what’s up with surprise phone interviews? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’ve been job searching for a few months now. I just got a call from HR at an organization I applied to a few weeks ago asking me if they had a few minutes to chat — they wanted to go through the position with me and let me know the salary so they could see if I still wanted to be considered (they said they just restructured the department so there were some updates to the position). I told them of course (this seemed positive!) but I only had 15 minutes before a meeting. They said that was fine.

Cut to: they’re asking me about my background, my current role, my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m looking for in a new role, and why I’m excited about their mission. It became a 25-minute first round interview. Luckily, I was at a computer so I could quickly google their mission (I’d applied long ago and have applied to many places since then, I almost couldn’t remember their exact mission!).

Two questions: (1) Is this normal? I’ve never had a spur-of-the-moment interview before. (2) Would there have been a polite way to ask her if we could reschedule the call? If I had known this was an interview, I would’ve rescheduled so I could’ve been more prepared, but she really made it seem like it would be just five minutes on the phone.

This is indeed a thing that sometimes happens, and it’s a terrible practice.

Employer do it because it’s convenient for them — they can just pick up the phone and call when they feel like it, without having to worry about doing the advance work of scheduling a call and sticking to appointments.

But it’s incredibly thoughtless! They could be catching you at work, or in a grocery store, or taking care of a crying child, or about to walk into a meeting. And there’s a lot of pressure on candidates to say yes when a prospective employer asks if they have a few minutes to talk (since sometimes they won’t call back if you say no), and it’s reasonable for them to believe the caller if they say it’ll just take a few minutes.

It’s also in an employer’s best interests to interview candidates who are actually expecting the interview — and have had time to look over the job description, get themselves into a quiet place where they won’t be interrupted, and so forth. It’s not to their advantage to try to interview a candidate who’s unprepared or distracted.

And this was particularly poorly executed in that they told you they wanted to give you some quick updates on the role (easy to say yes to without having prepared) when in reality they ended up interviewing you.

All that said, you absolutely can say it’s a bad time and ask to reschedule. When they first called, you could have said, “I’d love to talk with you but I’m heading into a meeting. Is there a time later today or tomorrow I could call you back?”

Or, once it became clear that this wasn’t what they’d originally said, you could have said, “Ah, I’m sorry! I hadn’t realized this was the nature of the call. I’d love to talk more with you, but I’m not somewhere where I can do that right now. Is there a time later today or tomorrow I could call you back?”

Or, since you’d told them you had 15 minutes, once it passed that mark you could have said, “I’m actually at that hard stop I mentioned — I have a meeting I need to be in. I hadn’t realized we’d need more time than that. Is there a time later today or tomorrow I could call you back?”

Full disclosure though: Some employers then won’t follow through on part two of the call. Sometimes that’s because you’ll have talked enough that they’ll have realized you’re not as strongly matched with the job as they need. Sometimes it’s because they’re disorganized and suck at sticking to scheduled calls (and don’t prioritize job candidates). Sometimes it’s because they get focused on other candidates and forget you or don’t bother to circle back. To be clear, good interviewers don’t do this — but some crappy ones do.

And of course, that fact puts even more pressure on candidates to accept surprise phone interviews.

Interviewers who do this need to stop. It’s truly in no one’s interests.

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