Saturday, February 15, 2014

Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 11: The Job Interview

Part II: Susan's Saga  

Episode 11
The Job Interview

In the previous episode, over a romantic first date, Ben helped Susan prepare for a chat about a possible job as an academic adviser at a college. 

She had an outsized fear of public speaking and in driving to the interview, she had been able to remain calm--well, relatively calm--because the director had said, "I'd be pleased to chat with you about a possible job over a cup of coffee." "Chat," "coffee." Those were nice, unintimidating words.

But when she walked in, there were four people sitting on one side of a conference table, her worst nightmare come true.

The director said, "I thought I'd ask the assistant dean and a couple of the academic advisers to join us. Have a seat. Coffee?"

"Sure." The only thing Susan really was sure of was that she was dying, absolutely dying. She tried to calm herself, "Deep breath, deep breaths. There always are other jobs. There always are other jobs." 

"Well Susan, tell us something about yourself." She couldn't believe it--the exact question she and Ben rehearsed! And slowly, her terror subsided.

Most interviewers aren't pros at it so they rely mainly on stock questions. So it wasn't surprising that many of the questions were those she had prepared for, like, "What's your greatest strength and greatest weakness?" She resisted giving the stock BS answer: "I tend to take my work too seriously but I'm working on dialing it back a little." Instead she said, "Well, I've never been an academic adviser before. I like to think I could do it because I did well working with the middle school kids but do you think someone like me could do the job?" The integrity, the non-desperation, was more impressive than any BS answer. 

They did ask a few questions she couldn't have prepared for, for example, "Your biggest challenge will be dealing with the many students we admit to college who frankly aren't prepared for college work. Most of them end up dropping out. How would you do academic advising with such students?"

Her first thought was, "Why would you admit students you know are so likely to fail, costing them money and time they could have more wisely spent, not to mention the assault to their self-esteem?" But she realized that would endanger her chances of getting the job while not changing the university's admission policy. So she just said, "Baby steps. All I can do is help them come up with smart baby steps and be encouraging without being dishonest. Does that make sense?"

Standard interview advice encourages you to exude confidence. But too often that appears like phony bravura. Honesty trumps least with the sort of employer you'd want to work for. 

She had another challenge to her honesty. An interviewer asked her, "What would you say to a student who says, 'Why do I need to learn about the symbolism in Milton's poetry, about stochastic processes in chemistry. I'm from the inner city. I want to go going back to my community to be an accountant. Isn't there more important stuff they could teach me?"

She was afraid to give the stock answer, "A liberal arts education prepares you for life." Not only is it a cliche, she wasn't quite sure she believed that learning about the symbolism in Milton's poetry teaches you more about life than say a course in conflict resolution. She decided to strike a middle ground: "There is truth to the idea that a liberal arts education prepares you for life but I'm afraid if I said that to a student, he'd blow me off. So I'd probably say something like, "I understand. Might it help, as you're taking these courses, to ask yourself, 'How the hell could I apply this to real life?' Actually some of it does."

Throughout, remembering how important chemistry is, Susan did smile appropriately, was enthusiastic, and asked a couple of questions that showed she had thought about the job. And she used a technique she used when coaching singers: As you're singing, look one audience member pleasantly in the eye, then someone a little to the right and so on. Susan did that with the interviewers and often, they smiled back at her. Chemistry! 

At the end, the director asked, "Do you have any other questions?" Susan didn't ask a standard question like, "When will you let me know?" That would make her seem desperate. Nor did she ask a question that suggested a less-than-great work ethic like, "How much vacation will I get?" 

Instead she was deciding among three: "If I were to be an outstanding employee, what would you hope to see in the first month?" "Every workplace has its cultural norms. What sort of person fits best here?" and "Anything make you hesitant to offer me the job?" She decided on the latter. She thought, "If he raises an objection, I have a chance to counter it. If he says that nothing makes him hesitant, it concretizes his commitment to me, making him more likely to offer me the job."

His answer, "I guess nothing is making me hesitant. He turned to the other interviewers. They all shook their head---no objections. "Well then, I say we offer you the job right here." They all smiled--including, of course, Susan. "It's only part-time and the contract ends at the end of the school year but the pay isn't bad: $22 an hour plus benefits. What do you think?"

"I think, yes!"

The next episode is HERE.

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