Heed Warning Signs During Job Interviews

by | March 31, 2009

Two years after graduating from San Jose State University with a B.A. inEnglish, I interviewed for an editorial position at a publishing company.Finally, an opportunity that required a college degree. I did my researchand thought the meeting went well. The company hoped to hire sixentry-level employees. Surely I would be one of them.

After sending a thank-you letter and following up with a phone call, Ireceived a message telling me an internal candidate had been offered thejob. That's when my uncle told me, "Kevin, sometimes people will interviewjust to interview. They aren't going to hire."

Since graduation, my ratio of interviews to jobs has been high -- about20:1 -- because, initially, my goal was to become a televisionscriptwriter. I've entered my episodes for television sitcoms in severalcontests, but none has won. In the meantime, I've held many jobs to pay thebills. I've been a customer-service assistant, an intern at a high-techpublic-relations firm and a private-school teacher.

Along the way, I've gained many epiphanies about the interview process.If you're about to embark on the interview circuit, my extensive experiencespeaking with hiring managers and human-resources reps may provehelpful.

Interviewing is a two-way street, so you need to question hiringmanagers - and take excellent mental notes. Use these tips to screenemployers and decide if a job is worth taking.

Ferret Out the Truth

When interviewing, hone your people-watching skills and trust your gutinstincts. Ask good questions and know how to read between the lines of thereplies. Here are excerpts from a conversation in one of my interviews,which told me that accepting the available position would be careersuicide:

Me: "So...is this the first time thecompany has offered an internship?" Interviewer: "I don't know."

From this reply, you know that either the interviewer didn't bother tofind out, is a new employee or, worse, works on a contract basis.

Me: "Can I see what I would be doing on the job?"
Interviewer: "Nope. We're on a tight schedule and we really can't afford the time."

Not being able to see your office environment or a typical project is ahint that something's rotten in Denmark.

Me: "Is there a chance this part-timeassignment may lead to a full-time position?"
Interviewer: "It's just an internship."

If that's what you want, great. If not, move on.

Me: "Do you have a more detailed job description?"
Interviewer: "Nope, that's it."

If an interviewer can't explain your job in detail, how will you knowwhether you can do it?

Me: "I saw this job posted at the local employment center, then I read an ad in Sunday's paper."
Interviewer: "Yeah, we're really looking for people."

Ouch. If the company needs so many warm bodies, it's unlikely you werechosen for your experience and education.

Me: "Just so I know where I stand,could you tell me the next phase of the interview process?"
Interviewer: "I can't say. (Pause.) Wehave so many interviews it's impossible to tell..."

Take this answer at face value. It means you aren't the leadingcandidate.

Me: "I'm sure when you saw my resume,you thought, 'Now here's someone with skills and experience we could reallyuse.' "
Interviewer: "It's just aninternship."

Cancel the trip to Maui. Here the term "internship" is being used todisguise a grunt job that's so undesirable, even a temp won't do it.Remember, we're talking careers. You're seeking a position that will leadto something better. This won't happen here.

Me: "Thanks for meeting with me. I'lllook forward to hearing from you."
Interviewer: "Okay. I'm so tired..."

If you're seeking a mentor, this isn't the right person.

Following Hunches

Since prehistoric days, intuition has clued us into likes and dislikesand warned us of danger. Don't be so eager to receive an offer that youignore your inner voice telling you that something's wrong with the job,prospective boss or the company.

I wasn't always this aware. When I interned at a high-techpublic-relations firm a few summers ago, I worked briefly with one of themanagers. A year later, I read in a local business journal that he wasstarting a satellite office nearby. I contacted him and was hired withouthaving to interview.

Within a week, my new boss began treating me like pond scum. Heescalated my rookie mistakes into major incidents. His microscopicexamination of everything I did turned me into a nervous wreck. "Do I haveto spell it out for you every time?" he snapped.

I wasn't the only one he singled out -- even the receptionist was fairgame -- and eventually, I quit. Looking back, I realize I ignored certainwarning signs. For instance, I had asked for a week's sabbatical beforestarting work. My new boss agreed but after gaining the okay to hire me,changed his mind and said he needed me right away.

When I again asked for a week off, he replied, "That wouldn't look good,Kevin." Translation: He cared only about himself and about looking good tohis superiors, not about his employees.

He also told me that a top-notch ad agency was a major client. When Iasked if it was Company X, he responded, "It's a competitor of Company X,"and didn't name the agency. This, I later realized, indicated that he had aproblem with trust.

It's natural to view the past with rose-colored glasses. With my new20-20 hindsight, I finally recalled that my boss had been pretty creepy tome during my internship, but I'd forgotten because I worked with him soinfrequently.

Be Cautious

After that, I vowed to never again make a bad career decision, even ifit meant living paycheck to paycheck. I told myself I'd be more analyticalduring future interviews, and if anything seemed strange, I'd call myselfon it. This has saved me in numerous cases:

Halfway through an interview for an entry-level job at apublic-relations firm, I asked the owner if she had an internship program.She said yes. I then asked whatthe intern did at the company and learnedthat the available job had less responsibility than the intern! Anothertelling sign: She left the meeting to take a phone call, keeping me waitingalmost five minutes.

In response to Internet job postings, it's often appropriate to sende-mail to employers. I bowed out of the running after this e-mail reply:"Kevin, thanks for your response to our posting in JobTrak....Just a notefor the future, I wasn't favorably impressed by this approach."

Volunteering is another way to gain a foot in the door. I decided not tooffer my services to a nonprofit organization when the supervisor chewedout an underling -- right in front of me.

During an interview for a full-time writing job, I was asked if I waswilling to work on a contract basis.

After I had waited 20 minutes for an interviewer, he arrived, saying,"You're not here to see me, are you?"

Great Expectations

"You did a good job of checking us out, differentiating us and arguinghow you can fit in and add value. I look very much forward to seeing yourresume and meeting you at some date in the near future."

This reply to an e-mail message was so encouraging that I quickly faxeda copy of my resume to the principal. The interview with him and anassociate seemed to go well. Near the end, I asked for a tour of the smalloffice.

"I can't see why not," he replied. The tour began at the water cooler:"Here's our swimming pool. We shrunk it down so it would fit in ouroffice."

"Here's our cafeteria," he continued, pointing to the pint-sizerefrigerator. The jokes kept coming and he gave me a Dilbert book. When hehanded me his business card, I was certain I had the job, so I made astrong closing: "I just want you to know that from what we discussed, Iknow I'd be a valuable member of the team, and that I'd like to work here.[Pause.] I'm basically asking you for the job. I know you have otherinterviews, but I wanted you to know this before I left."

He seemed pleased and told me he was impressed by my candor and that Ishould send him an e-mail if I had further questions. I sent a thank-younote via e-mail two days later, then left two voice-mail messages, each aweek apart, with no response. Two weeks after the interview, I received amessage on my answering machine:

"...First, I want to thank you for applying, but I offered the positionto someone else and she accepted...I hope you don't think I'm (pause)cold-blooded by leaving this message...I'll keep your resume onfile..."

Cut Your Losses

I re-examined the Dilbert book and found this principle: "Alwayspostpone meetings with time-wasting morons." No, it couldn't be. Theinterview went well...or did it?

No one likes rejection, especially when a company is so small that youknow hiring decisions are personal. Yet all might not be lost. If the firmis growing, opportunities might open up in the future.

But how should you respond if called back for an interview? Not onlywould you be grilled by the people who turned you down the first time, butalso by the person who "stole" your job. Talk about pressure: You're stilla stranger to them, it's a small company, people talk. Suddenly, you feel abit warm, maybe you start to sweat a little...

Your gut tells you to decline the interview. If you ignore this instinctand choose to be a good sport, your ego may get the best of youandrightfully so. Then you might say something you'd regret: "Hey, wipe thatsmug smile off your face. I should've had your job. I should beinterviewing you. Get out of my face!"

Only a confident job seeker can walk away from an attractive situationbased on a vague, disquieting gut reaction or unsubstantiated hunch, saysDoug Richardson, a Philadelphia career consultant. My hunch tells me thatthe employer could have responded to me more quickly, but chose not to. Ifhe really respected me, he would have left a more professionalmessage-and much sooner.

Trust your gut. If you feel you're not going to get the attention,respect and feedback you deserve from a future boss, don't take thejob.

Filed Under: Interviewing


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