This article really should be kept in a bottle labelled “Break Glass Only in the Event of a Crisis,” because the reality is that no interviewee should make such a basic error. When it comes to interviews, you are not trying to meet up with someone at some obscure coordinates in the middle of the Sahara: you are meeting up in a fully mapped out and perfectly navigable urban area.
This doesn’t mean that arriving late to an interview doesn’t happen. It can, and it does. Things can conspire against you, and before you know it, you are huffing, puffing, sweating, and running into the reception area. On the rare chance that you find yourself in this crisis situation, remember this article to help you limit the damage.
If it becomes clear that you are running late for your interview, the best defense is to give advance warning by phoning while you are en route to your destination. This serves several positive functions. It shows that you are conscientious, aware of the problem, and attempting to manage it. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but attempting to communicate will reflect favorably on you – and it is the least you can do.
And who knows: if you are lucky, the interviewer may themselves be running late. Your lateness might provide them with some much needed respite and come as a welcome relief. They may also empathize with you to some degree. All of this can help to neutralize the negative effects of your lateness. Of course, this only works if you phone ahead and give the interviewer an accurate ETA, so they know how much time they have to play with.
Upon meeting the interviewer, offer a firm handshake with eye contact and apologize immediately and unreservedly for your lack of punctuality. Avoid making excuses, as doing so can detract from the apology and make it look like you are trying to blame something/someone else. Instead, you must simply accept responsibility for your failing.
Pause for a second so the apology can sink in, and then outline the lesson that you have learned to show the interviewer that this is a one-time event. For example, you might say, “If I get a job here, I will leave 30 minutes earlier to avoid the traffic at X junction, as the traffic is worse than I had thought at this time.” Don’t expect a pat on the back or a laudatory serenade. This is damage control, not an act of courage. Still, it’s the least you can do. You might want to inquire as to whether there is anything you can do to help make up for any lost time, but leave it there.
Don’t dwell on your lateness. Try to make the interviewer forget it by getting them to quickly focus on your positive characteristics. For example, hand them a copy of your resume or some positive references, express your satisfaction at having completed a successful project at work, or congratulate the interviewer on a new contract their business has won.
As soon as you hit the interview room, move quickly. Get your resume out, visibly switch your phone off, and get yourself seated and ready. Give clear signals that show you are ready to begin. Bonus points if you can set yourself up and get ready to go before your interviewer(s) can. This will show that you can be efficient, which can help to neutralize the sense of tardiness that surrounds you without drawing direct attention to it. The sooner you can get into the interview and start showing your worth, the sooner the tardiness will be forgotten or forgiven.
If the interviewer does bring up the issue of lateness again, you should say that this is a one-off and that you can supply references from previous bosses testifying to your punctuality.
The keys to dealing with lateness are to accept responsibility, to show the lessons you have learned so that it won’t happen again, and to demonstrate efficiency during the interview. This won’t win you any awards, but if you are lucky, you might just get your interviewer to forget about your lateness, which is the best you can hope for.