The Whacky World of Job Interviews.
“Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss.”– The Who.
Many are the days I feel pretty darn lucky. You see, I work as a technician in the technology sector, and I’m still employed. These days, that almost give me exalted status. I’ve been with my present employer for seven years now, and it all seems stable, at least for the moment. It could change, with little or no notice. I’m all too aware of that nasty little fact. But, I have not always been this fortunate. I have been laid off many times over the past twenty-five years, and for seventeen months, from June of ’91 until November of ‘92; I was totally out of work, along with many others. Basically, it sucked. Unemployment compensation barely covers the living expenses of even the lowest paid wage earners here in Massachusetts. It gets to a point where you begin to wonder if you are going to work again or not. Your unemployment compensation benefits run out, and you begin to look at things like retail store jobs with envy. Some people who find themselves out of work try to pursue dreams, such as starting their own business. If you think you can do it, emotionally and physically, I say more power to you, but try to be objective about it before taking the plunge. Some people change careers altogether. I once knew a man with the almighty Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, who became very fed up with the entire high tech game. He went into the hotel management field. He had the right personality for that line of work, so I would guess he’s happier, wherever life has taken him.
A few years ago, the economy was booming, and employers were almost chasing job applicants down the street. During the height of the so-called “dot com boom”, I heard stories of job candidates making all sorts of cartoonish demands on potential employers, such as insisting on all Fridays off, and being bestowed with candy-ass job titles which contained the words “vice president”. This from people who had been out of college a few months. Supposedly, people were showing up for interviews “fashionably late”, wearing shorts and beach sandals, while sipping five-dollar lattés, and they were actually getting hired. I’m sure you heard similar stories. Heck, if you worked at a dot-com company, you probably saw this twisted behavior first hand.
My, how times have changed. As I like to say, time always wins, there’s no way it can lose. Time has never lost, ever. Today, the old stories from twelve years ago are back. People are sending out hundreds, or even thousands, of résumés. People are going six months or longer between interviews. Actually being granted an interview at a company, any company, is big news. Outplacement companies are doing a great business though, along with career counseling firms. Oh yeah, the ones I call “the vultures” are hovering around as well. These are the shady characters that prey on the unemployed, with promises of “big money fast!” Frequently, their shtick includes a pitch to the ego, with such catchy come-ons such as “You know you’re better than this”, or “You could be on top of the heap, if only someone would give you a chance”. Often, these are nothing more than rigged pyramid schemes, (or worse) and the only ones making the aforementioned big money are the often photographed, but never actually seen, “company presidents”. Advice: Folks, even if you have been out of work for a long time, and bills are piling up, stay away from these vultures, no matter how tempting it may sound. Other vultures are these “career counseling” outfits that demand money, sometimes thousands of dollars, up front. Their promise is a steady supply of great job leads, and that a counselor will work with you until you land a suitable position. Folks, when someone demands money up front like this, stand up and calmly head for the exit. Get leads for free from Monster.com, newspapers, and outplacement, if it’s been made available to you. And don’t forget, public libraries are great places to research potential employers, and “network” with others who are in the same situation as yourself. During rough economic times, some towns even run job-hunting support groups, meeting weekly or biweekly at a public place such as a library. Take advantage of this, if you can. I got some job leads this way.
So, what are job interviews like these days? As I’ve said, I’ve been lucky. I have not had to interview for seven years, and I hope that continues. But, like many, I’ve had some real whoppers for interviews, including a few which were right out of “Dilbert”. And I know things never seem to change, especially in the technology biz. So, drawing on my own personal experiences, and those of the many I have been associated with over the years, I give you…
The Whacky world of Job Interviews, for your fun and amusement. No particular order or rank system involved here. How many of these have you experienced?
The conference Room Parade: In this one, you are escorted from the reception lobby; to a conference room a few doors down the hall. There, you are seated, and interviewed by a “parade” of people, one after another. They come in, spend a few seconds scanning your résumé, and ask you a bunch of questions, sometimes in a disconnected fashion. Each person leaves, and promises, that the next interviewer “will be with you in a few minutes”. You never see anything besides the lobby and this conference room. You never see the work area, of any of the offices. Sometimes, the different people will ask the same questions, in almost the same order. If you ask to see the work area, and they refuse, you know they’re hiding something. Once, while sitting in a conference room, waiting for my next interviewer, a large group of people abruptly came in. They eyed me, looking confused, and asked who I was. I told them, and the one in charge (I think he may have been all of twenty-two) said, in an excited voice, “well, we’re having a meeting here, you’ll have to leave”. My interview session continued, in the front lobby. They didn’t offer to show me anything else in the place. I wasn’t offered the job, and it was just as well. The last I heard, that company took a dirt nap. Gee, what a surprise.
The Fortress: You walk into the lobby. It’s small, and has cheap office furniture, which was in style back in the seventies. A large potted plant by the window appears to have died months ago. There’s a strange, musty smell to the place, and what is that stain on the aging carpet? The receptionist sits behind a sliding windowpane. It’s locked, with one of those chrome cylinder shaped locks they put on display cases. There’s one other door, it looks pretty solid, and has a keypad lock. The receptionist looks up, and directs you to “sign in” on the sign in sheet. You notice she looks tired, pissed off, and worried. You do as instructed. She unlocks the window, and hands you a plastic ID badge, which proudly displays the word “Visitor”. The badge is well worn, and has a greasy feel to it. You know a hundred people have worn it, at least. In a few minutes, a manager of some type or another appears from behind the locked door. He also looks tired and worried, and seems as though he wants to get through his time with you as fast as possible. He walks you around the place very fast, asking questions. At no point do you actually sit down. What you do notice is that every person you see has that tired, worried, pissed-off facial expression. You also notice that there are no windows, or else existing windows have been welded shut and painted over. Oh yeah, there’s a time clock station. You have not seen a time clock in a long, long time. You thought time clocks had passed into history, but no, not here. The interview ends in about ten minutes, and you are told, “If there is any interest, we’ll call you”. You’re shown back to that closet sized front lobby, and that heavy door with the combo lock slams shut with authority behind you. You notice that the receptionist has been replaced with another, who also looks tired, pissed off, and worried. Folks, forget this one. You don’t want to work in such a place, no matter how long you’ve been out. Someone may even go postal in this place any day, or else they’ll tank within a year.
The Mind Players: You want the job all right, but you’re a little concerned. Why? Well, the human resources type, (usually a cold-eyed female with a reptilian smile) has just asked you to take a “personality test”. Such tests are common in the retail business, but the practice gets used in other areas of the job market, when the economy goes bad. Some are “fill in the bubbles with a number 2 pencil” types, and others are more detailed, asking very personal questions. A few ask real nutty questions, such as “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (I’d be tempted to answer “a telephone pole”) The legality of these tests is questionable, I think. I’m no legal eagle, but I wish a lawyer would get hold of one of these tests.
If that is not bad enough, the human resource drone pulls other tricks, such as mentioning the number of applicants for the job, or the number of résumés received. Sometimes, they pull out the old textbook questions such as “what do you see yourself doing in five years?” Some questions these HR drones ask are just plain absurd. Often, I think that the HR drone has already decided that you won’t make it through this screening, and he / she is just playing with you for personal enjoyment, because they can, and because they have an afternoon to kill.
Who’s in Charge Here? As a job applicant, you do what you have been told a thousand times: You dress appropriately, and you arrive ten minutes before the appointed time. You’ve collected as much information as you can about the company, and you feel ready. So, you go in, and announce yourself to the receptionist. You are told to “take a seat, someone will be with you shortly”. And you wait. And you wait. You wait some more. After about an hour, an administrative assistant appears, and takes you to the HR person. This person seems to be totally disinterested. She might even interview you and eat a sandwich at the same time. (Yes, that happened to me) She asks you a bunch of oddball questions, and then she takes you to the first technical interviewer. He’s shocked and awed, since he “didn’t know I was on the list”. He asks you a bunch more pointless questions, and then hands you off to yet another character, who also was not expecting to be interviewing anyone today. He passes you off to a higher ranking guy, (you know this, because this one has an actual office, with a real door) and the first words out of his mouth are “I don’t have much time for this today, I’m already late for a meeting”. By the time it’s all over, you are back sitting in your car, wondering what the hell just happened. Plan on getting a form rejection letter in about a month. Your name will be spelled wrong. (Personal note: When an appointment is made for a job interview, I always assume that the appointed time is convenient for all concerned parties. Am I wrong to assume this?)
The Secret Society: You get a phone call from someone, typically a stern sounding woman. She explains that they’ve received your résumé, and they want to talk to you. Good news, right? Ah, but first, you get the “telephone-screening interview”. I can’t explain why, but I find this practice to be very strange, and it sets my alarm off big time. In the course of about ten minutes, you are asked the general questions which are typically asked on a first interview. You answer all their questions, but when you want to ask some, well, that’s another story. No, they won’t discuss the salary at this time. No, they cannot give you any more detail, “because of company policy”. No, “I can’t answer that at this time”. This telephone interview ends with something like “we’ll be going over candidates, and if we have any interest, we’ll consider bringing you in to meet our management staff.” (Uh, I’m applying for a job, not trying to join the Masons. Jeesh!) The telephone-screening interview all but vanished when the economy was booming along, but now I understand it’s back with a vengeance. I suppose you could argue that it saves time, for both companies and prospective employees, but I suspect there’s something else going on. Who knows, maybe they’ve got a voice stress analyzer on their end of the phone. Paranoid? No, just rightfully suspicious. You should be as well.
The Flow of Buzzwords: “Employee empowerment!” “Team Concept!” “Total Quality Management!” Sound familiar? Of course it does. All technology companies have their buzzwords, it’s just part of life in technology land. But when they keep hurling them at you on a job interview, do what Captain Kirk does so often: “Get those shields up!” This is probably a place where you don’t want to work. Every week will bring out new buzzwords to learn, and who-knows-what for committees. (An employees empowerment committee for example.) If you go to interview, and they tell you that they’re “real big on the team concept here, are you a team player?” just play along, but write this one off. Something stinks, and it isn’t the cafeteria’s fish fillet.
He who Stares at his Desk: This is one I have never been able to figure out. You go in, and are introduced to the hiring manager by the HR drone. This manager gives you a “dead fish” handshake, and then asks for “a few moments, to look over your résumé”. And it ends right about there. He stares at his desk, never really looking up. He talks to the desk, not to you. He asks questions that make no sense, and are not tied into the job at all. He speaks on a low monotone, as though he’s thinking very carefully about each word. Is this guy hung over? Sick maybe? Who knows? The interview never really goes anywhere. Usually, these get over quickly.
Mister Jock-o-Matic from Ronco! Folks, this was one of the worst, and strangest, interviews I have ever been on. It was at a large, corporate R & D laboratory. The HR part of it went fine. I was taken down a long hallway, and into a small office, where I met the hiring manager. Right away, I knew this was not going to work. All over this guy’s office, on the desk, the bookshelves, everywhere, were small trophies, big trophies, and photographs the man himself playing football, or hockey, or coaching the same. A few sports pennants adorned the walls. I’m a certified geek, the guy who looks like he gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, and this guy had the classic look and build of an aging jock. I think three guys my size could have fit inside this man’s pants. And the interview? Well, he asked very few technical questions. In fact, he asked me very little at all. What he did do was give me that “hard eyes” look of the classic bully-jock. Today, I realize the dislike was mutual from the first nanosecond I walked in the door. The whole thing was over in ten minutes. I never saw where I might have been working, but I would guess that the whole department was made up of aging jocks, probably with sports betting pools going on all over the place. Just a guess, of course.
The Confused ones: Okay, you’ve read all you can about the company. They’re a young start-up, with great promise. You’ve scored an interview, and you are eager for the interview to begin. You’re sitting in the office of the prospective manager. You want him to ask a question, but he can’t right now, because he’s on the phone. It’s the third phone call he’s had since you sat down. Okay, phone call’s over. Now…Uh-Uh, someone comes in with paperwork for this guy to examine. “It’ll only take a minute”. This continues for a while. Finally you talk for a few moments, and then it’s on the next interviewer. The same thing happens again. You get to see the work area, and it reminds you of something from the Three Stooges. Lots of loud voices, lots of people running around looking for parts, tools, or instruments. At one workstation, two people are arguing over a test procedure, or something. You wonder, just for a moment, if they’ll start boinking each other in the eyes and slapping each other. An interviewer explains, “We’ve got deadlines looming”. He might chuckle, and say something such as “Hope you like lots of overtime”. Folks, if you value your sanity, and your personal life, better forget this one. The B.S. will simply never stop, and in the end, the ones in charge of this company will walk away with their pants full of cash, and the company will end up circling the drain.
And there, you have it. My own experiences, and that of some others. I’m guessing some of you have had some strange interviews as well. But, sooner or later, it does pay off. You hit it just right, the interview process goes fine, and you get a job you want and enjoy. (And they didn’t even make you take a personality test.) And you smile. It’s over, at least for now.