I have noticed an unsettling trend in job interview techniques as of late. It appears that potential employers are straying from typical interview questions in order to ask questions that are…different. Bad-different.
I’m not one to fear change, but I do not always deal well with unpredictability. That said, I do my best to be prepared for a multitude of situations, especially when I’m preparing for a job interview.
I have been job-hunting on-and-off (more on than off) since December 2003. I have had many job interviews. Some interviews have been great, some have been horrible, some have been just okay. I have completely nailed interviews and then found out that I did too well and I come off as overqualified. I have had interviews I didn’t prepare for, and interviews I studied for over the course of many days. I have read numerous books on job interview technique. My favorite is Fearless Interviewing by Marky Stein, which is (in part) responsible for the ritual I complete prior to any interview. First I read and reread the job description. I apply for so many jobs that it can be difficult to remember which job my interview is for, especially if I’m being interviewed for a job I haven’t thought about in weeks or months. I make lists of the items in the job requirements and then lists of corresponding skills or experience I possess. I come up with anecdotal details about previous jobs I have had that illustrate my skills. I maintain a list of my proudest achievements, even though some of them aren’t directly relevant to any jobs I currently seek. I attend each interview with approximately five questions to ask the interviewer. Three questions would generally suffice, but often they end up answering one or two of my questions during the interview.
On top of preparing to answer questions about myself, I research all I can about the company. There are a few companies I would genuinely like to work at, and I know a fair amount about all of them. That said, after nearly six years of active interviewing, perhaps my skills are waning. At times I feel I’m just going through the motions, and my interview skills aren’t up to snuff. I know what to do, but sometimes I fall a bit short.
I had a phone interview on Thursday, once again with the company that laid me off in 2007. Not the same job I interviewed for a week ago –this one was different. I have worked there twice before, and even if I had never worked there I would be familiar with their philosophies and practices because I am a fan of their products and services. So how did I completely bomb a phone interview?
I interviewed for my old job and I never heard a word about it, even after following up with both the recruiter and the interviewer. I assume that I’ve been rejected because I was then solicited to interview for this new job within the same company. Since June, I have interviewed for three different positions at this company. At this point, I think they’re just messing with me.
Everything was going well until I was asked this question:
“From a usability standpoint, what areas of our website do you think need improvement?”
Frankly, I’m puzzled. I have no idea what they were looking for. I am a writer and editor. Twice recently I have been asked this exact same question at two different companies. Both of these jobs were editorial jobs where I would have been doing some web content writing and editing. I have NO idea what they’re getting at, and I’ve fumbled both times. I am not a web designer. I am not applying for web designer jobs. While I do know a bit about usability (and I know how to conduct a usability study), I find it difficult to answer that question without a lot of research. More research than I have the resources to complete.
While in both cases I had carefully examined the website in question, I hadn’t evaluated their sites for usability. I looked through the sections and tabs to get a sense of their voice and the products and services they offered, but since I was not shopping, it hadn’t occurred to me to think of it that way.
Now, the company that I’ve worked at twice — not only do I have a fair amount of experience working there, but I have been a customer there for over 10 years. I have had no serious problems. Even the minor issues I have had were completely unrelated to the content on their web pages. To answer the interviewer’s question, I ended up mentioning things I liked about their site, which is of course not a good answer. Strike one for me.
Next, the interviewer asked me what companies I thought have a good customer focus and which have a bad customer focus. Once again, I fumbled. I’ve been living in poverty so long that I never go shopping. My clothes are little more than rags, I don’t buy books or music, I haven’t changed my cell phone plan nor have I recently subscribed to cable. Despite Alan Greenspan’s theory that the recession does not affect women’s lingerie sales to the extent that it affects men’s underwear sales, my underwear drawer looks like that of a pauper.
Now, I have had customer service issues: I have had problems with the electric company when I needed assistance with my bill, I have needed assistance from the employment security office, I have been frustrated with the Department of Social and Health Services because of their treatment of my food stamps application –but none of these involves information I care to divulge in a job interview. There is a stigma of poverty. Poor people are often seen to be at fault in their situations. Sure, sometimes that’s true, but it’s not always true. And while I will take some of the blame, I will not put myself forward to be judged.
What could I have said?
- “Well, when I had my electricity cut off, Seattle City Light’s customer assistance program is the worst I’ve ever encountered.”
- “I’m trying to sign up for food stamps, but they require me to ask my former employer to fill out a big form explaining why I should get food stamps, and that’s just embarrassing. They don’t even realize what their clients may be going through.”
- “The food bank has mostly good customer focus, but I wish they had more vegetarian options.”
- “I had my car repossessed by a bunch of thugs who assaulted me in my parking lot at 1:00 a.m. after I had made a payment arrangement with the car loan company to pay them a day later. And I had the money.”
That’s all I could think of. Obviously I didn’t say any of that.
I didn’t say much of anything. I named a company that I thought had good customer focus (I don’t even remember which company I mentioned), but I just couldn’t come up with anything for the “bad customer focus” part of the question. I couldn’t. Fine.
I knew I didn’t get the job, but I was very surprised when I received a phone call from the placement agency the following day. I spoke to my recruiter, and he said “Hello, I got some feedback about your phone interview yesterday.”
Over time I have noticed that the phrase “I got some feedback about your interview” is code for “You didn’t get the job, but…”
He paused then said: “She said you weren’t prepared at all.”
I immediately went into defensive mode. I did prepare and I told him so. I told him specifically which questions I had difficulty with and (to some extent) why I had difficulty with them. What disturbs me most of all about this is that “You weren’t prepared at all” is probably a watered-down version of what she actually told him. If that’s what he repeated to me, I can only imagine what she actually said. He ended the conversation abruptly, before I even finished telling him about the questions I had difficulty with. I predict that he will never contact me about another position again.
I had an in-person interview on Friday, for a job that actually seemed pretty fun at a really large company with a better reputation than the one I have worked at before. The interview went mostly well, but again I fumbled. I got nervous and blame myself. They asked me to format-edit a document, but I had to do so while two people were staring at me. Also, the document was in Swedish. And they didn’t specify how much time I had, so I felt rushed. I missed two things which I never would have missed if I had been calmer. I really hope I get this job, though. It doesn’t pay as much as I would like, but it pays enough for me to get by.
No more word on my eviction. I’m still exhausted. My 31st birthday is on Tuesday, and this may be the worst ever.