I cried in an interview — and later accepted the job

A reader writes:

First, I just want to say that I love Ask a Manager! I’m in the process of transitioning to a new job, and your advice has been invaluable. I managed to negotiate a signing bonus at my new job, and I turned down my current job’s counter-offer while still maintaining good terms with my current employer, so I count both of those as wins!

My interview at my new company ended on a very awkward note. I’m a tech professional, so I had a series of interviews with the team I would be working with and my prospective boss, “Jane.” Everything was going well until my final interview, which was with the VP of R&D (Jane’s boss). He apparently did not like my style, because he said that I was coming across as “obnoxious,” that the worst thing to do in job interviews was to annoy the interviewer, and that he was “just telling me this because [I am] early in my career.” (I’m a couple years out of college and in an intermediate level technical position; he has 10-15 more years of experience than I do.) I was horrified and started to cry — I’ve never been more embarrassed — and was flustered and could barely think for the rest of the interview. As he was showing me out of the building, he said, “This is why we have you meet with several people. If Jane really likes you, you could still get the job.”

Jane called me as I was walking back to my car, saying that the team loved me, the VP was apologetic, and they hoped I would still take the job. To make a long story short, I accepted the offer, and I will be starting in my new position in a few weeks.

Do you have any tips on dealing with the VP once I start? While I think he was out of line, I’d like to be on good terms with him in order to do what’s best for my career (and now that I know what to expect, I can take a bit of unwanted career advice if putting up with it will help me advance). I talked to a friend who does HR consulting, and she suggested that I go ask him what behaviors particularly bothered him in the interview in order to show him that I took his feedback seriously and I was committed to improving. The thing is, I know what caused him to say that: I argued with him about whether my answer to a technical question was correct. So I’m stumped — should I go ask him what he would recommend doing in that situation instead? Should I talk to him about something else? Should I just leave him alone unless he approaches me? As a manager, what would give you the best impression of a new employee under these circumstances?

I think you have two options:

1. Ignore it. Pretend it never happened, and start your relationship with him fresh. Show him that you’re professional and can take feedback just by … being professional and taking feedback well.

2. Stop by his office sometime soon after you start and say something like, “Hey, thanks so much for being candid with me in my interview — I’m sorry I didn’t show it at the time, but I appreciated it.” Don’t say this as the lead-in to a big conversation about it; this is the conversation in its entirety. Say it, wait for his response, be gracious, done, move on. However, you should only do this if you can pull off the right tone: cheerful and upbeat, not embarrassed, upset, or emotional. If there’s any risk you’ll flub the tone in the moment — or that you’ll lose that tone if his response takes you by surprise in any way — then I wouldn’t use this option.

I don’t really like your friend’s suggestion of having a big conversation with him about it — you already know what bothered him (you argued with him over a technical question), and I don’t think you get much out of asking what he would have rather you done instead. In fact, asking that risks seeming either a bit obsequious or a bit dense (since he’s likely to think he made it clear what you should have done instead). I’d stick with #1 or #2 above.

By the way, as for his overall point, it’s worth thinking independently about whether it was a valid one or not. It might mean nothing more than “this particular guy doesn’t like the way you responded when you saw a technical question differently,” and his preferences might not have much value for how you approach similar situations with other people. On the other hand, though, it’s also possible that he was giving you valuable feedback that would be useful when you’re dealing with other people too. I don’t know exactly what you said in the interview or how you said it, but in general there’s an art to pushing back diplomatically, and it might be worth looking at how you do that in situations more generally. (At the same time, though, do keep in mind the possibility that his reaction was more about him than about you, and don’t over-correct if that’s the case. In fact, you might even want to talk to your new boss about what happened at some point, and tell her that you’d love her guidance about how to handle those situations well. You might hear, “Oh, that’s just Bob, he’s a jerk,” or you might hear that there are things you could benefit by doing differently. It’s worth asking at some point.)

In any case, I wouldn’t worry about this too much. You got the job, and you even negotiated a signing bonus. Those are both good things, and signs that no one was terribly troubled by what happened in the interview. Congratulations on the new job, and good luck!

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