What’s even more stressful than a job interview? Not being able to make it to one.

If you are actively searching for a new job, you already know how much effort goes into lining up an actual interview. Optimizing your resume for the ATS, fretting over keywords, making it through the initial phone screening, coordinating the time for the first in-person meeting — all that hard work can evaporate if you're unable to attend the actual interview.

As a result, professionals worry. Is their reason for canceling or rescheduling an interview valid enough to be met with understanding, not annoyance? When should they make the call, and what's the best way to cancel an interview without burning bridges? Here's our advice.

Unacceptable reasons to cancel an interview

The best place to start is by defining a few unacceptable reasons to cancel an interview. Some of these may seem like a stretch, but experienced hiring managers, HR professionals, and recruiters have seen all of these and more — and do not look upon them kindly.

  • Feeling too nervous

  • Wanting an extra few days to prepare for the interview

  • Being hungover from the night before

  • Having a bad hair day

  • Having finally scored a hot lunch date during the same time as the interview

  • A scheduling conflict with another interview

Some of these explanations may look perfectly reasonable from the candidate's perspective. After all, doesn't everyone want to come into the interview well-prepared, rested, and looking his or her best?

Of course, that would be ideal. However, the timing of interview prep, rest, and other interviews is well within the candidate's control. So, do your part. Manage your circumstances and respect your prospective employer's time. If you still find yourself falling back on these reasons to call in a cancellation, don't be surprised if the opportunity disappears before your eyes.

Acceptable reasons to cancel or reschedule an interview

No one likes a last-minute schedule change, and employers certainly prefer for all interviews to proceed as planned. However, HR specialists and hiring managers are human. They know that no one is immune from a true emergency. As long as the candidate handles the communication gracefully, there is a good chance that a rescheduling request will simply delay the meeting without destroying your candidacy.

What are some of the “good” reasons to cancel an interview or request it to be rescheduled?

  • Serious sickness. Your own sickness is pretty straightforward. After all, no one is on their best game when they have a fever! If your child is sick and you must take care of him or her, the situation is a bit trickier. On the human side, most employers understand that being a parent requires you to take care of your family. On the human resource side, an employer would not be able to ask you about your family status or children in an interview. By volunteering this information, you are walking into a potential grey zone.

  • An accident on your way to the interview (or one a few days prior that has you unable to attend the interview due to injury).

  • Major inclement weather predicted for the day of the interview, or a storm that has substantially disrupted your ability to come in.

  • New information. In a perfect world, every candidate would have full information about the prospective employer prior to applying for a position. In reality, many professionals do their research concurrently with the application. Perhaps you drove by the office and would feel unsafe working in that part of town. Maybe the company has no website, no LinkedIn presence, or bad reviews online. Or maybe you have a bad feeling after multiple last-minute rescheduling requests from the company, illegal or inappropriate pre-screening questions, bad interactions with the hiring manager via emails or phone calls, etc.

  • Accepting another job elsewhere, which renders the interview unnecessary.

No matter the reason, it's always a good idea to make the move politely and professionally. You never know when your paths may cross with the same hiring manager or company again. Extricating yourself gracefully does the least amount of harm while keeping your options open.  

The right protocol for canceling an interview

If you have a good reason to make changes to the scheduled interview, here is the blueprint for doing it the right way. These steps cannot guarantee that your candidacy will remain in the running, but they do make that outcome more likely.

First off, timing. The best time to cancel or reschedule an interview is as soon as you are aware of the change in your circumstances. Advanced notice is ideal, although it may not be possible in some situations, e.g. a serious accident driving to the interview. Reasonable timing demonstrates your respect for the other party, so don't procrastinate!

If you are sending a cancellation email, include key details in the subject line and the body of the email. The hiring manager is probably juggling multiple candidates and interviews (in addition to his or her normal job responsibilities). Knowing which open position and interview slot are affected will save time and help everyone avoid misunderstandings.

Also, be specific enough to communicate what happened but don't overshare. This is a tough balance to strike, especially under pressure. Most candidates would do best to keep this section down to one or two brief sentences.

Be clear about what you want to happen next. If you have accepted a position elsewhere, you want to mention that you are stopping your job search. If you are still interested in this opening, reiterate your fit and interest and request that the interview be rescheduled. Remember that the prospective employer doesn't have an obligation to give you another chance: Perhaps another qualified candidate is in the final stages of vetting, or maybe the timeline for hiring is deadline-sensitive. However, there is no harm in asking.  

Then, apologize for your part in the inconvenience and express an appreciation for the employer's time and flexibility before, accepting the fact that once you send the cancellation or rescheduling email or make the call, there is no going back. Think through it carefully before you hit “Send!”

Navigating interview cancellations with grace

When life happens in the middle of your job-search process and prevents you from making it to an interview, it's critical to handle the disruption professionally. Know that some reasons are more likely to raise eyebrows and burn your candidacy, while others will probably be taken in stride. The best candidates use this challenging situation as an opportunity to demonstrate their professionalism, diplomacy, and communication skills. Be respectful of the hiring manager's time, clear about what you would like to do next, and grateful for the opportunity. By following these steps, you will build relationships — and hopefully keep the door open!

Want to make the best impression at your interview, especially if you had to reschedule? Work with one of TopInterview's professional coaches to upgrade your interview game.

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