Interview War Stories from a Hiring Manager

I have interviewed 18-year-olds for telephone solicitation jobs, young and older women and men for administrative assistant positions, and many others for graduate assistantships as well as staff positions on my team. Throughout the years, I found that the really good candidates expressed direct interest in the job and in the work, while asking about how to work well with me and the team. The really bad candidates were so focused inward that I wasn’t sure if they knew where they were or whom they were talking with. This article gives some stories about how to avoid being a really bad candidate, along with some tips on how to turn awkward moments around.

GOOD CANDIDATES

For contrast, a really good candidate wants the work I have to offer and has the skills or the training to do most of the job. I don’t mind teaching one new thing to an eager learner. Also, a really good candidate is going to open, honest and direct with me. I easily tolerate the question, “Why did the last person in this position leave?” because it is a legitimate question and allows me to be open and honest, as in, “When new management comes into a shop like this one, it is common for some staff to move on rather than to adjust, and that’s what happened in this case.” And the best interview is one where we are discussing our mutual passion for the profession. An excellent candidate will gently push to talk about all of his or her skills that relate to the job, and then ask key questions that tell me that he or she is taking the position seriously.

Here are some stories of candidates whose answers lost them points.

SCENARIO ONE: IGNORING THE JOB DESCRIPTION

My question is, “Tell me about something in your professional or personal life that interested you so much that you did research on it, and tell me what kind of research you did.”

The answer, “Well, I knit, so there’s no research there.”

Sounds innocent, right? Except that this person is interviewing for a position as a researcher. The question is aimed at getting her to show me how interested she is in doing research on anything – I call it the curiosity requirement.

My response, “Well, I knit, too, and I spend a lot of time researching types of wool, stitches, how the wool is spun, patterns, histories….”

She stares at me. It is fine to wait for a moment while one handles one’s embarrassment. It is natural to freak when a hiring manager lets you know that your answer was way off the mark. What you say next, even if you first sit for five minutes until your breathing slows down, is the key. What she did say was, “Well, I have a problem with my foot….” And she lifted her foot and started pointing and talking about her condition and how she asked a lot of people about what it meant and went on the Internet to read about it.

Possible better responses:
– Wow, that’s really wild. My mother taught me to knit so I see it more as a hobby than a field to study. I’d like to hear more about your research.

– I see. You’re really involved in that and I knit for relaxation. Let me tell you about something that I did research.

– What tools did you use to do your research? I would like to learn new tools.

– Ah. That’s interesting. I did do research on a physical condition I have (leaving the foot on the floor).

Also, if the position is about research, asking people is one research tool and using the Internet is a second. But she didn’t go to the library?

For this particular kind of position, I prefer candidates who think before responding. If I had a sales position, I would work at tripping the candidate up to see how well she thinks on her feet. At an interview I went on, the hiring manager offered me a small paper cup of water. I drank it, and then crushed it in my hand and gestured that I didn’t know what to do with it. She smiled at me, waiting to see what I would do. I left the cup in my hand but out of sight, and knew that I didn’t want to work for someone so deliberately thoughtless.

SCENARIO TWO: SHOWING OFF A BAD ATTITUDE

The position handles confidential information about people, including information on their wealth and their contributions to my organization. I ask, “Tell me how you handle confidential information.”

Answer, “I temp’ed in Payroll where I knew about the $[big amount] salary of one of the deans, and I didn’t tell anyone.” There are several deans at the institution, so I am not worried, until she says, “and his [ethnic] accent made it hard not to talk about it.” Now we’re down to one; she just told me the exact salary of a dean.

Better answers:
– I’ve worked in payroll, and boy, it’s tempting to talk about some of the salaries. Everyone around me is curious, so it was hard to get used to not answering their questions.

– I’ve had many jobs involving handling people’s money in a lot of forms. It took a while, but I got used to forgetting it when I left the office.

– My experience with confidential information is limited to a temp job, but I did get the picture of how important it is.

SCENARIO THREE: YOUR FAMILY INTERVIEWS WITH YOU

Again, I ask, tell me about something in your life that you were so interested in that you did research on it, and tell me what research you did.

Answer: Well, I’m getting married….

I stopped listening at this point. First, it’s none of my business what this candidate’s sexual orientation is, her personal relationships, or where she is in her life. Also, one does not research a wedding; that is event work. In addition, she got all giggly like I was supposed to start gushing. She triggered my “so what?” button as well as making it clear that she did not get what research is.

This scenario touches on the delicate prospect of sharing enough of oneself to establish the comfort factor compared to being clear that one is there to get a job. I’ll give you a few more examples of how I handled scenes like this as a candidate and as a hiring manager.

I am applying for a job at a Planned Parenthood clinic. I’m sure the job attracts many feminists like me. The question from the hiring manager is, “Your resume mentions that you write short stories. What kind of short stories?”

I can be as circumspect as I like, but I am going to let her know who I am in case she doesn’t want to work with me. I say, “My stories are usually woman-centered, with strong female characters.”

She sits back in her chair. The look on her face tells me that she doesn’t want to work with me, and I sure don’t want to work with her.

Another story: A few of us are interviewing a candidate for a receptionist position. We can’t remember our question or what the candidate said besides, “Praise Jesus” about ten times. The candidate was letting us know that she must work in an environment that fosters fundamentalist Christianity. Think about it: a prospect comes into the office and we must be good to him, no matter who he is. We had visitors from Islamic countries, Israel, and all over the United States. A woman who was expressing her religion so strongly would offend some of our visitors. It was the equivalent of her having a huge anti-Republican or anti-Democrat poster behind her. The job was about making other people comfortable.

Questions that are actually asking about you as a person, but are not really illegal:
– Tell me about yourself.

– What do you do for fun?

– What about this area/location/city attracts you?

– What do you need from your job to be satisfied?

Notice that they’re all open doors for you to gush about your personal life. Here are key responses that will boost your candidacy:
– Your personal life involves activities that are similar to the work you want. For instance, you are treasurer of your local historical society and are applying for a job as an archivist.

– You are able to talk about yourself without making it about your spouse. Gushing about what your husband or wife says gives away that you do not make your own decisions. I once heard a guy go on for five minutes about the five women in his life who were in complete charge of him. I lost what point he was trying to make, as I pictured five different leather-clad women replete with whips. I couldn’t take him seriously after that.

– You talk about your education – including workshops – that keep your skills sharp and fresh.

– You mention your life briefly, “Well, I live alone with two cats and I love my balcony flower garden.” And then you stop.

– You talk about what you do to keep healthy, sober, or smart. For instance, “I love to run early in the mornings, so having this office job accommodates my hobby” is really much better than, “Do you expect me in on Wednesdays? Because that’s when I bet on the ponies.” Now, here’s a fun twist: I gamble and I tell prospective hiring managers that. Know why? Because gambling is about statistics and I talk about approaching a blackjack table to practice understanding probabilities. In my field, probability is the latest rage. My hobbies match my profession.

Answers that would lose you points with me:
– You talk about the responsibility of your kids, your daycare, your aging parent, or your other needs that will involve you taking time away from the job. You can reframe it. I have spoken with a candidate who explained that he would not be able to start working immediately because of his family needs. He is being direct and not asking me to fix it. Mind you, once you start or even at the offer, you can talk to me about whatever needs you have to take care of your responsibilities, and, within the boundaries of the organization’s rules, I would do whatever possible to make it all work out.

– You complain about your financial pressures.

– Bitterness belongs on your salad or in your old fashioned, never in an interview. The last person I want on my team is someone who says, “Well, maybe you had a hard time with that stapler, but you’ve never had to watch your father die on the side of the road while no one came to help.”

– You ask the hiring manager personal questions. A legitimate question is, “What is your management style?” A rude question is, “How does your husband cope with you having a such a powerful position?” Worse than that: “What have you done to try to lose weight? I’m noticing in your picture over there that you’re a little heavierâÂ?¦.”

– You say, “My Christian [or Mormon or Jewish or Masonic] beliefs don’t allow me to work with [name group] of person.” Sorry, but if you don’t want to work in the public sector, then don’t. Also, be careful of what leadership positions you list on your resume. As a resume writer, I once counseled a woman to take her church affiliations off of her resume. She replied, “That is a big part of who I am.” We left it on. Your leadership positions in the Order of the Eastern Star, Knights of Columbus, PFLAG, or other organizations that give away something personal about you, can work in your favor or against you. If you want not to work with someone who would not be comfortable with that part of you, leave it in. Otherwise, think carefully.

FOURTH SCENARIO: PLAYING POLITICS

I sometimes get letters from candidates who write, “Michael Blah Blah Blah suggested I write to you to applyâÂ?¦.” Perhaps the candidate is thinking, “She’ll take me seriously now that she knows I’m a Friend of Mike.” What I’m thinking is, “Who is Michael Blah Blah Blah?”

There is also a huge difference between the statement, “You told me to apply for your open position [so now I expect to get it],” and “Thank you for inviting me to apply forâÂ?¦”

The other form of politics is to talk about someone already in the organization who is related to you. “My Uncle Mike is the treasurer here and he says that I’d be perfect for your job.” Okay, that lets me know that you did not read the job description and you could not care less about the job. It also lets me know that if I don’t give you everything you want, then you will go crying to Uncle Mike, who will annoy me the whole time you’re on my staff. The only discomfort I get in this scene is that I would have to tell Uncle Mike that I’m not hiring you before I tell you.

I once had a candidate who said she was dating the son of someone who worked in a totally different department. Later in the conversation she claimed to be serious with him. By the time we wrapped up, she called herself his fiancÃ?©e. That’s all I remember of the interview, the progressive relationship that happened in one hour. I never invited her back for a second interview.

FIFTH AND FINAL SCENARIO: CORRECTING THE INTERVIEWER

We all want to show how much we know, but insisting that we know more than the person interviewing us is obnoxious. While the candidate is correcting me on what I just said, I often picture him in a staff meeting and what a nightmare that would be. I had a candidate in my office once when I started a coughing fit. “Excuse me,” I finally said. “I’m allergic to this city in the springtime.”

“Well, I’ve felt much better since I’ve moved back home,” he accused. I heard two things in his response: he was thinking only about himself and not that I was embarrassed to interrupt the interview, and he wanted me to know that he had all the answers.

Someone who corrects the other person constantly in a conversation lacks self confidence, has too much arrogance, or really needs to address his depression. That is not the kind of person I’d want for any job. Imagining the training program? I’d say, “We put the documents back in the file cabinet when we’ve finished with them,” and the hire would say, “That’s not the logical thing to doâÂ?¦.” And we’d argue instead of working.

The alternative way of being annoying is what some would call active listening. If you interrupt the interviewer with lots of questions about details, taking the conversation away from where the interviewer wants to go, then you confuse the conversation. You also make it far too long. I’ll give you an example:

Interviewer: We use our writing skills a lot here, so�

Candidate: Do you mean every day?

Interviewer: Yes, we write every day, so�.

Candidate: Is writing the most important skill for this job?

Interviewer: It is important, so�

Candidate: Is it more important than the other skills you listed on the job description, like reading and listening and analyzing data?

Interviewer: No, that is essentially what we need to do. Then we write it down, so�

Candidate: We don’t ever talk to anyone?

Notice that the interviewer keeps trying to get back to his main point? Let him go there. At least let him finish his sentence. If you find that you’ve talked about only one concept in relation to the job during an hour-long interview, then one of you was an interrupter.

Ways to tell your interviewer that you disagree with a statement:
– Oh. It’s my experience that the left thwarted skeezix skews on the bias. I’d like to hear more about yours skewing on the level plane.

– I can see how you’d view that. My training is the other thing, and I’m looking forward to finding out more.

– My resume does mention my dog training. At that job, though, I was essentially the receptionist, not a trainer.

See the politics? Sound like you’re agreeing and then slip in the right information. I had a friend who worked the counter at American Airlines. The customer would ask for a free upgrade and my friend would smile and nod vigorously while saying, “No,” in his perkiest voice.

If the person you’re interviewing with corrects everything you say, then think about whether you really want to work there. I had a woman interviewing me ask, “What hours are you used to working?”

Remembering my politics, I said, “I work nine to five now, but I have had no problem-” And then she cut me off with, “We work eight-fifteen to five here and there’s no flexibility,” waving her hand across the desk like she was cutting something in half. Why did she ask me? To find out if I was a lazy slob?

OTHER THINGS TO SAY THAT YOU THINK SOUND GOOD BUT MIGHT NOT BE

– “I have a wife of twenty years and five children.” Men used to use this line to express how responsible they were. Now, I would read it as stating a personal need instead of what the candidate has to offer me.

– “I have a strong work ethic.” In my experience, people who have a strong work ethic prefer to work over talking about it. A candidate who says to me, “I like to keep busy so I’m hoping to take on new responsibilities as you see fit,” gives me a much clearer picture of his work ethic. Also, his references will answer that question.

– “My current boss is underutilizing my talent.” This comment screams, “I am going to walk all over your requirements! And later I’ll tell your boss that I should be in charge!”

– “People don’t understandâÂ?¦” Statements like that send me screaming. I have to listen to that crap in my personal life.

– “I’m sure that you see the talent that I offer.” If I didn’t, the interview wouldn’t happen. The point of the interview is to look for
the candidate who will fit well into the department.

– Use the words, “girl,” “queer,” “fringe groups,” “people like us,” “they” (as in “they don’t understand”), or anything like them that tells me that you see others as different from you or less than you and I won’t ever let you anywhere near my people again. “Girl” is especially offensive to me. If you are interviewing with a female hiring manager, regardless of whether you are male or female, and you say, “The girl out front showed me back here,” you are letting the hiring manager know that you see her as a child and not as a leader.

On the other hand, I’ve had a candidate say that she had a queer experience with working with a particular kind of customer, and she looked up at me and blushed and put her hand to her face. I knew the way she was using the word and I appreciated her intuition – my girlfriend’s picture hung right behind me as we spoke and I’m obviously lesbian. I relieved her by saying, “Yes, that kind of client can be weird to work with,” and she recovered quickly and went back to focusing on talking about her skills.

OTHER SNIPPETS

– If the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for me?” ask one. Good ones if you’re stuck are,

– “What resources/tools/software/vendors do you use in this job?”

– “What would your perfect candidate do on his or her first day at work?”

– “Let me see, if I understand correctly, you’re looking for someone who can/is/doesâÂ?¦”

– “How would you describe the other people who work here?”

– I’ve had candidates try to manipulate me. One, at a job at a college, told me that she didn’t think that higher education was important. “Then why do you work in higher education?” I asked, annoyance on my face. Instead of answering me, she told the story of a woman who made a mistake in an interview, was hired anyway, and then did a marvelous job. Her tone was patronizing and schmoozy. What she didn’t know was that I was interviewing her out of courtesy only, as she was an internal candidate. Her lack of a degree prevented her from being taken seriously.

– I’ve also had good candidates check their checklists in their notebooks and tell me exactly what they needed to know. This is a sign of organization and I love it.

QUESTIONS THAT BRING OUT THE MOST IN YOUR INTERVIEWER

Now it’s your turn. Here are some questions that I have asked as a candidate that have always gotten a good response.
– “Do you like your job?”

– “What is your management style?”

– “What are characteristics of the person who would most successful in this position?” (Note that you’re not asking about personal or professional characteristics, but you are going to listen to what type comes out first.)

– “Tell me what your present staff say is the best part of this job?”

– “Why is this position open? Why did the last person leave?” If your interviewer gets embarrassed or hostile, then look at the people who work for him or her on your way out. Are they happy or angry?

– “I see you have a model of a boat. I also go boating. Where is your favorite lake?”

WRAP UP: LET US GO KILL THE EMPEROR

Okay, as much fun as it has been to vent about the frustrations of interviewing, I’d like to try to put this into perspective for you through this saying from a Greek philosopher:

When a man makes a good speech, the people say, “That was a good speech.”

When a man makes a great speech, the people say, “Let us go kill the emperor.”

And so it is with interviewing. You will be horrified at the spot of coffee that landed on your shirt as you walked in, or the one moment that your words stumbled over each other, or the meaning of the hiring manager’s arched eyebrow. A good hiring manager doesn’t see these things. A good hiring manager can glean out of you what you would be like as a staff member, when you are not nervous. The point is to focus on why you want the job and to express that, as well as what you have to offer. Your skills are obvious from your resume and the first interview is determining if you have what it takes in that particular office.

The second interview is exploring whether you would fit into the organization, and then it’s time to be yourself as much as you can, talk about what environment you work well in, and what you’ll give back in exchange for your salary requirement.

I had a candidate in my office and I said to him, “So, you don’t like change.” He stumbled all over his words trying to make it sound like he could adapt to change just fine, but he admitted that he didn’t care for it. I explained that introverts do best in the job I was interviewing him for, and, by nature, we don’t like change. My impression is that someone who prefers stability is also methodical and dependable. And I told him so.

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