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Employment experts on how to disagree in a job interview — without hurting your chances of getting hired

Kilito Chan

Disagreeing with a potential employer in an interview won’t always hurt your chances of landing the job, despite what you might think. Instead, experts say, it’s all about how you go about challenging an interviewer. 

The ultimate aim of any job interview is to impress a potential employer enough to get offered the role. The assumption is that you need to be “agreeable” in order to succeed, Caroline Stokes, the founder of executive headhunting and coaching company FORWARD, said in the Harvard Business Review in November. 

However, this type of “well-intended dishonesty” can lead to problems down the line, particularly if you do end up working for the company. 

Thomas Hills, a professor at the University of Warwick’s department of psychology, told CNBC that candidates should try to be themselves in interviews. 

If you do get the job, “you’re going to have to deal in principle with this person, or people like this, a lot … if you can’t communicate freely with them, you’re going to be in a job where you feel oppressed,” he said. 

That being said, Hills said the key is deciding whether the point you want to challenge is important and relevant to the job. 

“If (the interviewer is) making a point about something you don’t care about but you know that they’re wrong, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is it worth it?'” he explained. 

Framing it as a ‘healthy discussion’

Disagreeing with the interviewer needn’t be thought of as conflict, FORWARD’s Stokes pointed out. It can actually make for a more engaging interview, she argued, by framing it as “healthy discussion, debate, and problem-solving.”  

Stokes gave the example of discussing different software development methods — waterfall, which works sequentially, versus agile, where changes can be made continuously in the development process. 

As an interviewee, Stokes suggested saying something like: “It’s interesting that you’re using the waterfall method because I find agile methodology to produce faster, more accurate, and efficient end of project results.” 

Essentially, using the formula of what you’ve observed about the company, plus your own professional experience, encourages discussion rather than flat-out disagreement.  

The interviewer’s reaction to this kind of statement can be telling, Stokes added, in terms of whether they’re open to change when working together. 

Approaching the discussion with a more “cooperative” mindset by taking on board the view of the other person, can also help both the interviewer and the candidate come to new and better solutions, Hills said.

When done in the right way, this kind of conversation can be a “signifier of good character and self-belief,” Ellie Green, a jobs expert at Totaljobs, told CNBC via email. 

Ground your view in evidence 

Green stressed the importance of being able to ground your view in evidence when disagreeing with a question or statement. 

“If you don’t have the proof points to back up what you’re saying, it’s probably worth holding back instead,” she said. 

Researching the company itself and speaking to anyone you know already working in the business, to get a feel for how receptive the firm is to new ideas, can also help your approach, Stokes said. 

Taking a moment to mull over your answers, and even asking to do so, allows you to give a more “finely crafted response” and demonstrates critical thinking, Stokes added. 

Avoiding stubbornness and respecting seniority 

“As the conversation continues, remember to be open to changing or adapting your opinion as you learn more information — signs of stubbornness can be off-putting for interviewers,” Green advised.

Green also flagged that respecting the seniority and experience of the interviewer is also a key component of engaging in debate. 

This might include asking for permission to share a different viewpoint, Stokes suggested, noting this may provoke a sense of curiosity on the part of the interviewer.

“You are not forcing your opinion on them; rather, you’re inviting them to consider it,” she said.

Stokes said that deciding to challenge a potential employer involved trusting your gut and doing what you feel comfortable with, while remembering that an interview is a two-way street.

“And while the interviewers have what you want (a job) you also have what they need (skills and expertise),” she pointed out. “When you express your true opinions, you ensure that both sides know what they’re getting.”

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