Friday, March 14, 2008


Dontcha Hate It When...

You get back from an interview for a job you really, really want, only to realize that you completely misinterpreted a question? And that the answer you gave to the question they meant, rather than the one you heard, almost certainly came off as colossally nuts? And that nobody around the table bothered to stop you, or to clarify the question, or to provide context, or even to make a facial expression that might alert you that you were doing the equivalent of saying “why yes, I do like to club baby seals in my spare time, thanks for asking”?

Me, too.

It's tough, because certain words have different meanings in different settings, but so few people move between those settings that the 'natives' are often unaware of the language difference. So they think the meaning of the term, or the question in which it's embedded, is utterly transparent. And an answer that depends on a different meaning is prima facie evidence of mental illness, or, at best, a tragically failed attempt at performance art. And you wonder why they're oddly distant as you leave, only to have it hit you in the middle of the subsequent night that you basically told them that you're a douchebag of epochal proportions and proud of it.


Sadly, there are no do-overs. So somewhere in this wide land, there's a perfectly wonderful college with some perfectly wonderful people who spent the better part of an afternoon staring at each other and muttering variations on “what's his problem?” or “did you hear that?” or “ay caramba” or whatever the hell it is they say when someone lays a gigantic egg and doesn't know it. And they're almost certainly congratulating themselves on having dodged a nasty bullet by discovering that beneath this mild-mannered exterior lurks a gleefully cackling cartoonish villain who spends his time thinning the gruel of orphans.

Worse, it's entirely possible that the sustained silence I expect will follow would have happened anyway, but without the bitter taste of self-blame. But there's just no way to know.


Someday I'll chalk it up to experience. But for now, it's just really, really frustrating.

Oh Dear!

While I've not yet (knock on wood) experienced this in an interview situation, I have experienced it.

It is frightening how fragile the process of communication is and how the parties involved can be totally oblivious to the fact that they are talking about entirely different things.

And there's almost no way to tell that this is happening until the disaster occurs, due to the miscommunication.

Indeed frustrating!
There IS such a thing as a do-over: Send a follow-up letter. After thanking the committee for the opportunity to interview and summarizing the strengths you bring to the position, say something like: On my flight home from the interview, it occurred to me that I may have misinterpreted Sue's question about ....
It might not have been as bad as you think. Your special kind of crazy may be just what they're looking for.

I really think going to interviews make you a better interviewer - you have much more compassion for the interviewee.
Ergh. What an awful realization. I like Rick's idea of the "do-over."

You never know, they may be looking for an individual who will take an idea and confidently run with it ... whether they're right or not!?
I'm about to hit the market again. Now I have to worry about turning into the guy that asks for clarification on every question. Which means, of course, I'll look like an even bigger dolt that will require too much hands-on management.

This makes my stomach hurt.

The celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has a great story about a kinda-similar moment.

Early-ish in his career, he was interviewing for a job as chef at a new steakhouse. The job was a choice one, and the interview was going brilliantly. He could tell the job was damn near his.

Then they threw him a curveball.

The owner of the restaurant asked him, "What do you know about me?"

Bourdain stopped and ran through the many things he could say in response. Did the owner want him to kiss his ass? Was it an innocuous question about his social circle? Was it an opening for the owner to start boasting? Was he serious? Was it a test? Finally, Bourdain decided to go with honesty, and hope it impressed them.

"Absolutely nothing!" he said.

The owner and his interviewing buddies' eyes bugged and they sat in stone silence.

A little while later, Bourdain realized he misheard the question. The man had asked "what do you know about meat?"

He didn't get the job.

A bit more literal than DD's situation, true, but similar in spirit.

I feels ya, man.
You may not be out of the running yet. It's hard to be certain, knowing neither the question nor your answer, but having another candidate for the same job blow the question in a similarly outlandish way should prompt the committee to reconsider how they'll weight the answers.
I've been there, man. I was asked in an interview what my experiences were of working on a team. I answered about committees and groups, but then the interviewers explained that they were using the word "team" in a way that was very specific to their organization, indicating a certain style or level of organization that I still don't understand! I fumbled an answer as best I could, but immediately afterward just thought WTF? Why would they for a minute expect a candidate to already understand that they were using a simple, English word to mean something completely different from its usual definition?

So my perspective may be tinged with sour grapes, but I feel that if an organization wasn't able to think out their interview questions in a way that rendered them unambiguous to an outsider, then what would it be like to work with? Would psychic abilities be required to understand what your coworkers meant? I exaggerate a little for dramatic effect, but seriously, given an organization's chance to put their best foot forward during an interview, if they don't manage to do so, and leave you feeling duped, would that be a good place to work?

If nothing else, this is a rationalization to fall back on later, if things don't work out. ;-)

Hang in there! You are not alone.
Having worked in/with HR on human sourcing issues over the years, perhaps the "alternate perspective" might be of assistance.

A bizarre, inapt, off the wall, misleading, bogus, etc. question is a valuable tool.

I can't think of an interview preocess that I have ever been professionally involved in that did not use at least one "spoiler" type question.

The answer is irrelevant- we are measuring aplomb, elan, thinking-on-feet, etc. etc.

One of my all time favorites was the "what do you think of our new football coach?" (didn't even have a team).

Worst answer: "well, it must be a building year, and while it will be a painful process of recruiting . . ." etc. etc. [bluff]

Best answer: "I'm sure he'll keep that 'undefeated' school record alive!" [tongue in cheek humor]
You know, I don't have the hugest stack of experience with this kind of thing, but what I do have suggests that nearly all forms of second-guessing, even such extreme examples as this, are wasted. That is, the odds are really good that nobody was reading your answers closely enough to even notice what you're experiencing as a ginormous gaffe. Something like this:

Them: So how would you do x?
You: [something crazy, something crazy]
Them: {he's still talking, seems articulate, hasn't farted audibly yet - better than the last guy!}

Easier to say from the outside, of course, but I'd bet you a million your big goof went totally unnoticed.
I'd second the recommendation for the follow-up letter. Since you're going to be writing to thank them for the on-campus interview, anyway, it would be easy to slide that in.

Of course, I do understand the whole "hit myself over the head for stupidly misinterpreting the question" feeling. Been there, done that more than once.
Gee whiz, but the response from yet another confused professor makes me gnash my teeth.

A "spoiler" question that's designed to test one's "aplomb" seems absolutely inhumane to me. The hot seat is already hot enough, isn't it?

I've heard stories about hiring committees choosing one member to play the part of an irritating, inattentive, or just-plain-goofy student during candidates' teaching demonstrations. I think that's just plain shitty.

We've all been there. Sorry.

We had a candidate handle this really well. He realized, about five minutes after the fact, that he'd said something kind of stupid. So he said, "Wow, it's near the end of a long day, and I cannot believe I just told you XYZ. Could we just pretend the last five minutes never happened, and I'll try it again?"

We all laughed. And he got the job.

So yeah, a do-over is worth a try. Even if it's a day late.
This is academic hiring we're talking about. Those follow-up letters never work.
I've had a slightly different experience.

I was in a massive day-long interview, when I absolutely GROWLED at a senior faculty member (I was a shiny, new Ph.D.). I did make my point, but I was snarly.

Seems that helped seal the deal. The faculty was worried that I could be pushed around (nice gurl disease). Surprise! They discovered that I could get irritated and then stand my ground.

And I'm still at the same place (up the food chain), 12 years later.

So, while at the time, I was sure I had blown things, it actually helped me get the job.
Is it possible that they could figure out how you interpreted the question based on your weird answer?
I was hit with a spoiler question - and it positively infuriated me. It was simply the most inane question I had ever heard. The organization had brought 50 interviewees for 5 positions, so they wanted to see us squirm. I refused to take the bait, gathered my belongings, and marched out of the interview.

I accidently marched the wrong way, and had to be turned around. I felt victorious for a moment, though.

There is a good chance the question you think you botched was written by committee, so it has a multitude of meanings and answers anyway. All of which are probably counter-intuitive.
There's always the chance that the question you messed up was a question that most of the committee hated anyway -- just someone's darling of a question. The weight they attach to the question and answer may or may not be great. But yeah, most of us have been in a similar circumstance. And yeah, having experienced that probably does help each of us be more compassionate and humane when interviewing others. I hope so, anyway -- 'cause I'm serving on a search committee and we're interviewing folks next week, and each of us on the committee is a mere mortal, prone to making mistakes.
I've been on both sides of the table. You can just do what you can do. Perhaps you did lay an egg. Perhaps the other interviewees are laying omelets. In either case, the answers to the other questions matter more than just the one that you wish you could have to do over.

All you can do is try to trust that it'll work out for the best.
I actually had the opposite thing happen. When I applied for the Job O'Doom, there was a question (okay, a lot of questions), which in retrospect should have been giant farking red flags. I answered them "correctly," and generally aced the interview (as evidenced by, well, getting the job), but it took me a while to realize that those questions probably oughtn't've been aced (or even dignified) at all.

"We sometimes do things that are (technically) illegal here. Would you be okay going along with that?"

"You're going to need to be really submissive here. Can you handle that?"

"We encourage nepotism here. Do you have any sisters who need a job?"

... yeah.

(In my defense, I needed a job Right That Minute, and it was technically my First Real Job, even though my resume-worthy job experience stretches back to 1998. And, of course, the boss was already displaying what turned out to be his hallmark unbalancing act - I was called for an interview in the morning, interviewed in the afternoon, and hired before I'd had time to get all the way home. Everything was pushpushpush.)
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?