployment.

    So you’re very right: “I determined” is key.

  16. @Bob Lewis: Ah, the other approach. Hard to get. Nothing wrong with that! A time-honored negotiating tactic! Thanks for bringing this up.

  17. @SteveG: Like my mentor used to say, use your judgment and do the best you can. In this case, I’d say it’s not a problem of declining an interview (and why). It’s a problem of playing the bureaucratic game while being honest. You didn’t decline an interview. You are waiting for the inteview to be scheduled. There is no interview without two people agreeing to a date. So the answer, I think, is, “They want to interview me, and I’m waiting for them to set a date.” They can’t set a date until you agree to one. That’s honest, and it enables you to behave prudently with the employer.

    Just because the state wants you to get interviews doesn’t mean you have to climb a 50-foot tree because some employer told you that’s a condition of doing an interview. Your answer to the state is, I’m going to interview as soon as this guy gets down out of the tree.

    The boobs at the state need to be fired. They don’t care whether you get a job. They are too busy checking off boxes so they can move on to the next guy.

  18. @Greg: “Defer if you can, go if you must.” Man, that’s a great way to put it. I’ve never advised anyone to turn down a job flipping burgers, if that’s what’s available and they need to put food on the table.

    @Don: “If you are a value to a company now, unless they radically change their line of business, you will be valuable next week, week after next year.”

    That’s such a hard concept for people to grasp when they’re trying to nail down a job, but it’s the one thing to never forget. If a compan doesn’t act that way toward you, they’re not really interested. So smoke on that a bit before you decide what to do.

  19. Lots of good advice from all.

    Another thing I would add–I noticed that many job descriptions are long and arduous.

    If I get an interview, I like to ask a recruiter or hiring manager what are the main things you want this person to accomplish in this job. I find this cuts through the fluff written in a lot of job descriptions.

    Anyone else tried this approach?

  20. Good advice, good article. Sometimes it is a bit of a challenge trying to find out about a company/employer. I mean, there’s info on their own website, but that doesn’t give me the “dirt” (if there’s any). When I’m researching a company, I don’t just want to know what the company says about itself, I want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    @Don Harkness: good reminder that the point of the resume or letter is to get an interview, and the point of the interview is to get more interviews, which, if it seems like you and the company are a good match for eachother, then ultimately to result in an offer.

  21. Hi Nick,

    I greatly respect your advice, I’ve read some of your comments before. However, on this one I strongly disagree. Your strategy is100% correct but getting it done is far different.

    I agree with you about 3rd party recruiters – they usually don’t know anything. You’re on your own.

    However, company recruiters are often the same or only marginally better. The new HR modis operendi is “I have to fill this role” so they are rushing you as well. Also, we’ve entered the world of 3-page job descriptions. What’s that about?

    My last run in with this situation really wasn’t my call. I got a phone call about 4:15 pm from a company recruiter who had seen my resume online. She tells me she wants to set up a conversation with the hiring manager “but she will be buzy most of next week. I say OK send me the job description. Usually, I make a targeted, job specific resume for each job req. I probably did that here as well. So, I read the job req. and sent my resume.

    The next thing I know is the HR recruiter is on the phone in about 20 minutes telling me she has a 9:30 am phone interview for me the next morning. You’re right – I probably should have pushed back. However, you overlook that being on Unemployment Benefits is like a death race. What if I didn’t get to speak to the hiring manager for a week or ten days and she finds another candidate?

    When I went to the company website I can’t find 2 of the 3 products mentioned in the job req. I email the HR recruiter and it’s after 5:00 pm so I get nothing back to help me. Turns out the company had a secondary website for the products – a unique URL.

    The next morning I’m on the phone with the hiring manager. I’m trying to follow her through this maze of info and duties for a Product Marketing Manager position. It was like trying to write down moves for a checkers game at 100 MPH. So, maybe if this had been written out and emailed to me it might have been easier to follow.

    Fault here lies with companies who have decimated their HR Departments and piled on work to their managers. If the NFL, every Summer Camp the players are given a “play book”. This prepares both veterans and rookies to understand the plays for the season. Employers might want to learn from that process if they’re recruiting a veteran or rookie.

  22. @Dom: Your point is a good one – HR does the same thing. Sometimes a manager will come down on HR for not getting a position filled, and the rush begins. And it becomes your problem. Of course I understand the pressure on an unemployed candidate, and why you took the interview. But as others have suggested on this thread, what if you had explained to the HR rep that you’d like to do some research so you can make the best impression possible? Could the call be moved to 3pm or even noon? Anything to get some time to prep. Make the HR rep your co-conspirator. “We both want to look good. Can you get me a bit more time?” I know it’s a crapshoot sometimes, esp. when you’re told the manager will be out of town… So, how’d it go after all?

  23. I’ve had interviews where a call comes at 4 PM on a Fri and you are to be there at 10AM Mon and given a problem to solve… It puts one in crisis mode.

    I went on the interview, and they liked my presentation, and kept my flipchart. But alas, I didn’t understand the system (internal politics) well enough to pull it off. They said I would have been in over my head and would be best on some smaller projects.

    I agree with Nick, no matter how desperate, you need to prepare for an interview, not race into it.

    In my company, they spread interviews out over weeks and sometimes months depending on the position. So chances are that there a several more time slots available for you.

  24. @Nick and all — well basically it was a disaster interview. I just couldn’t understand the verbal onslaught from the hiring manager about what I was going to have to do with 3 products. So, there were three products, various people I would have to interface with, the 3 products are on a separate URL site that I find out about during the interview. How can I speak intelligently about something I haven’t see or know about. It would have been much better if there was a PPT slide or MS Word document certainly stating — here is the product interface or how you will interact with the products.

    I say this because I have sat on the manager side of the desk with graphic agencies and other vendors. I wrote out before hand what the project entailed, various details, expectations, timeline, etc. By the time the vendor met with me they were pretty aware of the mechanics needed to finish a project. I view that as a very fair way to deal with people.

    BTW — about 5 years ago I did push back hard on a 3rd party recruiter who wanted to do, “be there at 9:30 am tomorrow.” I actually had an argument with her about it — bringing up the points that you state. The client was a niche tech company with some very specific products in a niche sector of the financial services industry. I wanted at least two days to research the company. I did my research, got to the VP for the interview, but didn’t get the position anyway.

    My wife always thinks I’m nuts when I prepare. I had a Cisco interview about 4 years ago. One with HR that I prepared a 3-ring binder about 2 inches thick of industry info. Then HR tells me you’re going to speak with the hiring manager. Another 3-ring binder of product-specific info. All told — 10 straight days of prep. Yes, I said STRAIGHT days.

    I finish with the Hiring Manager and we had an excellent conversation. We were on the same page. Cisco was then getting into Visual Telepresence and my interview was supposed to be via Telepresence. However, they changed it to telephone. The job was in San Jose, CA. So, I have this great interview and here is the last thing I hear:

    “[hugh sigh] Well, if I want to see you I have to figure out a way to get you out here.”

    Hello budget and goodbye opportunity.

    Regards – Dom

  25. @Dom: Does anybody need more proof that employers behave like idiots, and that the “talent shortage” is on the employer side, not in the market? “You proved you’re motivated enough to learn our business and then to demonstrate as much, but we need to go stick our heads back in the sand. Next resume?”

  26. @Nick: Exactly!!!

    Someone also mentioned the three-page job descriptions, which not even Superman can do.

    I guess employers figure they have their pick with all the people looking for work and moving to the next person is their fallback position.

  27. @dlms: The ridiculous job descriptions are an historic problem. In the days when ads were in newspapers, HR departments would run “composite” ads to save money. These were conglomerations of multiple positions, and the idea was that one ad would attract resumes for several positions. Today, now that job postings are virtually free, HR thinks that “The database will deliver a few perfect candidates!” so they list every skill and experience they can think of. When no one shows up with the perfect fit, they cry talent shortage. The job remains undone. Everybody loses.

  28. Has anyone seen the recent Fox Smooze interview with the CEO of Kelly Services?

    One of the issues he brings up from employers is, “they don’t see 2-3 years as enough time [if they hire someone] as enough time for ROI.”

    Really?? The stats I’ve read are that people between 21-30 will have about 18 jobs during that period. USDOL / Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report on older workers. I’m sure you could find lots of reports on thi topic. I was below my stat age group for the number of jobs we had during a given period.

    All this job stuff is about one thing – the November elections. Business doesn’t like uncertainty and the US Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like Pres. Obama.

  29. Hi Nick, you are raising a really interesting topic. But my experience, as applicant, it’s completely the other way around. I’ve been involved in the latest 2 months in 21 different processes. And 57.14% (sorry for this, but I keep a proper XLS log; =12 out of 21) are really unprofessional head-hunters. You’re appointed to some interview, and your meeting is suddenly cancelled when you’re on the way, or 3 hours before starting, stating the client changed its mind, or you’re invited in serious roles, and a simple job spec it’s still missing, you start an interview and the head-hunter has spent a single minute checking your CV (probably someone more junior did)….

    By personal experience, I can compare this practise across other countries (UK, Spain, Italy, Portugal, The Netherlands and France), and I have my very personal opinion, based on experience. Regrettably, in my sample, UK practitioners are not on the best positions. Enric

  30. I would want to be one of the LAST people the hiring person saw.

    Think about it – you’re out shopping for a house:

    + After a while they all look the same. You make notes on paper printouts and brochures, but don’t we all remember the last few houses the most?

    + Don’t we also figure out what kind of house we really want in the process?

    + Even if the first house you see is exactly what you want, isn’t it human nature to not to want the first one, but to see what else is out there?

    + Even if the first house you see is exactly what you want, what hiring manager wouldn’t want to do their ‘due diligence’ of seeing what else is out there? So they can tell their spouse (manager/boss) they did their due diligence.

    + You spot the ideal house after a lengthy search and you MIGHT be able to get it – it’s in escrow with another buyer but the other buyer’s finances look shaky. Don’t we want that house even more?

    + You spot what might be an ideal house, but it won’t be ready for you to see for 2 days. Wouldn’t you want to wait just because you can’t see it right now?

    + You spot what might be an ideal house, and the seller’s agent is pressuring you and/or your agent to see it right away – if not that evening then the first thing in the morning. Wouldn’t you be wondering what’s wrong with that house?

    + You pay a recruiter a (big!) fee to find a house for you – would you feel good about the process, like you really got your money’s worth for the service, if you took the first house they showed to you?

    My standard answer is I’m always busy (which is true) and I never accept the first date suggested. I have other commitments, how about X instead – can we do that? What are they going to say – no?


  31. @George: Along that theme, whenever I have been in a position to hire, I worked through one at a time, if I thought they were a good fit, I extended an offer.

    Just like house shopping, in hiring it is too easy to to get overwhelmed with the choices and slip into “decision paralysis.” I have seen positions go unfilled for months (in an employer’s market) because qualified candidates were passed over in hopes of getting a “more qualified” candidate.

    Now, if you go with the logic that a person is hired to increase company profits (they increase revenue, decrease expenses, or mitigate risk), leaving a position unfilled is costing the company money.

  32. Which job?

    I was once called by a recruiter in the at 6 pm evening, asked to send the resume, for an interview with an interesting company the forthnight day. The day after, the recruiter was supposed to give more information, never called, I had to call him…turned out he was just another resume spammer.

    Lesson: If a recruiter calls with such a tight deadline, the job may not exist. They just want to get some fast bucks for spaghetti resumes.

    If the problem is with the company/HR: If they do not respect your integrity in the interview matter, that is a harbinger of the future, so why do you want to work for them? Yes, Nick is right, go and flip burgers if you must to get bread on the table, but only then.