Help–My Interviewer Is an Idiot

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We read books and take workshops and practice in front of mirrors to look smart in a job interview. But what if the person conducting the interview is a dolt?

This occurred to me as I read a listserv discussion today among my fellow Asian American Journalists Association members. One member had recounted her cousin’s encounter with an alumnus of an elite university. The interviewer had asked this young Korean-American man why he wasn’t on the math team. When a mention of the young man’s youth in Europe led to a discussion of the food there, the interviewer asked, “What about your own people’s food?”

The retarded utterings of a racist interviewer is harmful enough in the college-application setting. (The young cousin apparently laughed off the incident, but its tale inspired a storm of similar memories among my colleagues.) The point that stayed with me was one made by several of the listserv members, some of whom had volunteered themselves as alumni interviewers: colleges for the most part offered them no training. No boundaries were set, no talking points outlined.

This is all too much like the real world, isn’t it? HR pros get trained (I imagine–I hope) in the nuances of interviewing. But managers often don’t, and often, they’re the ones who have the final say.

Everybody’s got their interviewing horror stories, right? I’m just saying we all too often blame ourselves–for lack of preparation, lack of sparkle, lack of ESP. Maybe we’re blaming the wrong person in the room.

Here’s one from my early-career archives. I was working at a ragtag group of free weekly newspapers held together by chewing gum and by the 24-hour labor of me and a spindly staff. The company was run by three fast-talking 20-something boys–everyone actually called them The Boys–though to this day I’m convinced the whole thing was a tax front for their cigar-chomping dad.

The Boys had just fired my boss and installed me in his place. At 23 I was completely unqualified to manage, and I was desperate to get out of there. One day I came across a classified ad that I circled three times: a newspaper in New Jersey was looking for someone to edit a new section dedicated to young readers. I was young! I loved New Jersey! This job was mine.

Three of the editors I met seemed to agree. They scribbled all over my résumé. They crowed over recent issues of the weeklies I’d edited. They laughed at my jokes, and they nodded like bobblehead dolls at my talk of nightlife coverage and college columns and MTV.

Then came The Worst Interview I’ve Ever Had. She hurried, late, into the meeting room, a stack of papers and a cup of coffee in her hands. Her hair was a mess. She spent a while in the doorway talking to a colleague. When she finally sat down, she scanned my portfolio with her lips pressed together. She narrowed her eyes when I spoke. There were long periods of silence. Though she would have been my direct superior, she was vague about the job itself.

Finally, she yawned. Interview over.

I went back to my job, certain I had blown it. I was right in one sense: the job offer never came. But I believed for years that it was my fault, that I had totally bombed in that last, crucial interview, screwing up my chance at a job I really wanted. It never occurred to me she might have been a lousy interviewer, and that she probably would have made for an equally lousy boss.

In the year that followed, I conducted some pretty horrible interviews myself. I didn’t know how to discern if the candidate would make a good fit; I didn’t describe the job or the work conditions honestly; my hair was probably a mess on more than one occasion (we pulled all-nighters a lot). But I was 23.

I sure could have used some guidelines, a training session, some coaching from a superior–anything. Instead I’m sure I made some big fat interviewing gaffes, some of which led to some big fat hiring disasters. One guy stayed two weeks before he skedaddled.

If you’re a manager in a position to interview job candidates, take a hard look at your skills and habits. Don’t assume it’s up the job seeker to sink or swim in your little shark pool. Take a mo to practice. Brush up on your tactics (this web site is helpful). The recommendation you make based on your interview is going to cost your employer, and it could change the course of the job candidate’s life.

And it wouldn’t hurt to brush your hair.