November 26, 2001
Laugh & Learn
One of the best ways to cut time off of your learning curve is to learn from other peoples' mistakes. This is certainly true when it comes to job interviews and résumés. Those of you seeking graduate credits please learn from some of mine.
Not My Final Answer
In an interview with a small publisher of outdoor books and guides, the president of the company met with me. He asked me if I could read maps. I said sure. He then unfolds one unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Buttes, bluffs and trails abounded. He pointed to a winding river and asked me which way it was flowing. Knowing I had a 50% chance of being right (it was either flowing one direction or the other) I mustered the confidence to proudly assert my opinion. I said it with such certainty the owner didn't have to ask whether it was my final answer. His response was as resolute: "Correct!"
As I licked my chops and began thinking about celebrating the acing of my interview I was stunned to find out that even after my final answer, there was another question.
"How did you determine which was the river was flowing?" he asked me. Stunned, I stammered a feeble answer that revealed my complete ignorance of map reading.
The Lesson learned that day: Sometimes getting the right answer isn't enough.
Not a Mock Interview
Some years later I had an interview with the noted San Francisco design firm Clement Mok. I hadn't done my research on the firm but felt it wouldn't matter much. After all, project management jobs are all the same, or so I felt at the time. Midway through the interview, while I'm answering my interviewer's question, someone walked down the hallway behind me and my interviewer looked up, cut me off and had a brief exchange with this person. As she sat down and resumed our conversation she said, "sorry to cut you off, but that was important. You just missed Clement." Without thinking, I glibly responded, "Oh well, if I stick around long enough maybe I'll get to meet Mok!" That's when I learned that Clement was Mok. The company was named after its founder, Clement Mok. If only mine was a mock interview. Suffice it to say I didn't get the job.
The lessons I learned that day: research is essential! And beware of those glib asides and casual remarks seemingly made off the record. It ALL counts.
Those "Special" Skills
A human resources manager I know recounts the time she interviewed a strong candidate for a technical position. His credentials were in order, as was his skill set. As a way of rounding out the interview she asked him what he liked to do in his spare time. "I like to heal people" he responded. There was a pause while the interviewer digested what she'd heard. Then the candidate continued, "No really, I can heal people. It's a special gift I have. In fact, I often do it at work on my breaks and during lunches." Incredulous, the interviewer was momentarily speechless. "You don't believe me, do you?" the candidate continued. Here, I'll heal you." Unfortunately he wasn't well healed in his interviewing techniques. Lesson: When in doubt, leave it out.
We've all heard about the candidate who was running late for his job interview and took the closest parking space he could find to the building. It was mid-interview when he looked out of the window and saw his car being towed from its spot, reserved for the company's CEO.
Interviewees are told to maintain their focus yet distractions abound. On occasion candidates can be thrown by the resemblance between their interviewer and others they've known, or even thought they knew.
Consider the applicant who was interviewed by a woman resembling the actor Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for her staring role in the cable smash Sex in the City. The candidate had the sensation he'd met the interviewer before, though he hadn't. It gnawed on him throughout the interview. When, in mid-sentence, he made the connection to the fictitious character on cable TV, he acknowledged the association, much to the chagrin of the interviewer, who was often mistaken for this risqué TV character. Let's just say that he lost ratings points for making this connection.
One job interviewee was so struck by the similarity between his interviewer and the actress Lisa Bonet, who played one of the Cosby kids on that hit TV show, that he couldn't stop staring in amazement. When asked if he was OK, he disclosed he'd always been infatuated by this actress and the semblance was too great for him to concentrate fully on his interview. Exit, Stage Left.
The lesson: Keep those private thoughts private!
Who's the Boss?
One candidate was interviewed by a three person panel where a well dressed man and woman conducted the entire interview. Sitting at the end of the interviewers' table was a third person: a silent man in a T-shirt and jeans who read the Wall Street Journal throughout my interview. He didn't look at the candidate so the candidate ignored him. Little did the applicant know this underdressed gent was actually the hiring manager. Lesson: You never know who has the power. Be courteous and respectful to all.
Beware the Non-Human Interviewer
Many years ago I had sought employment by a privately owned recreational sports firm in Marin County, California. I had interviewed with the owner, the owner's wife, the manager I would replace, and the people I would be working with. It all seemed to go well. As I was winding down the process and feeling pretty confident about being offered the position, the owner indicated there was one final hoop to jump through. He handed me booklet containing 20 pages of questions. He described this elaborate questionnaire as indispensable for determining if I'd fit in with his company. He told me every employee took this survey as part of their hiring process.
I was perplexed. I had interviewed with half of his staff, he already knew my references, had seen examples of my work and had even given me a tentative first assignment. Yet he was placing heavy weight on the answers I was to provide through his questionnaire.
I needed the job so I began to answer the written questions about my work style, communication style and problem solving abilities. Then came question #58: "What was my favorite color?" Well, color me blue! It was then I realized this wasn't the job for me. The lesson I learned that day: employers have their own criteria for hiring. If it's too far out then that may be a sign the job itself might also be a bad fit.
Betrayed by Thoughts
One interviewer had a giant mole on her chin that was hard to miss. Throughout the interview the candidate kept telling himself NOT to look at the mole. It was like an inaudible mantra he kept repeating to himself: "I will not look at her mole."
The interview was progressing nicely. Toward the end he was asked what questions he had of the interviewer. The candidate thought a moment and then asked, "after the department's expected reorganization at summer's end, how will my mole change?" And he was on such a roll before saying "mole" when he meant "role."
Did You Spell Write?
Not all gaffes are spoken, yet they speak volumes about us nonetheless. Consider the young man who worked for a non-profit that used professional athletes as role models to help young people avoid drugs. When he began sending out résumés for his next job he proudly touted the great work he and their athletes did in positively impacting kids. His cover letter boasted of the pride of their organization in their players' drug and alcohol problems. He meant to say drug and alcohol programs. Lesson: The computer spell-checker is easily satisfied. There's no substitute for human spell checking, for meaning as well as for spelling.
Gaffe and the Work World Laughs With You
By their very nature, job interviews are challenging, awkward and stress inducing. Mistakes will happen. Gaffes will occur. All you can do is come in prepared, confident, and mindful that the unexpected may be right around the corner. Stay positive and true to yourself. And in the meantime, try to learn from other peoples' mistakes.
Book Craig's JEST PRACTICES — A Best Practices of Humor in the Workplace program. (Download PDF description here.)