interview hell – a narrow escape

February 9, 2010

Interviews are uppermost in the Text Pixels mind at the moment. I’ve been going on a few of them lately, being my shiny best talking to complete strangers in the hope that they’ll think I’m just right for their organisation. But of course I’m also trying to see if their organisation is right for me – even in the short term.

Here’s a cautionary tale. A friend of mine had a job interview just before Christmas, and the next day he told me about it with a very long face. He told me he had gone from the interview straight to Selfridges to do some Christmas shopping afterwards. When he walked into the department store, a shop assistant said, ‘You look like you’ve had a hard day, can I help you?’ and my friend nearly burst into tears!

If you are involved in any way with interviewing candidates you probably don’t want to make them feel like crying. It’s easy enough to avoid – but not if your interview is like this:

1. The test they set at the beginning was nowhere near advanced enough for the job spec my friend had been sent, and too much time was given to it. By the time he reached the interview room he was frustrated and bored and already a bit worn out, and had budding doubts as to how well they understood the role they were recruiting for.

2. They spent 55 of the allotted 60 minutes firing questions at him. He felt as if he were doing a very hard exam. My friend
is a very precise guy, meticulous and evidence-based in his thinking,
so he managed to answer everything, but he had also prepared some questions of his own. He had five minutes to ask them.

3. From the questions they had asked him, it slowly became clear that they weren’t going to need him to use the skills they had listed as ‘essential’. He knew more about the field than they did. They didn’t sound rigorous to him, and he’s a researcher, so that’s important.

4. But it then became clear that they were depending on other skills which they had merely listed as ‘desirable’. When he confessed that he had little experience of a certain facet of the work, they immediately said, ‘Well, at the salary discussed, if we were to hire you we wouldn’t expect to offer any training or support’. Note that they were happy enough to recruit someone and let them fail,  but not to support them once in post!

5. After going over the the role itself, they spent ten minutes outlining to my friend the details of the company’s flexi-time scheme – and then said: ‘But, of course, as a contractor you wouldn’t be entitled to flexi-time’. (!)

6. It is a small company with two tiny offices: one in Central London, one in the outskirts. Each office has about 7 people. When he finally got a chance to ask some questions, my friend asked how communication worked between the two, referring to the London office, which he was sitting in, as ‘head office’. One of the interviewers corrected him, outraged: ‘London is not head office! We started in X——–. The two offices are completely equal, there is no “head” about it’, etc etc. The other interviewer said something else, and my friend realised grimly that the two offices are utterly at war. The one that’s in the commuter belt can never win this war. He would be dealing with these people every day.

8. Off a list of questions he had prepared with the help of a job interviewing website, he asked each of them what their least favourite element of working there was. They laughed, and one of them said: ‘the stroppy clients’!

Please, people. Don’t tell a candidate that you despise your clients. It’s just depressing.

After all that, in the New Year they offered him a second interview. He went to it, against his better judgement, because of course it is the recession and he is looking for a job. A couple of hours later his agency rang to say they had offered him the job! It seems they were impressed by him, and so they should be. He’s good.

We had a long chat about the whole thing. He ansgted over every aspect of it, thinking maybe it would be a good chance to get the experience he was lacking, it would be good money, it would make him more employable etc etc… weighing up the pros and cons… There was just this nagging feeling that he wouldn’t be supported. There was the office war. There was the suspicion that they didn’t know what they were doing. That they might be personality-driven, with the director deciding things on a whim. In the end he turned it down. He was afraid of being set up to fail. He was afraid of having to leave, and – with a recent similar experience last year – he doesn’t want to make his CV look like a graveyard of failed jobs.

I’d love to use this post to caution employers against doing these things in interviews, but on balance I prefer my grandma’s advice: just be yourself. My friend was lucky these guys showed their true colours through the cracks. Imagine if he’d taken the job and then found that the only sane person there had been the HR manager. Oh, except they were too small to have an HR manager. There wouldn’t even have been anybody to complain to.

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2 Responses to “interview hell – a narrow escape”

  1. Ben said

    Oh go on… tell us who they are!

  2. msbaroque said

    Ha! Ben, I honestly don’t know. A market research company somewhere in a zone you don’t want to have to pay for a travelcard to. (How’s that for a string of prepositions?)

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