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What I Learned From My Nightmare Job Interview

Sometimes it’s the most abysmal job interviews that teach you how to talk up your skills—and look for red flags.

What I Learned From My Nightmare Job Interview
[Photo: Abigail Keenan]

Crappy job interviews are a fact of life. Some are more bizarre, infuriating, and embarrassing than others. But even the most disastrous interviews can teach you something that might prove helpful later in your career—at least according to the people who’ve survived them. These are a few of the more useful lessons.

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It’s Okay To Walk Away

When the hiring manager told me I’d be meeting with Larry later, I expected to be taken to his office. I wasn’t. Once our profoundly weird conversation had ground to a standstill (more on that in a moment), the interviewer turned to her right and yelled, “Larry!” A wall that I hadn’t realized was just a partition then slid open, revealing the gentleman in question.

Still seated in his swivel chair and clutching the armrests, the director of the nonprofit rowed into the room using his legs to propel him forward. One shirttail had wriggled free from a bulging waistband and sat limply in his lap; a combover crowned his head. “Larry doesn’t usually look like this” was the hiring manager’s peculiar introduction, which I took to mean that he was unwell. Then she rushed to clarify: Larry had recently gone boating (a favorite pastime) and was merely tanner than usual.

By the time the interview ended, I’d been asked personal questions about my family, whether I had as many male friends as female ones, and whether I’d mind occasionally carrying Larry’s briefcase, “which would be more of a task that women typically do.” For his part, Larry told me that I wouldn’t need to inform his wife if he abscond with the hiring manager to Istanbul for a week (this elicited riotous laughter from her), but that I should do so if he were to skip town with any other woman.

As soon as I got home, I wrote an email saying that I no longer wished to be considered for the administrative assistant job. This was the very first position I’d interviewed for after graduating, so it was an early lesson in something career coaches tell candidates all the time: You’re also interviewing them, and if you aren’t impressed, it’s okay to back out. Nobody wins when you slog through a hiring process you aren’t excited about anymore.


Related: How To Walk Away From A Hiring Process You’re No Longer Interested In


Sweat The Small Stuff—It All Matters

Rebecca Arian is a human rights lawyer at Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, an advocacy organization headquartered in Jaffa. But in the spring of 2010, when she was less than a year out of college, she landed an interview for a paralegal position at a big corporate law firm in New York.

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“I spelled LexisNexis on my resume ‘Lexus Nexus,’” Arian admits. “The guy called me out on it, and basically the interview ended there—but not before I interviewed with a paralegal who currently worked for the company and told me once she worked a 36-hour day and took a 10-minute nap under her desk.”

Looking back, Arian says the experience was a wakeup call on two counts. First, she says, “I learned that details are crucial. One of my strengths as a candidate—in any position—is that I am detail-oriented, so to not showcase that on your first interaction with a company is really problematic,” she understood.

And second, Arian’s chat with the paralegal taught her to look for the sorts of work-culture issues that candidates often have a hard time detecting, even if they seem obvious in retrospect. “I learned that the culture of the company was that they expected their employees to not have any work-life balance.” The realization that this was a deal breaker for her forced Arian to reckon with what she really values in her career—and to size up future job offers based on those values.

“In any position I interview for,” she says, “I am always looking for companies that value employees who have a diversity of interests beyond work . . . I just know that if I don’t have downtime in my life, I won’t be effective and great at what I do in the workplace.”


Related: Five Hidden Ways To Find Out If You’ll Hate Working Somewhere


Don’t Work For Someone Who Dismisses Your Ambitions

Trevor Begnal was hitting it off with his hiring manager, the head of marketing at a Philadelphia ad agency. It was the summer of 2013, and he was being considered for an internship, but he felt in his element. “I really pride myself on my people skills,” he says, so the back-to-back interviews the agency had scheduled that day didn’t faze him. Begnal had discovered that the hiring manager “was a big foodie, and at the time I worked part-time at a restaurant that was pretty big in Philly. I even had a menu on me for some reason and gave her that, and she was like, ‘This is great!’”

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Then the hiring manager’s two direct reports arrived for round two—both of whom Begnal would be working with closely if he got the gig. One asked Begnal about his overall career goals in what he says was a sort of snide tone. Begnal replied that he’d like to run his own creative agency one day. This earned a dismissive retort. “He goes, ‘That’s pretty ambitious!’”

“When you have an interview like that, you kind of self-doubt,” Bengal reflects. But it pushed him to defend his drive as something genuinely valuable, even as an intern. “If you can’t dream big or make something that’s rather a big goal, then what’s the point of even trying—of doing even the small stuff?”

Begnal now brings this experience up in every job interview he goes on, as a way of explaining his willingness to contribute however he can, from grunt work to stretch assignments. The encounter also taught him that if an employer can’t see potential in even its lowest-level hires—or respect and value what motivates them—it probably isn’t a great place to work.

Begnal never heard back about the internship, but he doesn’t consider it a missed opportunity. These days he manages a retouching studio, which can mean overseeing anywhere from 10–20 people, from finance to HR, at any given time. “I know I’m young, I’m the youngest in my office,” says Begnal, who’s 26. “But I wanted this responsibility, I’m eager to take it on.”

What hiring manager wouldn’t want that?

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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