How Do You Interview If Your Interviewer Doesn’t Know as Much as You Do?

One of the most frustrating things you’ll come up against in the whole enigmatic job interview process is sometimes the person conducting your very first interview – or in a larger company maybe even your first two interviews – does not know all that much (if anything) about what it takes to do the actual job you’re applying for.

That’s right…in order to get to the later rounds that count and can maybe change your whole life, you need to make it through the initial defense set up to weed out the least likely candidates. But…and this is a big but…early round interviewers are all-too-often only somewhat familiar with the job requirements and may not be experts in the field you’re interviewing for – even if you are.

So who are these early round interviewers?

I recently published Who the Heck is Screening Your Resume? which explains that often the very folks who screen your resume are either not all that familiar with the job you’re applying for or not all that skilled at screening in general.

But sad to say, this lack of competence is not limited to the screening part of the hiring process.  People asked to hold the all-important job of being your initial interviewer – the person perhaps who holds the key to the rest of your career (or so it feels) –  may also be less than skilled at figuring out if you’re right for the job. Not that they aren’t trying their best – in most cases I believe they are – but…

Who might be conducting your hard-won first interview?

  • Recruiters (deciding if the employer even gets to see you)
  • Employment agencies (ditto)
  • HR – new
  • HR – experienced
  • HR – tired
  • HR – angry
  • HR – hungry
  • HR – just got dumped by boyfriend
  • HR – grumpy
  • HR – sneezy
  • HR – sleepy
  • HR – bashful
  • HR – happy (a rare breed)
  • Manager – brand new to interviewing
  • Manager – experienced interviewer and good at it
  • Manager – experienced interviewer and really bad at
  • Manager – trying not to look stupid with his or her boss
  • Just anyone in the department who gets picked
  • Professional freelance interviewers
  • Professional consultants working on something else & asked to help interview
  • Owner of company
  • Relative of owner of company asked to help out
  • Wife of owner who is mad at him and wants to get even
  • Administrative help who sort of has heard about interviewing
  • Administrative help who just got a new job and could care less
  • Administrative help who is an actor and loves playing professional interviewer
  • Person who used to do the job and will still work there in a new role
  • Person who used to do the job and can’t wait to leave

Yes…the list is similar to the one for those screening your resumes.  That’s because…

Anyone can be the first person interviewing you!

Just to give you a peek at the process through my own eyes…at various stages of my career I’ve conducted early-stage interviews as well as final round interviews. In some cases I knew a good deal about the job itself; in other cases  I was told the requirements, but I didn’t have the background to fully understand all the technical aspects. But regardless of how much I knew or didn’t know, no one got beyond me unless I passed them on to the next round. (Or they knew someone with power in the company.) This is not uncommon, especially in larger organizations.

So if you tried to tell me how much you know about programming in javascript for instance, and the technically brilliant answers you were giving me weren’t on my cheat sheet, I might not have been quite as impressed as you were hoping I’d be. And the truth is…I wasn’t really looking for those kinds of things at that point anyway.

I knew down the line you’d be grilled by some of our top technical folks, so my job was to make sure you at least seemed to have the required tech skills but…more importantly, I was trying to get a feel for who you are as a person and what you’d be like to work with. Are you resourceful? Are you pleasant? Do you listen well? Are you someone people can work with easily? Are you someone they can rely on? Can you spot problems before they happen?  Are you a self-starter? Can you also respect authority? etc. etc. etc.

This might be useful to know if you are spending too much of your interview energy early on trying to wow people with your technical dexterity. While they are indeed screening you for skills, you may be missing a chance to show them you’d also be a great person to work with.

We don’t always get what we want. But if we try sometimes…

Still, as hard as I tried, I’m sure I missed some good ones. I only had my experience, my cheat sheet, and gut instinct to go on. No crystal ball with all the answers. And, although over the years I have found some great candidates who didn’t have every skill listed and would have been otherwise overlooked, I also passed along a few candidates who were not best-suited for the job. I especially remember one we all missed the cues on since we hired her. A painful experience for everyone – including the new hire who was sadly oblivious to all the coaching we gae her as we desperately tried to make it work. We did NOT want to go through another round of interviews!

Just so you know…not only are interviews often painful for the interview candidate, they can be extremely grueling for a company just trying to best fill a much-needed position – sometimes one they fought hard to get approval for.  So no matter how it seems, most interviewers (especially the ones you’d be working with) are trying as hard they can to get it right.

I guess that’s part of the story too…as hard as we try and even if the interviewers know the job requirements inside and out, no one knows for sure who will be right for the job. Even if we pass you up, that doesn’t mean we were right and you weren’t. But the hiring process is what it is, and so all you as a job candidate can do is give it your best. Every time. No matter what we seem like.

So should I adjust my interview skills to the person interviewing me?

In general, it’s good to be aware of the person interviewing you and let them set the tone and pace of the interview for the most part. If they seem a little formal and serious, it’s probably not the place for a thigh-slapping joke complete with actual thigh slapping. (Probably best avoided in any case.)  And if they seem fun-loving and extremely animated, let yourself relax into that general tone and pace…just stay aware that it’s still an interview and, whatever you do, don’t try to outdo them!

But since this is about folks in the interview chair who may not be the best judge of whether you can do the job or not, there are some things to keep in mind during the early stages of the interview process:

  • Don’t think about how much the interviewer knows or doesn’t know. It will show. It also means you aren’t in the moment – and more importantly you aren’t listening with full respect. Since interviewers who may not be experts – or who may think they are experts and still not be able to bat 1000 – are mostly looking for people whom they think will be a great fit, your best bet is to just be yourself – and to not judge what the person knows or doesn’t know.  What they’re looking for at this point is often not quantifiable. Certainly don’t show any frustration with what they don’t know.
  • Don’t try to show off. Even if you can run rings around the knowledge of your interviewer, you are still dealing with human beings and need to apply your best relationship skills. (This holds true after the interview too.) Once again just listen, answer as you would a valued colleague, and show respect.
  • Don’t try to be too awww shucks and self-effacing. You’re trying to get the job. Don’t be overly modest or hold back on telling a good story that shows how well you handled things in the past. Stories like these are key to a good interview. Of course, don’t be full of yourself either; you have to be someone they’d enjoy working with day after day.  Answer interview questions as well and as honestly as you can – while keeping the spin positive  even if it’s about something like your biggest weakness.
  • And most of all, let them see the real you. That’s the one they’ll be working with and that’s the person they really want to see.  Sometimes I’ve seen people put on their more formal, less-prone-to-err “interview persona” and they lose the best part of who they are. Check yourself out on video doing a practice interview if you aren’t sure. Bottom line…you want to connect with the person on the other side of the interview desk.

Good luck!

~ Ronnie Ann

Some interview posts that might help:

000Job Interviews: Where Do You See Yourself Five Years From Now?

How To Tell If a Job Interview Went Well

Job Interviews: What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

Job Interviews: What’s Your Greatest Strength?

Help! I Get Nervous When I Interview for a Job

18 Practical Tips to Help You Ace that Interview

The Single Most Important Thing in Any Job Interview

15 Things I Look for When I Interview People

After the Job Interview: Why Haven’t They Called Me Yet?

10 Impressions You Leave Behind After a Job Interview

After an Interview: Can Weekly Follow-up Calls and Emails Help Get You the Job?

12 Ways to Stay Sane After a Job Interview


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Great advice….I have been there – on both sides! I particularly liked the balance…be yourself, don’t show off AND don’t be too self-effacing.

  2. Thank you DebExo! Nicely summarized. And thanks for the lovely retweet. 😉

    I wish you all the best in your career and elsewhere!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  3. SO true! I, too, have been on both sides of the desk. In reading your post, R-A, I was reminded that the process is not unlike that for actors, who must audition for roles and of course it seems easier to see in that scenario that everything depends on how the two click. We have to take responsibility and be prepared, show up on time, etc. but some of it is just simply out of our hands.

  4. Thanks Shelley! Having gone on auditions myself at a younger age, I totally get the comparison. Even the most brilliant actor, if the chemistry isn’t there, won’t get the role. And job interviews are just like that. Please feel free to drop by and add your voice any time. No audition needed! 😉

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  5. Help! I just landed a 2nd interview with a company. My first interview was a panel of 3 and I sent thank you cards to every person. After my 2nd interview do I repeat the process even if they are the same people? What if they are different people? Do I send Cards or Letters this time? Suggestions Needed PLEASE.

  6. Hi Megan!

    Congratulations both on the second interview and on remembering to send a note to each person. Nice going.

    There are no there are hard and fast rules here since every company and industry is different – plus every person has his or her own way of looking at these things. I’ve certainly hired folks who never sent a note at all. But despite that, it’s a smart thing to do just in case and also because it says something about who you are that resonates well into the start of the job should you get the offer.

    So by all means…send a second round of thank yous – either card or letter. Maybe this time a brief letter – esp. if some of the folks are the same – would do nicely. But whatever you think is best is the right answer since you’ve done so well already.

    I wish you the best of luck, Meghan! PLEASE let us know what happens. We’re all rooting for you – but fear not…thank you notes to each and every reader will not be necessary. 😉

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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