Over the last 10+ years I have been the interviewee over 100 times and the interviewer even more. Throughout that time I have found that there are four types of interviewers. All of the people that I have been interviewed by and all of the people I have conducted interviews with in tandem can be broken down into just four categories. I don’t care if they are short, fat, tall, black, white, blue, or an alien from outer space, they all fit into one of these buckets.

My purpose for breaking it down for you in this way is to simplify things a bit. If you know the categories you will come across in your interviews you can adequately prepare for them. The more prepared you are, the better you will perform at crunch time.

Below I will lay out the categories, provide a description of the interviewer, and then provide a strategic plan for how to handle them.

There are two keys to using this information to your advantage:

  1. You need to be able to read people somewhat. Within 5 minutes of your interview you should be able to identify which of the four categories your interviewer falls into. This is important because it will dictate your strategy for the rest of the interview.
  2. You need to be a chameleon. Each interviewer is different which means your approach to each needs to be different. They are each looking for something different in an interviewee so you need to be able to adjust accordingly to the type you are interviewing with. One person may be looking for someone to make small talk with while another may hate small talk. You need to read your audience and adjust your strategy appropriately.

Note: I am going to write using the male persona (i.e. him, he, guy, etc.) only so that I don’t have to say guy/girl or him/her every time. Of course you will run across males and females in each of these categories. 

The Friend

Description: This guy is the best interviewer you can hope for. This is the guy that doesn’t seem to care about the interview process whatsoever. He just wants to be your friend. He doesn’t care about your experience and he certainly doesn’t want to kill the fun vibe by asking you difficult questions. He’s more interested in your personality because he wants to know if he can work with you for 10 hours a day and then grab a beer with you. He will ask you about your hobbies, sports teams you like, your family, etc. If he does ask you about a past role he is more interested in hearing what the experience was like as opposed to what you did and what you accomplished. This person is usually either higher up and relies on the more junior folks to ask the tough questions or he genuinely trusts that since you made it this far in the process you must not be an idiot and so he just wants to make sure you’re a good person to work with.

Strategic Approach: If you have a personality, this guy is the easiest to deal with. This is where you let your hair down and have fun. Be yourself. Feel free to laugh, and joke, and talk about your life outside of work. If he wants to know if you are a cool person to work with you need to show him you are cool! You need to show him you are the person that if he met you at a party he would say, “This guy is great, I want to hang out with them.” Don’t act like an immature idiot but be loose. You don’t have to tell him you spend your weekends shotgunning beers with your buddies but feel free to let him know you enjoy going to Wrigley and having a few cold beers while you watch a baseball game. You’re a professional interviewing for a job but you’re also a human being. This guy doesn’t want to meet the professional, he wants to meet the human being.

The Jerk

Description: Like the guy at your fraternity house that seemed to live for initiating freshmen and paddling people, there’s always a jerk. This guy is like Ben Affleck’s character O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused. Everyone hates him but he thinks he’s awesome and wants to establish his dominance over you. He’s going to act like he doesn’t care about the interview, like he has much more important things to do. But make no mistake, this guy has been looking forward to this all week. This is his stage. This is where he gets to play the “big shot”. He is going to tell you how awesome he is and how only the best work there. He will dismiss your experience as worthless, not really giving you a chance to speak much. When you do finally get the chance to speak he won’t be listening much anyway. He may even check his phone when you’re talking just to show you he really doesn’t give a crap about you. He will ask questions that are derogatory and make you feel like an idiot, such as “Why would you ever do that?” He’ll make statements like, “That doesn’t make much sense, but whatever.” All in all, this guy flat out sucks.

Strategic Approach: This guy is a tough one and there isn’t a silver bullet approach to him. The best thing you can do is to let him have his stage and don’t fight him. He’s a bully which means he’s not looking for a fight, he just wants to walk out of that room feeling like he is superior. So let him. But you also have to let him know you are not a pushover. So you need to hold your ground but not resist him to the point that you piss him off or make him feel stupid. This is a very fine line. A perfect example would be if you left a job before you had another job lined up and he said something like, “That seems foolish. Why on earth would you ever do that?” He doesn’t want you to contradict him completely by saying something like, “I disagree. At the time it was the best move for me and I stand by my decision.” He wants you to agree with him, but you can do so in a way that still leaves you with a backbone. A good response would be, “I agree, it was a bit foolish. I was young and a little naïve. But it did allow me the time to really think about what I wanted to do next which allowed me to land my next job at Acme Company where I performed exceptionally well. So I agree that it wasn’t the best choice, but I was able to grind my way out of it and turn it into something successful.” By approaching it that way you allow him to have his small victory but also let him know that you won’t completely roll over and play dead. It’s a balance with this guy. Give him his stage, but let him know you are not some chump.

The All-Business Type

Description: This guy doesn’t want to chit chat and he doesn’t want to have a beer with you, at least not anytime soon. He may soften up once you begin to actually work with him but during the interview process he’s not interested in getting to know you. He views himself as very busy and considers socializing with people he may never see again as a waste of time. He will come into the interview and get down to business right away. Unlike “The Jerk” he probably read your resume before he walked in the door and has specific questions that he wants to ask. He is going to grill you and test you, walking through the details of your resume. He will push you and challenge you but it isn’t to be a jerk, he legitimately wants to know how you handle pressure. He will ask you the tough questions. If there is a gap on your resume or something that stands out as a red flag, expect that he will find it and drill you on it. His goal is to know if you can handle the job and add value. He wants to know that you won’t crack and give up when things get stressful. Like a bulldog, he is going to come right at you the entire time and at the end you are going to feel a little beat up.

Strategic Approach: This guy is all business which means you have to be all business. Don’t waste time trying to joke with this guy or make small talk. He isn’t interested in that. He will take charge of the interview so follow his lead and move at his speed, which will most likely be fast and efficient. He will ask direct questions and he wants direct answers. These type of people hate “salesy”, roundabout answers that dance around the real answer. He wants the information and will quickly see through it if you try to BS him. Be truthful and don’t try to fool him. For example, if there is a clear gap on your resume where you were out of work for 6 months just tell him the true circumstances. If you were fired don’t try to tell him that you left to find yourself and swim with dolphins in Thailand. Tell him that you were fired, why you were fired, and what you have done to resolve the weaknesses that got you fired. He likes facts so be sure to use real-life examples and metrics that prove your performance. When it comes time to ask him questions make sure to ask well thought out, challenging questions. Don’t give him softballs such as, “What do you think makes a successful employee here?” You need to show him that you studied his business by asking questions that reflect that. For example, you can ask, “I read that the company is looking to expand into China. What challenges do you foresee with that expansion, especially considering the slowing economy in China as well as the more complicated political landscape?” Be laser focused and on your “A” game and you will be fine.

The Guy Who Read “How to Interview People” in a Book

Description: If you were to Google “Best questions to ask in an interview” the results would return a lot of generic questions that have been asked a million times over. This guy is the human version of that Google search. In fact, there is a good chance he downloaded those results before walking into your interview. Typically this guy hasn’t interviewed many people before or he just doesn’t have many original thoughts. He’s book smart, not street smart. He will ask textbook interview questions such as “Tell me 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses” or “How would your colleagues describe you?” To make himself feel really smart and like he’s an out-of-the-box thinker, he may pull questions from newer articles about interviewing and ask a question that some Silicon Valley genius mentioned such as “If you were an animal what animal would you be?” He will be so excited with himself for asking such a unique question, never mind the fact that he swiped it from someone else. He will most likely spend some time walking through your resume but don’t expect too many deep diving, challenging questions. He is walking through your resume simply because he read somewhere that when interviewing someone you should say, “Walk me through your resume.” At the end of the day this guy is more focused on how he performed during the interview than how you performed. Let’s be honest, this guy is either an idiot or a fresh fish.

Strategic Approach: Despite the fact that this guy is either not the brightest or is new to the interview game, you still need to be on your game. You never want to slack in your approach, no matter the person on the other side of the table. If he wants to play the generic interview game then play right along with him. If you’ve done your homework these guys are easy to handle. You should know the majority of generic interview questions and prepare for them because even one of the other personalities can toss one in from time to time. Make sure to research “Most commonly asked interview questions” and have answers to each. Just as this guy downloaded the questions to ask he probably also downloaded something about the best answers to these questions. Know your answers cold and also be prepared to answer some of the newer questions that may pop up. You can find all of these by doing simple Google searches such as “Best interview questions to ask”, “Unique interview questions to ask”, or similar queries. This guy lacks confidence in himself so be confident in your answers so that he sees your strength and also feels good about himself for asking “good” questions. The overall goal here is to make this guy feel good about himself. You can do so by knowing your story and answers, answering confidently, and every so often saying something like “That’s a great question” or “I’ve never heard that one before, that’s a great interview question.” He’ll love it. At the end of the interview tell him that you enjoyed the conversation and that you would like to use some of those questions in your own interviews in the future. He’ll be eating right out of your hand by the end.