What can you do when you’re late for a job interview?

Nov 17, 2021

4 mins

What can you do when you’re late for a job interview?

You’ve been waiting for this job interview for weeks. You’ve spent hours preparing for it. Everything has been going perfectly –– until now. Just when the prize is within reach, you find yourself stuck in traffic. Your heart sinks. You know you’re going to be late and your chances of getting this job are quickly melting away. But does that mean it’s time to give up? No, it’s not over just yet.

Showing up late for a job interview is one way to irritate the recruiter, but that doesn’t mean it’s game over for you. You’re just starting off with fewer points. First impressions are still important. Not all recruiters see late arrivals the same way. Marie Jambu-Merlin is a recruitment expert and HR consultant. She’s also part of the Solinki network of freelancers. Here she shares some advice to help you keep your head high, even when you’re feeling down.

1. Let the recruiter know as soon as possible

Whether the interview is in person or over a video call, you need to let them know what has happened as soon as you can. “Is it dawning on you that it looks like you’re going to be late? Let the recruiter know as soon as possible,” says Jambu-Merlin. They might already be waiting for you, so don’t waste any more of their time. The second you know you won’t be on time, make contact. Give them a call or, if you don’t have their number, send them an email to tell them you’ll be late.

Don’t downplay how late you’ll be, as some people have a bad habit of doing. Saying “I’ll be there in five minutes” when you know well that it’s going to take you another 15 will only make it worse. “Be as precise as possible about when you think you may get there,” she says. Show how serious you are. There is a big difference between five, 15, or 30 minutes late. The recruiter probably has a schedule that’s been planned down to the minute and will want to work on something else while they wait for you.

2. Apologize, plainly

You’re late and it’s cutting into the recruiter’s time, and maybe that of other team members as well. Show them that you’re sorry and make a straightforward apology to everyone concerned. Do this when you call or message to let them know you’re running late. Then do it again when you get there. It’s best to keep it simple. Just say, “I’m sorry” or “I would like to apologize for being late.” Being able to recognize when you’re in the wrong is a good quality.

3. Be honest and take responsibility for it

Even if, yes, you should have left earlier, it’s still a good idea to explain why you’re late. Had you just not planned enough time for the trip? Did you get stuck in traffic or on public transport? Did you get lost trying to get there? Did your computer start an hour-long update right when you were getting online for the interview? Just be upfront about it.

“I prefer a candidate who’s honest over one who thinks I’m a dummy,” says Jambu-Merlin, with a smile. Trying to justify your lateness or blaming it on something else might even work against you. Don’t blame unreliable trains, busy highways, technology, sick kids, or a spotty internet connection if that’s not the real reason. You’ll just lose credibility.

Jambu-Merlin used to live in a large city and she knows the issues with public transport all too well. “Saying you had a problem with the subway is fine. But you should also have known better and left earlier. Most delays rarely last longer than five or ten minutes. Admitting a lack of foresight shows a certain level of self-awareness,” she says.

4. Get it together before getting there

“Even if you’ve just been under real pressure, you can’t show up out of sorts, out of breath, and with your hair all over the place,” says Jambu-Merlin with a smile. Don’t let stress get the better of you, you still have to perform at the interview. “Take the time to breathe and pull yourself together before letting them know you have arrived,” she says. Jambu-Merlin likes to have a glass of water and stop by the restroom to freshen up before an interview. “You have to get yourself back into professional mode,” she says.

5. Be attentive and understanding

If the recruiter has other interviews after yours, or if a manager has to take off for another meeting, your running late could affect their schedule. “Once you’ve apologized, you need to quickly and fully invest in the interview, which is the reason you’re all there,” says Jambu-Merlin. While running late could work against you, the recruiters will evaluate your candidacy in its entirety, meaning that the rest of the interview is going to really count, she adds.

Once you get there, be aware of any possible constraints around timing and adapt what you plan to say. If time is tight, remember to keep your introduction and answers to their questions brief. The same applies if the interview takes place at the end of the day. The recruiter might not want to spend their evening at the office. If they decide to reschedule the interview, be flexible about it. After all, it’s up to you to accommodate them: the recruiter is going to have to make time for you a second time around.

6. Don’t overdo it

Showing that you are sorry and apologizing is just polite. But don’t overdo it. There’s no reason to beat yourself up over it. You might just make a negative impression. Can you see the difference between showing humility and putting yourself down? The nuance is important. If the interview goes well, it is better to end on a positive note than to remind them that you were late. Instead, you can thank them for their time and flexibility, for example.

“Running late can happen to anyone. It’s not automatically a ‘fail’. If the candidate is really great, if they’ve got the right skills, they’re a good fit, they’re motivated, and they’re available soon –– and on time –– for another interview, it would be a shame to miss out,” says Jambu-Merlin. That future interview could be your chance to prove to the recruiter that you can be on time and that this was just a one-off. The best way to do this is by quickly responding to their emails and being on time for any other interviews.

Even if it seems like you got off to a bad start, being late for your interview is no reason to give up on getting the job. Giving 100% in the interview and following through with the process in spite of this initial hiccup could prove to the recruiter how motivated you are. And you’ll definitely leave earlier next time, right?

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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