Category Archives: Awkward Interviews I've Had

Going through the motions (or Awkward Interviews I’ve Had, Part 3)

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.

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You Are Not Your Job (or Awkward Interviews I’ve Had, Part 2)

“You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” --Tyler Durden

Pardon me for invoking the over-quoted Fight Club.

All too often we’re judged not by our potential or our abilities, but by our status. Two of the worst job interviews I have had have been the result of cocky executives deciding that I must be stupid, incompetent, or worthless just because of the assortment of bad jobs I have held. My longest stint of full-time employment was at the most boring receptionist job ever. Prior to my years of poverty, I had been an instructor at a technical college. I taught basic math classes, computer skills, and medical terminology to aspiring medical and dental assistants. I quit this position to go back to school to get my dream job, but my plan completely backfired and I ended up poor. I have not had a higher-level or higher-paying job since. My career peaked when I was 24 years old.

By 27, I’d become resentful of having low-level low-pay jobs I hated. Especially since I had been job-hunting almost nonstop for three years. I am good at writing and editing, and I wanted to work in corporate communications. No one would hire me, so I saved as much money as I could and I enrolled in a yearlong certificate program for editors. I felt that this would make up for my lack of experience.

I received word that the administrative assistant in my company’s corporate communications department was quitting. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to get my foot in the door. First of all, it was an admin position, so it was barely a step up from what I had been doing. Also, it paid more. Best of all, it was in the department I wanted to work in, and I knew that once they saw me at work, they’d realize my potential and I would actually get a job on my chosen career path.  I spoke to the director of the department about it, and she encouraged me to apply and said that I would be a good fit. Unfortunately, she stepped down from her position before the hiring process was completely underway.

As the receptionist, I knew everything about every department at the company. I knew everyone’s names, I knew everyone’s jobs. I was generally among the first to find out company news because a lot of information crossed my desk each day. I thought that this would work to my advantage in applying for a corporate communications position.

I was wrong. The stink of reception work takes years to wash away.

I spoke with the admin who was quitting, and she told me a lot about the job. She was annoyed that it was strictly an admin position, and she did not have much corporate communication work to do. She told me that she had to do things like attach files to the VP’s e-mails, because he just couldn’t figure out how to do it himself.

The VP would pass by the reception desk and give me random tasks, which I assume were just to test me. He asked me to find the phone number for the CEO of a rival company. Thank you, Google. He asked me to compose a press release based on a laboratory study of one of our products. I’m comfortable with medical and scientific jargon, so this was a relatively easy task once I found information about press-release formatting. I did find the VP’s request strange because the admin said that she never once had to write a press release; the most she had to do was proofread.

After a couple of weeks of catering to his arbitrary whims, I was called in for an interview. I was so excited. I dressed up, I studied, and I printed copies of my current resume on ivory resume paper. I had worked so hard to get my resume to highlight my skills rather than my experience. One of my best friends (who is an accountant with an MBA) had helped me get my resume into a better format for highlighting relevant experience.

I walked into his office, sat down, and handed him my resume.

“So,” he said. “What is it about handing out people’s paystubs and bus passes makes you think you’re qualified for a career in corporate communications?”

Ouch.

I laughed –probably because I was nervous and offended, but I tried to play it off as casual. I mustered up some answer about how I had tutored writing for years, written and designed workshops about writing, was a talented editor, and really wanted a more challenging position.

“If you’re so interested in communications, why didn’t you get a job in the field when you were finished with college?”

Sigh. When friends ask me that question, I can answer it honestly, but I had no idea what to say in such a formal setting. How is that even a valid interview question? I don’t even remember what I said. I think I just babbled on about how I was versatile or something.

“When did you graduate college?”

“2003.”

“So I guess you’ve just been screwing around for four years.” He had that “ha-ha-I’m-making-a-joke-but-not-really” tone. I did my best to laugh it off.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked him how he got his job. He told me that he worked at a store that sold stereo equipment, and after college he got some job at a small-time newspaper and he worked his way up. He was in his early 50s, and he’d been in communications for over 30 years. He was coming from a completely different place, and he didn’t understand why I hadn’t done the same thing.

Then he dealt the final blow: “When I look at you and your resume, I think ‘this girl would make a good receptionist.'”

Triple ouch.

I was not offered the administrative assistant job. An HR representative came out and told me that I just didn’t have enough experience, and then she told me about another department in our company that needed “someone to do some filing.” I burst into tears. Later that week, the corporate communications department hired a random temp from an agency, and they paid her more than I got paid at the front desk.

I felt I had been wronged. It was as though they felt it was “cute” that the receptionist wanted a big-girl job. I was more hurt than anything else. It wasn’t even the job rejection. It was that I’d never had a chance.

I complained to my supervisor about how frustrated I was with my experience trying to get out of my stifling job. I was literally and figuratively trapped behind that desk –I wasn’t even allowed to get up and move away from the desk at any time.  I made an offhand comment that “in an ideal world, I wouldn’t be a receptionist another minute.” Two hours later I received a random voice mail from the woman at the temp agency who had placed me at that job. Three hours after that, I was fired. I was unaware at the time that I had already been replaced with a temp, hence the random call from the temp agency.

I was fired for being “unhappy.” They said that it was “risky” for the company to have someone answer the phone and greet visitors when they were so “unhappy.”

They knew I was trying to get a job in another department, and they knew why. I was bored and I never hid that fact. I was there about a year and a half, and I had been told repeatedly that I was the first receptionist to last more than six months. The boredom was excruciating; had I not been so desperate, I wouldn’t have lasted there nearly that long.

I was so bored that I invented games to play with the postage meter. I was so bored that I read the spam faxes just to look busy.

They had known for months, but when I spoke up about the way I was treated, I was “too unhappy.” They were okay with me being unhappy –just not too unhappy.

I was not unemployed for long that time around, and my next job was one that I loved. After about four weeks of unemployment, I got my very first editorial job at a big company. I was getting paid less than I had been as a receptionist, but I loved the work. Unfortunately, I got laid off.

When I found out that I was getting laid off from my first editorial job, I was understandably upset. My pay was terrible, but at least I made it through each day without wanting to bang my head through a windowpane. To avoid a lapse in employment, I applied for an associate editor job at the same company. The company had a very specific hierarchy, and the job I was applying for was one step above the position I had.

I requested an informational interview with the woman who would have been my supervisor if I were chosen for the job. I e-mailed her my resume and she sent me a meeting request for that afternoon to talk to her about the position. I wasn’t dressed for an interview because I had only heard about the position after I had arrived at work that morning, but since it was an informational interview, I was less concerned. I created a list of questions to ask and I brought them with me.

I didn’t ask a single question. The minute I walked in the door, she started grilling me job-interview style. Even though this was a job within the company where I already worked, she was completely unaware of what I was talking about when I tried to explain my job. I had signed an NDA and was not sure if I was allowed to discuss certain details outside of my department. She kept pressing it, and I answered as best as I could, though I admit I remained vague about specifics. If I was going to violate my NDA, I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it in a way that could come back to haunt me.

I failed to answer her questions about my current position to her liking. She then began to tell me that she was looking for someone with a lot of technical writing experience. The job was not a writer position, let alone a technical writer position. It was an editor position, and the job listing did not mention technical writing at all. The job listing also mentioned that all applicants would be given an editing exam. I asked her if I could take the exam. She said “we’re just evaluating people by their experience.”

I told her about my editing certificate program, and she asked me to describe specific assignments I had done. Again, I was expecting an informational interview, so I was not prepared to answer questions about classes I had taken several months or a year before.

We talked a few more minutes, and then she said “I’m not going to lead you on and pretend that we’re interested.” Direct quote.

Hanging on to whatever composure I had left, I asked her if she could think of any departments where my skills would be useful.

“No,” she said. “We don’t hire beginners here. Maybe you should try to get a job at a newspaper.”

I left. I was either going to say something vulgar or cry, so I walked out. I’m completely baffled as to why she requested this interview with me if she saw my resume beforehand. If I wasn’t what she was looking for, why did she choose to waste her time and mine? Her “we don’t hire beginners here” statement stung the most. After all, I already worked there and she knew that.

The following day I went out to lunch with a coworker, and I told him about my ordeal.

“That’s so weird!” he said. “I interviewed with her last week and she was totally nice to me.”

“What?!”

“Yeah.”

“How come she didn’t know what my job was if she interviewed you first?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t ask me too much about it.”

What. The. Hell. He and I had the exact same job on the exact same team. We were hired two months apart, and we were at a similar level of experience.

“Maybe she’s one of those women who just doesn’t like other women.”

Whatever. I’m glad I’m not working for her.  I’d have gone crazy looking at her scowly face all day. My coworker didn’t get the job either.

I’m not sure what I learned from all this, except that people can be jerks. Unfortunately, I already knew that.

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Fortes fortuna adiuvat (or Awkward Interviews I’ve Had, Part 1)

Fortune favors the brave.

Fortune favors the brave.

Tomorrow I have a phone interview with a well-known reputable company.  It’s not somewhere I care to work, actually, but I do think I could handle it. It’s in my career, but I don’t believe I’d be happy with the culture of this company and my commute would be terrible. The pay is decent, comparable to the average for comparable jobs.

While I face this phone interview tomorrow, I am reflecting on awkward interviews I have had. One of my worst interviews was for a temporary receptionist position at a water bottling company in a town I’d never heard of. I got the interview through my temp agency after I complained about their inability to place me despite their constant praise of my “excellent qualifications.” After I whined and complained a lot, they told me that I could go to this interview at 11am.

They told me that the office was near a town called Puyallup, but not as far away as Puyallup. I did not have Internet at home, and I was unable to make it to the library, so I asked the woman at the temp agency for directions. She gave me the address, and told me that the plant was on 155th Street. Just turn right and you can’t miss it. The directions were straightforward and easy enough. I read them back to her to confirm.

I made all the twists and turns as directed. Unfortunately, I had been misled about the distance. The first street I saw was 112th, and so I had to haul ass to 155th in about 10 minutes. I made it to 154th Street at about 10:59 am.

155th Street was nowhere to be seen on the right side of the street. It just wasn’t there. 153rd, 154th, 159th, and that was all. I made a U-turn at 159th. I finally found 155th, but then saw that there was no way to turn right (er, left…since I’d turned around). I went the other way and found myself in a grocery store parking lot. I called the temp agency and told them where I was.

“You were actually supposed to turn right on 115th Street.”

Gee, thanks. I’d passed that 10 minutes before.

Anyway, it was 11am at this point, I was late, and I was 40 blocks away with slow traffic.

At 11:20, I found myself in their gravel-paved parking lot. I had to walk across the gravel to get to the office. My black shoes, black stockings, and black skirt were all covered in gravel dust. I was a mess.

I checked in at the front desk.

“Your interview was supposed to be at 10 am.”

Yes, one hour and twenty minutes earlier. I also know that I was told 11am. I remember her saying it and that’s what I wrote down on the same piece of paper I wrote my bad directions. She had said “11am” at least twice during our conversation, just as she had said “155th Street.”

I will never know if they did this to me on purpose or not. They only gave me this interview after I complained. It’s possible that they wanted to put me in my place.

I showed up an hour and twenty minutes late and I was flustered. The first question the interviewer asked me? “So, why are you interested in working for our company?”

Oh geez. I had never even heard of the company. I had never even heard of the town where the company was based. It’s not like I’d been just waiting for the perfect customer service job at a bottled water plant and was so excited to see this position open up. I did then what no interviewee should ever do –I answered the question honestly.

“The temp agency sent me over.”

The interview continued and she asked me the usual set of questions I hate: How does this position relate to your college degree? If you’ve worked so much in education, why are you trying to get customer service jobs now? We don’t hire people who we don’t think are going to stay with us long, you know.

I asked about “opportunities for advancement,” you know…to show that I was looking for long-term employment. Her response? “Well…I don’t want to use the phrase ‘dead-end job,’ but really, that’s what it is.”

Great. So, they were looking for someone who was eager to stay in a dead-end job long-term.

On three separate occasions, she mentioned my tardiness to the interview, and rubbed it in by saying “If you’d shown up on time, I would have been able to show you around the plant.” I had explained repeatedly that I had been told the wrong address and the wrong time, but I don’t think that anyone there believed me.

The woman was a little nuts and kept telling me random stories and I was never sure why she was telling them. She told me that water delivery men frequently get bitten by dogs, and that I would have to deal with dog owners sometimes. I’m not sure what I would have had to tell dog owners.

She told me about a co-worker whose family’s house had burned down while the teenage daughter had been burning candles. I think she was trying to convey how great the co-workers were in that they rallied around this guy whose house had burned down after his other child had died in the fire accidently set by the teenage daughter. She also told me about the daughter’s descent into madness. Ok, she didn’t say much about that. I’m being dramatic.

It’s probably needless to say this, but I was not offered the job.

I guess that several years of bad interviews have toughened me to a great extent. This interview was frustrating enough to put me into a deep depression. I ended up getting a different job with the psycho, abusive coworker, and I was so distraught with my job search, that I didn’t apply for a single job for months. I still have my moments like this, but I’ve become more tolerant of ridiculous interviews.

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