November 14, 2013

How to Run a Hostile Interview [Part I]

What do you do if you find yourself in a job interview as hostile as this CBC interview with an eighth-grader kid activist?

Answer: Learn from that kid.

Although that was a media interview, it revealed traps, abuses and counter-moves that have precise parallels in and lessons for hostile job interviews—to be explored, analyzed and applied in detail below and in Part II, as preventive or retaliatory steps against being forced to run a punishing gantlet run by a hostile interviewer.

Picking on the Wrong Kid 

Appalled. That sums up my reaction to the July 31, 2013 CBC “Lang & O’Leary Exchange”. It was, for much of it, a heavy-handed and clearly illogical line of assault one would expect in a bullhorn confrontation rather than in a mass-media TV interview format.

The travesty, during that broadcast, was inflicted upon a fresh-faced, articulate 14-year-old Canadian middle-school activist and founder of the environmentalist organization Kids Right to Know, Rachel Parent, mostly by much older, co-host, entrepreneur/investor Kevin O’Leary.

The issue discussed and Rachel’s cause: GMO labeling and independent testing, which she wants to be overseen by something or someone other than the companies profiting from their own GMO sales.  

Rachel had challenged him to a live on-air exchange after O’Leary had called opponents of GMOs “stupid” and suggested that they stop eating—which would rid the world of them, not the GMOs.

O’Leary accepted—perhaps seriously underestimating or preparing for the challenge he was taking on. As soon as the exchange began, he appeared to relentlessly seek victory rather than truth, offering, on his part, neither a fair-minded interview nor cogent and honest debate.

To her credit and despite a lapse or two of her own, his co-host, Amanda Lang,  attempted to rein him in for repeatedly asking whether and thereby insinuating that Rachel is a “shill”.

A Guide to and through Hostile Interviews

I struggled to imagine a job interview conducted that way, by an unimaginably dense or hostile HR interviewer with a private agenda or limited capacity for logical thought. Allowing for that possibility, I now offer an “immunization” program for interviewees and interviewers alike—especially those who may find themselves in an interview that quickly deteriorates into a set and sequence of traps and non sequiturs.

My aim here is to help minimize the likelihood of interviewing or being interviewed so outlandishly, so unfairly and so obtusely, and, in particular, to offer preparation and counter-attacks for such a sloppy and hostile encounter.

To make the following points as clearly and forcefully as possible, I have juxtaposed excerpts from the original interview with their equally fallacious counterparts in a hypothetical and hopefully rare, comparably pathetic interviewer performance.

These are the tactics employed in that televised interview to be vigilant about:

1.  Ad hominem attacks and insinuations: As soon as his co-host, business correspondent Amanda Lang, concluded her balanced and fair initial questions, O’Leary wasted no time before pouncing on Rachel with, “Do you think you are a lobbyist for groups against GMOs?”—later followed up with, “What I am concerned about, and exploring with you, is whether you have become a shill for a group that wants to use you…”, an ad hominem line of questioning tendentiously and needlessly repeated, despite Rachel’s prior clear, consistent and convincing response to the “lobbyist” question. Sensitive to its inappropriateness, Lang felt compelled to retract the “shill” insinuation at the end of the interview.

Interestingly, both “lobbyist” and “shill” conveniently have negative and neutral overtones, ranging from “enthusiastic supporter” to “paid confederate and accomplice”. Hence, the ad hominem [against the man, rather than the belief or evidence] dimension of the question could ambiguously be masked by the alternative, more neutral connotations of the terms “shill” and “lobbyist”.

O’Leary attempted to get away with another ad hominem, when he patronizingly suggested to Rachel that with age comes wisdom and that it is to be hoped that eventually she will wise up—despite an abundance of evidence that “older and wiser” does not describe everybody, including not all TV hosts.    

Job interview counterpart: “There is no glass ceiling here for women. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s something only a woman is likely to claim to see and protest?” This exactly parallels the “shill” and “lobbyist” ambiguous questions: On the one hand, there is the ad hominem fallacious insinuation that [delusional] allegations of the existence of a glass ceiling can be dismissed because of women’s vested interests in benefits to be won by complaining about them. But then, there’s the more neutral implication that, as those most affected by glass ceilings, women will most logically and naturally be the ones to notice [and complain].                                       

On top of that, “There is no glass ceiling here for women” is ambiguous as between an affirmation of an egalitarian in-house policy and an insinuation that glass ceilings are figments of fevered female imaginations. The phrasing allows insinuating the latter by ostensibly affirming the former.

2. Argumentum ad populum:  Apparently oblivious to the logical irrelevance, if not absurdity, of these following questions, O’Leary asked, “Is this something [GMOs] that you think everybody thinks is bad?”; “Do you make the assumption, right out of the gate, that all kids believe that this is a bad thing…to experiment with foods to make them better or worse?”The question is logically irrelevant to the merit of Rachel’s claims and concerns, the truth of which is not determined by their [un]popularity, much as the flatness of the Earth, demonstrated by scientific method, was not proved or disproved by a mass show of hands or thumbs [up].

To attempt, as O’Leary seems to have, to discredit a position by an appeal to what most people think or believe is to commit the fallacy of “argumentum ad populum”—“argument to the people”, as though truth is decided more by mob thumbs up or down than by evidence. The fact is that even if everybody once believed the earth is flat, that “referendum” never proved it.                 

Of course, the obviously correct answer to O’Leary’s “everybody” and “all” questions is “no”—not everybody thinks or believes the propositions he presented, because the odds always crush the likelihood that every one of us on the planet believes any given proposition.

Accordingly, Rachel and the questions should not have been asked, since a “yes” response would have been foolish or unnecessary, and because a “no” response to these would prove nothing, except the obvious truth that at least one person on the planet doesn’t think or believe those propositions are true—including those who have never thought about them at all.

A “yes” to the kids’ question would also have been logically unnecessary, since all logical kids [yes, there are some] would believe that experimentation to make foods better or worse is a bad thing, inasmuch as it allows worse.

That line of questioning was a trap that 14-year-old Rachel skillfully and authentically eluded by turning the tables and declaring, “No, not necessarily…but I believe everyone has the right to know what is in their food.” Nice. Very nice.             

Job interview counterpart: “Do you think everybody agrees with you, that you should have the right to work from home?” Same trap: If the candidate replies, “yes”, [s]he will look utterly foolish, since the claim that everybody agrees is both improbable and, in the absence of a global survey, unprovable; if “no”, the interviewer will fallaciously seize on it as disproof of any claim to a right to telework, or, as a minimum, as grounds to not accept it.

If that line of questioning ever intrudes into an interview, the “Rachel reversal” can be an effective counter-ploy, e.g., “No, but I do believe everyone has a right to telework where operations allow and benefit from it.”

[Continued, in Part II]

Read more in Interview

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).