Remembering my worst interview experience

After my college graduation in 2009, I hit the interview circuit and learned quickly that it’s the type of thing no amount of literature or detailed second-hand account can prepare you for.  Fortunately, within a year after graduation, I found the position of my dreams and that interview experience was pleasant  and invigorating simply because it was the right fit. However, within the several months before I started at bambeco.com, I had plenty of time to fall on my face. All of these memories rose to the surface last summer when I participated in the intern hiring process at Abesmarket.com. It’s been over 5 years since my initial attempt to enter the professional world, but the whole process still sends shivers down my spine.

I was surprised to learn that a bad interview is still uncomfortable no matter what side of the table you are on. I squirmed when I could sense the applicant having an internal emotional breakdown but whose stiff  wide-toothed perma-grin made it all the more awkward. Also uncomfortable was the girl who sat back in her chair, spoke with the assumption that she could “totally” reinvent the company and smacked her gum as she listed off the best traits about herself. At times I would get frustrated at the major faux pas knowing this crop of interviewees couldn’t seem to muster up the motivation to type “best tips for interviewing” into Google’s search box.

But then I remember all of my major offenses, and they were plentiful. I will try to make a long story short out of my biggest train wreck interview experience. To this day, I am not clear what the company actually does (likely the foundation for my failure to be hired). I do however, have distinct memories of the interior being an exact replica of the movie set from “Office Space”. Cubes. Everywhere. Chunky kitten heels and ill-fitting suit pants. Deflated Happy Birthday balloons (the company’s claim to fame for promoting a “company culture”) to match the deflated energy of the office environment. In the moment, I was fascinated, intrigued and inexplicably compelled to work there.  I may have turned into a sterile drone like those surrounding me, but I was probably going to get BUSINESS CARDS!  

First, I met with the friendly and welcoming recruiter who led me to a room in which the hiring manager was waiting.  Immediately upon sitting down at the table, I felt the air being sucked out of the windowless room by the cold, off-putting presence of this woman. She was not a happy person and could’ve used a few extra balloons on her cube. As the HR Manager walked towards the exit, I was overcome with a similar panic to when my mom would drive away after dropping me off on the first day of school.  This woman seemed skeptical about every aspect of me and dissected my resume as though I was a known convicted felon. Upon asking questions, she would stare at me with a quizzical look, and at times was surely struggling to hold back a snicker after hearing parts of my answer. We did not gel, but she deserves a special honor for being the driving force behind my worst interview experience to date.  Here are the biggest flops:

QUESTION #1: Do you have direction?

MY ANSWER: No.  

The Hiring manager asked me where I saw myself in 5 years. At this point in my life, I assumed when you’re applying to work at a company, it should be the center of your universe and all life aspirations should originate from your professional occupation.  “Crap!” I thought. I didn’t look up the senior positions and titles at this company. Trying to do a quick mathematical application of how many years it would take me to rise through the ranks within this particular office park, I simply answered, “in management? Within a structured organization like this one…”

This is now one of my favorite things to ask myself, and a huge pet peeve when candidates don’t have an answer prepared.  This question should inspire feelings of hopefulness, drive and imagination. Out of the 8 or so candidates that came through our office, none of them had a plan for themselves. It seems to be an old wives tale that says if you lay out a plan out loud and deviate from it, you fail. EVERYTHING worth anything starts with an initial plan, even it that changes along the way  (and it will).

My dad once told me that the only way to score a goal in soccer was to close your eyes the night before and lay it out step by step in your head. Picture yourself on one end of the field taking the ball all the way down the field, imagining your opponents and how you’ll move past them, ultimately putting the ball into the net. The more specific you get with each step of the process, the more likely it will come to fruition. This is the same for planning your career path.   Planning means not only are you outlining what you DO want, but also  making a very clear exclusion of things you don’t.  This can be challenging for those of us who want to do it all. But in an effort to sound focused and cohesive, just pick one path and talk about it genuinely, with enthusiasm and interest. Hopefully your long term goals  are relevant to the industry you interviewing for, or else you should probably answer with “management”.

 

QUESTION #2: What kind of person are you?

MY ANSWER: One who is full of shit

I dislike resumes and really anything that is still in the same general format as it was in our parent’s generation. Resumes are the standardized testing of job seeking- archaic, inefficient and a poor representation of what someone is capable of achieving. Luckily in the digital age, candidates can expand their presentation with a personal website to hopefully convey more of who they are and what they value in life. Back in 2009, it was limited to the “interests + skills” section of a resume. 

After we got through intern experiences and a recap of my college job, the Millennial Predator across the table, paused, and with a half smile said, “Por lo tanto, usted dice que usted habla español . Vamos a tener una conversación.

” Excuse me?,” I say not even attempting a Spanish accent.

“Well, you have here that you are proficient in Spanish, so I see no reason why we couldn’t have a little conversation to demonstrate that, ” she said. (Keep in mind that Spanish is in no way relevant to the job role.) I explained to her that having taken Spanish classes starting in 6th grade and throughout college, I felt it appropriate to include, but that I have never been immersed in an environment that fluently speaks Spanish and  was not as comfortable speaking as I was reading and translating.  I was humiliated and later that day  promptly removed that line from my resume. 

While this action vilified her even more in my mind, she was right. I should have put something in that section that I would be excited to talk about and better demonstrated the complexity of my personality. Perhaps my devout anti-factory farming beliefs or the fact that I had been making and selling clothing and jewelry since 6th grade. Rather,  I chose to include something about language, because the Internet told me to. 

 

QUESTION #3: What is your ideal role and work environment? 

My ANSWER: Whatever you tell me I want… Plus, the ability to be creative.

When the Millennial Predator posed this question to me, she already had a rebuttal prepared but reluctantly allowed me to answer. 

“I’m looking for an opportunity to learn about a new industry and be part of a team dynamic. It seems like there is a great opportunity here and I could put my creative problem solving skills to use.”

“ I don’t buy it,” said the predator as she slumped back in her chair with folded arms. “What you’re saying here to me, I don’t buy it. I don’t know that there is room for your ‘creative’ aspirations. For example, we have a phone script and you are not to deviate in any way. Nothing in your presentation or on this paper has indicated clearly to me why you are a fit for this position.”

At this point, the mounting silent tension finally had come to a head. The hostility had been released. I had to grip both my thighs under the table with enough force to keep me from slamming my fists on the table walking out and popping all the half-filled helium balloons on the way out as to put them out of their own misery.

Without fail, every candidate in our interview process included some variation of the phrase “I want to do something creative/be in a creative environment."  I now realize that to management, this sounds like, “I want to day dream and doodle all day long.” It is a meaningless,  aggravating waste of an answer. I always ask the follow up question. “What does being creative mean to you?” I have since realized my own answer to this question. My definition of being creative is to seek out the opportunities to delight and improve an existing framework or process, to go beyond the status quo and build or propose something new. To never stop asking questions or challenging the existing solutions to a problem. I seek environments that nurture and inspire this kind of thinking and motivation. I hope to be in a role that accommodates flexibility so that the organization as a whole can iterate and improve.

There are many facets to this very general question. If you are not one who requires a creativity quota you can talk about the team dynamic, how much independent vs. team work you seek, comfort level with excessive meetings, or really anything down to the amount of ambient noise you can work with.  How important is it to you that the company can teach and nurture new skills? Many companies don’t have the bandwidth or resources so if this is important to you, state it so you’re not eternally frustrated and unfulfilled at the start of your career. It will be these earliest experiences that provide the foundation of being a valuable employee in 5-10 years. 

 

To all of these questions and conversation points, there is NO right answer. I found that it was always the fear of this looming, mythical “right answer” that led me down the road of interview destruction. I realize that a potential crash-and-burn interview will never go away even after years of employment and practice. Often times, it comes down to the quickness in which you can establish rapport with the current team members.  This is almost as cliché as including an exaggerated ability to speak a second language on your resume, but the more comfortable you can be with yourself, and the more you can BE yourself the bigger impact you will make on potential hiring managers. Sometimes that will backfire and you will create a bigger divide between both sides of the table as I did with the Predator, but at least you will save yourself from the potentially disastrous long-term situation of actually being employed there.