By Kim Caldwell
The long-term lessons learned from a bad interview can be their own reward.
“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
Vince Lombardi, American football coach
At twenty-one and a half, I found myself in a pickle: nearly a year after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin my job was ending. It was moving to Dallas and stubbornly, I was not. I had a short runway to find my next job – but that runway was running out, and I had no savings or plan B for paying rent. I needed a new job quickly.
The invitation to interview with a quasi-state agency filled me with hope; this could be my path out of uncertainty! My first interview with the hiring manager went pretty well, but I noticed that she had blacked out part of my resume. To prevent bias with the higher-ups, she told me. That was my first inkling that something was wrong.
For the second round of interviews I wore my most grown-up suit, which I had bought at Bealls for a big presentation in undergrad. Padfolio in hand, I got through the first conversation just fine. The man seemed mostly disinterested, though not unpleasant. But the second conversation went downhill fast; overconfidence and indifference oozed off of this guy’s every question and reaction. Something in my gut said “we aren’t on the same team,” so when he asked if I had any questions I had one, “do you care about the outcome of these programs or just about looking good?”
By now you know that I didn’t get this job. However, you may be surprised to learn that I wasn’t clear on what had gone wrong. After many conversations with patient people (who all laughed at the story) the picture came into focus. First, I showed up without being prepared to ask questions, which is a rookie mistake and something easy to remedy in the future. Second, I had literally insulted the person who was interviewing me, which probably should have been more obvious, but could also be remedied. Third, and most importantly, my subconscious was screaming “RUN!” louder than my conscious was saying “GET A JOB.”
As an arguably more mature (and undeniably older) job seeker, I have removed myself from several interview processes where I could tell from the first conversation it wasn’t a fit. I’ve even managed to do it without insulting anyone. Sussing out your gut from the general anxiety you’re experiencing in a job search can be challenging – particularly as you’re feeling real urgency for security. Here’s my best advice for figuring out whether or not to continue:
Find ways to figure out if you’ll be a culture fit by asking your interviewer:
- What actions and accomplishments are rewarded by the organization?
- Where do new ideas pursued by the company come from?
- What qualities make people successful on this team?
- What did the last person in this role (or a similar role) love most about being part of this team?
Get honest with yourself in a few places like:
- Do I actually want to do this, or I am just afraid of not having something to do?
- If I weren’t trying to impress this person, would I want to talk to them?
- If my best friend were here, would we be rolling our eyes at each other?
- Are the trade-offs worth it?
It’s not wrong to take a job when your bank account really needs it; but if you can hold out for a better fit, that can save you from the mental and emotional pain, creativity erosion and stress that comes from trying to make it work in a place that’s wrong for you.
To finish the story, a few weeks later I started an interview process for a job that I didn’t get, but fit so well with the team that they hired me for a different position without ever posting it. Years later I came to know the person who got the first job instead of me and he was miserable, leaving before finding something new to be free from the toxic culture.
So maybe that wasn’t my worst job interview… But still, there was more that I could have done to prepare. And since we aren’t currently living in 2005, there is even more you can do now to have a solid plan and avoid impulse insulting people.
- Do your homework. This is the easiest, and a little can go a long way. You’ve likely spent time on the company’s website already, but dig deeper on the website and any social accounts they keep. Look up the hiring manager on LinkedIn and don’t worry that they’ll see it; it’s just proof you prepared.
- Be comfortable. Don’t just put on your most business outfit for an interview, especially if you only wear it when absolutely necessary. Interviews require focus, so being distracted by how your clothes fit or feel hurts more than helps. Look the part, but don’t play dress up. Personally, making the switch from suits to dresses has led to better conversations with less fidgeting and armpit sweat.
- Interview them. This is the hardest advice to take. The power dynamics in most interviews lean in favor of the business offering a salary, benefits, and belonging. And some of us (cough) can get so excited about winning the interview that we never actually consider if the questions they ask or the answers they give line up for us. Don’t do that.
Your friends, your mentors, and the entire Internet can give you lots more advice, so take it in, try it out, and get ready to make a match.
Kim Caldwell is a native Austinite with a passion for connecting people. For the last 15 years she has partnered with mission-driven people and organizations across the country to plan their bold steps forward. She has earned a master’s degree in public service, a B.S. in Public Relations and a B+ in adulting.
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