Thursday, October 25, 2007

Blowing the Interview

I sat in on a job interview today, and it got me thinking about some of my classic interview experiences. There were good ones that led nowhere, bad ones that resulted in job offers I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, and then, there have been a handful of ugly ones. Those ugly interviews I handled poorly at first, but, by the time of my last ugly interview, I had figured out the perfect response.

My first bad interview was the summer after my sophomore year in college. This was when my father was dying, my mother was sick, and I wanted a job that would provide a few hours pay at the mall just down the street from my parents' house. A new discount shoe store was opening, and the manager, a little guy with his hair high and tight and his face almost always suffused with blood, jaw clenched, eyes bugging out. He had a cast on his arm the day I went to "interview" for the job of stocking the new store with boxes of crappy, low-end fashion shoes. Mr. Anger Management looked me over, sneered, and said, "Yeah, you can start. Right now."

The staff of the store that first day was a motley assemblage of recent high school grads and returning college kids like me. Many of the girls working the store had graduated high school with me, but were of the popular ilk that did not give me the time of day at good ol' MHS. But here we were, playing field leveled, piling box upon box of shoes on empty shelves. At the end of that first day, Anger Management assembled us to give us his version of a pep talk. He told us that whole day had been our job interview, and he was watching us work. This was, it would appear, his attempt to be clever and figure a way to get 20 kids to work for free for a day. Jerk.

He raised up his broken arm and announced, "This here I got when a nigger mugged me and shot me in Chicago. Don't like 'em. That's why you won't see no niggers here in my store. That's it. Be here at 8:30 tomorrow, and I'll decide if I want ya." He dropped that bomb and then turned to walk away. I think my jaw was scraping the floor when he spun around and said, "And no faggots, too. Got it?"

When I got home - before I even told my mom about this - the phone rang. It was Anger Management. "Yeah, you don't need to come back tomorrow. I got all the girls I need. We need cute girls to sell shoes, ya know? Maybe you should be working down at that big gal's shop." He was a filthy bigot, there was no doubt. The older me would have brought his behavior to the attention of a whole pile of people and agencies. But the 20-year-old me just hung up, realizing, as far as work went, I'd just dodged a massive bullet. And, in the end, I did work at the "big gal's shop" a few doors down, until it was time for me to leave for England. I still think about that guy, though, and I wonder if he died of a heart attack or if his stinking mouth got him killed. He was a sad cartoon of a man. Pathetic.

But I was pretty seasoned by the time the next ugly interview situation came around. This had to be nine or ten years ago now. I was invited up to New York to interview for the position of Assistant Director at NYU's Center for War, Peace, and the News Media. Nice gig. Crappy pay for New York, but that was to be expected. I took the train to New York, early in the morning. As we rolled through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I fell asleep, lulled by the click of the train on the tracks. I woke up somewhere near Newark to find a woman had fallen asleep on my shoulder, where I had been cradling my head with my own hands.

She had wet hair dye on her head. Wet freaking hair dye. Red. And my hands were stained. She woke up, I yelled at her, and without a word, she got off the train in Newark. Idiot. I frantically called a high school friend who was working tech backstage at "All My Children." Good toolbelt-wearin' flannel-clad tech chick diva she was, she had a bar of Lava soap with my name on it. Thank god. 30 minutes before my interview at NYU, I'm scrubbing my hands in a utility sink at ABC's studios on West 66th Street, trying to not make noise while they prepared for some surely dramatic scene a few feet away.

I made it to NYU right on time and spent three hours shuttling between the offices of administrators and professors, really shooting the breeze more than talking about things of substance (or my experience.) At the end, the HR person asked me to wait in the hall while they deliberated. An hour passed and she came out, announcing that I was their top candidate. Could I come back in a week for an all-day interview? Holy crap, yeah! Of course I could!

She told me she would call me with the date and they'd buy my train ticket back up. And, they'd reimburse me for this trip. A nice bonus after the hair dye extravaganza of that morning. I went back to DC feeling pretty good about the world.

But then, the call never came. I called. And I called. Aaaaand I called. I was shuttled between different people's voicemail boxes. After a month of this bull, I left messages for all the people with whom I'd been dumped on the phone, telling them that, frankly speaking, they lacked class. And at this point, if they offered me the job, I'd just tell them where to stick it. Finally, one person called me back. "Oh, nobody told you? Yeah, we hired from within. Thanks."

Etiquette is not just something left to the job applicant. NYU can stick it where the sun don't shine.

Then, there was the awesomely ugly interview for the position representing an Eastern European university here in the United States. When I showed up for the interview, just down the street from my office, no one had even looked at my resume except for the admin assistant who had been tasked with identifying candidates. It was an interview by conference call for the most part. There were two elderly men in the room with me and three more on the phone. They spent the first ten minutes of my interview discussing their board of directors activities, and only then seemed to remember they were there to interview me. As none of them had read my resume, they were at a loss as to what to ask me.

Finally, after some uncomfortable shuffling of paper, I said, "Do you have any questions? Perhaps about my experience in fundraising and public speaking?" One of the men said, "Well, we do need money. What do you know about getting money?" I started to them about my years working with grants and writing proposals, but I was cut off. "We don't like traditional fundraising. It doesn't work for us." I was curious why it hadn't worked, so I asked what fundraising paths they wanted to try and how much money they needed. "Well, we don't know! No one is interested in giving us money!" One man on the phone yelled. "We're hoping someone who comes in for an interview will be able to give us ideas. I haven't looked at our budget in a while now. You'd have to bring in the money for us to afford hiring you."


"You gentlemen aren't really prepared to do this interview, are you?" There was silence.

"I think we're done," I said as I got up to leave. "I'm afraid I'm not the right match for you. Goodbye." The admin assistant followed me to the door and whispered, "I'm so sorry." I think she working in her own little Hell. I felt horrible for her.

But the creme de la creme of crappy interviews was one I had with a small foundation in Iowa, just a half hour or so from where I grew up. The foundation is internationally focused, and I thought it would be a great match - a Midwesterner with lots of overseas and DC experience, coming back to the fold to work on focused global programs. Nice! They wanted to fly me out and back on the same day, but I kindly offered to stay in the area over the weekend (the interview was on a Friday) to save them money. Selfishly, it allowed me two days with my mom, but I really didn't see the point in them paying for an outrageously expensive ticket. I'm a bargain girl - I'll save money for other people, too.

But what I did not know when they flew me out for an all-day interview was that the director already had picked her candidate -- a former student of hers at a local university. I spent EIGHT HOURS having to smile through pointless meetings where I was interviewed at the same time as the chosen golden boy, making nice despite the fact that he had been promised the job. As the hours wore on, and the director fawned over her soon-to-be new hire, I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The only thing keeping me there, really, was a complete lack of public transportation or a cell phone to call one of my sisters to come get me. My final meeting of the day was my only one-on-one interview of the whole damn nightmare, and it was with the director. Before she took me to chat, she made sure she announced loudly to her departing favorite son that she couldn't wait for him to come on board! She acted like a schoolgirl with a huge crush. Except she was in her late 50s and he was about 25. It was a little creepy.

Alone at last, face to face with the director, whose features hardened as soon as the dude of the day left, I realized I didn't even stand a snowball's chance in Hell. She turned to a pad of paper and her scribbled questions. "So," she said, not even looking up at me, "What is that really inspires about about international travel?"

This was my moment. I could wax rhapsodic about the joy of meeting new people and the adventure of experiencing new cultures, but, why waste all that on someone who didn't want to hire me anyway?

So, I answered:

"I guess if you tied me down to one thing, it's the hotel rooms. Yeah, I really love staying in hotel rooms. You can be a complete slob, throw your stuff everywhere, and yet, when you come home each night, there it is, all clean again. I love the free HBO and room service and ice machines. I love that I can be a rock star and pretty much thrash the room before I leave. Yeah, I guess I just love all those hotel rooms. Don't you?"

She looked like I'd pissed in her Cheerios. And I smiled. A big Cheshire Cat kind of smile. An evil grin.

She knew the game was up. "You know, the board insisted that we bring a candidate from Washington, DC, just to make sure I'd made the right choice." Very nice.

I just smiled and said, "Well, I'd like to thank you and the board for the free trip home to see my family. Can the driver take me to my mother's house now?"

I didn't even bother sending thank you notes after that one. Does anyone make nice grey linen notecards with the words "Go fuck yourself" embossed on them? I think that would have been the appropriate response.

But I did get a free trip home.

And, seriously? I do love a good hotel room. And some places I've traveled, it has been the highlight of the trip.


Chuck said...

Oh my, that last interview sounded bad. But I loved your response during the final interview, and the idea of the GFY note cards had me laughing out loud here. I could have used those babies myself, a time or two.

Claire said...

Good tales, M! Reminded me of some of mine... the long ones seem to always be the strangest.

At least you got the free trip home.

Man, I hate interviewing.

Heather Meadows said...

Wow...great stories! I have never had any job interviews quite that interesting.

Anonymous said...

I once had a 1-question job interview over the phone (for a teaching position at Baylor University in Waco, TX). The interviewer asked me, "what are your religious convictions?"

I don't think they liked my answer!