Interview Prep: Handling the Panel

Photo of every candidate's greatest fear - a bored-looking interviewer on an interview panelIf you’ve got an interview coming up, you know you have to prepare.

Research the role… identify the key competencies… find ways to demonstrate and sell your suitability.

You’ll hopefully start anticipating likely interview questions, and practice answering them fluently.

All great interview preparation.

What most of us forget to factor in? The people who’ll be asking us the questions.

We forget that come interview day, we’ll be responding not just to those questions, but also to the individuals on the panel – to their personalities, how they act, and how they respond to us.

And that alone can make or break an interview.

Because if dealing with different personal styles can be challenging at the best of times, it’s doubly so when you’re managing interview nerves. An unexpected approach can throw you on the day and affect your performance… if you don’t prepare.

With that in mind, these are the 3 main interviewing styles I’ve seen derail a candidate…

How would you handle them?

1. The Brick Wall

When we rehearse our answers, we tend to picture someone nodding, smiling and engaging with us… which is the ideal, perhaps, but not always the reality.

I’ve worked with many clients who’ve been caught off-guard by a Brick Wall; an interviewer who’s failed to make eye contact, given no response or spent the whole time writing intently – or worse still, doodling.

I’ve certainly sat on panels with interviewers who’ve sat in silence, stared at the table or looked into the middle distance…

And when they did that, you could practically hear the candidate’s thoughts – I’ve lost them, I’m boring them, I’m bombing here – with predictable (downhill) results.

Here’s some different explanations, from the HR side of the table.

Maybe your interviewer’s nervous, just like you. They’ve not interviewed in years, and are feeling out of their comfort zone… In my experience, it’s not unusual. Maybe they’ve been up all night with a head cold (or sick child), and despite the caffeine and their best attempts, that yawn snuck out.

Maybe doodling helps them to focus, and they’re actually listening intently to your answers. We all have mannerisms that others can misinterpret – and we’re often unaware of them.

Facing a Brick wall at interview is not ideal, but don’t assume it reflects on you.

How you interpret the behaviour is everything – as you label, so you respond – so watch the stories you’re telling yourself. Be positive, buoy yourself, and keep going.

2. The Bad Cop

When I started out in HR, ‘stress interviews’ were a thing. Whilst thankfully not something I experienced, there were large corporates renowned for purposefully grilling their applicants – much as google’s now known for asking off-beat interview questions – just to test their mettle.

The thinking? If you can’t survive hard-ball at interview, you won’t survive here.

Whilst it might be rare, I know from my clients that Bad Cop lives on. Interviewers who contradict comments, argue with ideas, or stare candidates down. Who raise their eyebrows, roll their eyes and tut at answers… or cross their arms, sigh and look away. Intimidating, actively challenging and downright rude.

Personally, I wouldn’t work for someone who works this way. My personal policy? I’m out at the first sign of this culture. I’d finish the interview – it’s still my professional reputation, after all – and then bow out of the process. But that’s me… now, over to you.

How would you respond, and what’s your line in the sand?

Know your boundaries, have a plan, and you’ll be prepared to do your best if and when you encounter the worst.

3. The Good Cop

This last one seems counter-intuitive, as most of us prefer a friendly interviewer – someone who breaks the ice, puts us at ease and makes the whole process less daunting. It helps us to relax and show our true selves.

That’s certainly why Good Cop was my default interviewing style – because I wanted to see the ‘real’ candidate, to work out if they’d be a good fit for the role, team and company. You get a lot more out of people, when you encourage them to be themselves. And therein lies the problem, for you as a candidate…

However chatty, informal and friendly your interviewer is, this is still an interview.

Many times, as an interviewer, I’ve found that when the anxiety levels drop, so too does good judgement. After psyching yourself up for a high formality interview, the contrast of an easy-going, casual manner can be truly disarming… and as you relax that little bit too much, you can end up giving away far too much. 

Remember: a friendly manner does not make us your friends, let alone confidantes.

An interview is never, ever the time to share your work-place frustrations, joke about your colleagues or blame your boss. Nor the time to waffle on, like you’re chatting to old friends. Relax, by all means… and stay professional.

However friendly your panel, this is a first date, so show your best self – at all times.

For interviews, preparation is everything…

And that includes preparing for your panel. 

Next time you’ve got an interview, take your planning that one step further. You can’t control who your panel is, or how they behave… but you can certainly control your response. The better prepared you are, the better you’ll adapt. Good luck!


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