interviews: keep on playing those mind games

March 11, 2010

John Lennon had it right that time. Mind games. It was a phrase people used to use, but lately you never hear it. I wonder if it’s due for a revival?

Last week an agency submitted my CV for a contract role with a well-known charity, whose work I support. It was for 3-4 weeks of general communications support. I was told it would all happen fast – there was no job spec, nothing on paper. The money wasn’t great – on a pro rata basis, £10K a year less than what I’m used to earning – but I like the charity, and I certainly hadn’t been anticipating the small amount of work I’ve had this year…

I got an interview! I duly read the charity’s website, got my portfolio together, took a deep breath and went in.

At the interview they gave me a half-hour copywriting test, based on making a flyer. They gave me a 20-minute test on prioritising tasks, largely to do with phone calls, passing information on, keeping balls in the air. The tests were easy and fun, like logic problems in one of those logic problem books, and I enjoyed them. Because I do enjoy what I do. When I get to do it. I’ve always quite liked tests. And, unusually, I know, I enjoy interviews.

It was a formal interview, with set questions and much note-taking. I made my disclaimer at the start: I hadn’t seen any paperwork for the job, so I only knew what the agent had told me, and it was very general.

The interview felt good, even though the questions were so specific that I had no chance to show (off) my portfolio of work. They asked about times when I had had to work without supervision, times when I’d had to use my initiative, what my successes were, teamworking, communications planning, diversity. They delved into some of my answers with further questions, which I took to be a sign of interest. It all felt very good.

Then they asked if I had any questions.  I asked, ‘What exactly is the work you envisage me doing if I get the job? Do you have specific projects lined up?’

Yes, they said, absolutely! It was going to be all about comms planning, working on a big forthcoming campaign, liaising with the press team, and doing key messaging, and progressing another project that had a skeleton comms plan in place.

This was strange. This was not what their tests had given me to understand: the examples were about straight hands-on comms support work, and this was what the agent had told me the job would be. I’d have answered their questions slightly differently if I’d known this; used different examples. I’d have prepped differently beforehand. They grabbed their pens and started scribbling eagerly as I tried hastily to clarify a point or two about strategic thinking and key messaging. A good sign! Or was it?

I asked: ‘When were they going to want someone to start?’

Tuesday! We know it’s all a bit mad but we really just want to get started on all this, and we were going to say Monday, but… and as we’re interviewing on a Friday – ahem!

I laughed: ‘I guess you’ve just answered my next question…’

Yes, they said, we’ll be letting people know either today or else first thing on Monday. Depends when we get a minute to have a discussion!


All these hyper-cheerful exclamations!

And yet I came out feeling energised and confident. I thought it had gone really well.

But over the weekend I got to thinking. They wanted comms planning, key messaging. They wanted initiative and unsupervised problem-solving, negotiation skills and lots of self-awareness. (‘How would people in the team have described you?’) This is experience I have gained as a manager, getting paid much more than what they were offering.

I thought, hmm, could it be that they are proposing explicitly to exploit, at a low level of pay, experience I gained in managerial roles?

That’s not very pukka.

And they had given me two tests, and an hour of prepared questions, for three weeks of work!

But hey, it’s the recession.

On Monday morning at 10.30 the agent told me the bad news. Talk about using your prioritising and time-planning skills – up to then I’d been clearing my decks to be ready to start work the next day.

The charity’s feedback was that I was very personable, and my copywriting and time management tests were both very good – my experience was very good – but that my answers could have been more concise, as they had ‘several times had to prompt’ me for for the information they were looking for.

That’s interesting, I said to the agent, as they never told me what they were looking for till the end, when I asked.

There had been two candidates. Both of us, the agent told me, had expressed surprise at the sudden information that the job was all about comms planning. She said the phrase had not once been mentioned to her. In the event the charity appointed neither of us.

What does this mean? Other than that I’m not working this week, and my rent is due in two weeks? Why, if the work was so urgent they felt compelled to give less than a day’s notice to start, would they suddenly not even appoint?

Why would you not appoint, if you had an experienced, personable candidate who had the right skills? Or even two of them? Why would you deliberately interview people without telling them what you were interviewing them for?

Remember I had even pointed out at the start of the interview that I felt under-informed about the role. There is a big difference between ‘general comms support’ and ‘we want you to make a communications plan for a big forthcoming campaign’.

Did they even realise that they had been withholding information? Did they realise that the tests had had the potential to give us the wrong idea about what they were looking for? Did they realise that the tests didn’t reflect the job?

Had they got the budget agreed before they interviewed? Were their forthcoming campaigns suddenly axed, like in the last job I had? Where, in a meeting to discuss my work plan on a big project, I was instead given half a day’s notice?

I’d still like to work in this organisation. Oddly, in the circumstances, their interview made me think it would be a very good place to work. It’s all a bit confusing.

My previous interview had a similar mind-game element: the very friendly pair had begun by saying, ‘Well, as this is just an interim role we’ll keep it pretty informal – we’ll just tell you a bit about what we’re looking for, and then you can tell us a bit about yourself, if that’s okay?’ They had then proceeded to grill me mercilessly for an hour, with a series of very hard, prepared questions that I would have had to have prepped. I’d been given a sparse half-page of bullet points by way of job specification, but it seemed they had something very high-pressure and specific in mind.

Why do people do this? I’m asking you, my readers. Because I don’t know.


2 Responses to “interviews: keep on playing those mind games”

  1. Is it really advanced rocket science to expect employers and agencies to ensure candidates are given the information they need to perform well in interviews? I’ve blogged a bit on how useless I’ve found agencies (and a couple of potential employers) to be and how I’d really like an agency to come along and prove me wrong.

    I’m still waiting.

    Having worked in the not-for-profit sector I am very wary of positions where there’s nothing formal on paper and there’s an enthusiasm to get someone in position almost immediately. It can mean that there’s funding the organisation wants and has to have someone – anyone – in role for them to qualify.

    Sadly some employers do think it’s cool to say “it’s a generic [insert sector] role, here’s a little about what we do” beforehand and then hit you with specific questions that needed serious prior preparation. Some employers think it’s cool to not give what you or I might consider essential information about the role until right at the end. That’s either very poor planning & not understanding the needs of the role or a disrespectful lack of Clue. The potential employer is wasting their time, the agency’s time and your time.

    Because the recession is still with us, some employers think it’s cool to be less than professional. Employers should remember that interviews are two way processes; impressions they give last too. Call me old fashioned but I need to know that any potential employer has standards, conduct and ethics to which I aspire and believe in.

  2. kris said

    why do they do this?

    Because they don’t know what they’re doing.

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