Subscribe
The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

When job interviews are bad for you

In the June 7, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker expects more from employers.

Question

Push Back!When a company wants to interview me, I apply your advice and try to exert some control by asking that the hiring manager be present at my first interview. I think it’s inappropriate for an employer to ask me to invest hours of my time without that manager present. It worked recently with a small advertising company, and it actually helped the two-way respect, and I felt more confident talking about the role and compensation.

But, what to do when it’s a large conglomerate, like an Apple or GE? I’m in the hiring process with two large companies (not those) and the process has been difficult and very drawn out. While I’m sure these companies have their reasons for doing it this way, it seems to be a waste of time. I guess you always have to be prepared to walk away. Any advice?

Nick’s Reply

Good for you for pressing to have the hiring manager in the interview when you can! I’m glad you’ve seen it will work to your advantage.

Even if the outcome is that the manager rejects you, at least it’ll be early in the process and you won’t have to waste more time, and at least the rejection will come from the person in charge of the job — not some personnel jockey who doesn’t understand you or the work.

At larger companies, the problem (as you note) is that the hiring process is more rigidly structured. It’s hard to get them to do anything different — like let you meet the manager immediately. While a company may have its reasons, it’s still disrespectful and a waste of time for the applicant to get assessed by someone other than the hiring manager.

And again, you’re right – you must decide whether to walk away.

Finesse the encounter

This is where judgment and finesse come into play. If you really want to work at a company, and there’s no getting around their system, you must decide whether it’s worth the risk you’re taking by complying with a process that isn’t to your advantage. But I don’t think it’s prudent to make a binary decision: Should I comply, or should I walk away? I think it’s a matter of degree:

  • How much control should you concede to the employer?
  • At what point do you draw a line?
  • When do you walk away?

If you keep your wits about you, it’s also a matter of negotiation. It may be worth playing by some of their rules:

  • How flexible are they?
  • What concessions can you get in return for complying with parts of their process?
  • What advantage can you gain?
  • Perhaps most important, what can you learn from this initial give and take?

Collect some data

This is where getting recruited becomes fun. What should you ask for before you enter the lion’s den? You’re not required to attend an interview just because an employer asks. So collect some data points that will help you judge the employer!

  • You’ve already taken one important step: Ask to have the hiring manager present. All they can do is say no.
  • If the first interview will be with HR, ask when will the manager be involved? That is, when will you meet the manager? Get a commitment.
  • What’s the hiring manager’s name? It will be to your advantage to look the manager up on LinkedIn prior to your meeting. (Or, Get the manager’s resume before you interview for the job.)
  • What are the three main objectives of the interview? That is, what’s the employer looking for? (They likely can’t tell you, because hiring is haphazard in most companies.)
  • What are the three key things they want a new hire to accomplish in the first six to twelve months on the job? (Again, they probably don’t know — but it’s worth asking and it’s to your advantage to know.)
  • Get anything that helps you judge the employer and prepare for the first interview.

You might even go this far: Ask this question before you agree to an interview.

Judge the employer

As we’ve said, you’re not going to get all these concessions or information. But this preliminary negotiation is chock full of value. It’s partly to improve your chances in a job interview, but it’s also partly to test the employer. Yes — to test the employer. Some interviews are bad for you. Is this one of them?

  • Do this employer know what it’s doing? (See What’s up with clueless interviewers?)
  • Will they make some concessions to demonstrate respect to you — because they really want to interview you?
  • Or, does it turn out you’re just a piece of meat – and they won’t compromise on anything at all?

Additional Resources

There are many ways to test employers, to push the boundaries, and to gather useful data before you invest time in lengthy interviews:

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5, Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention:

  • “How to pick worthy companies” — pp. 10-12
  • “Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?” — pp. 13-15
  • “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies” — pp. 22-24

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8, Play Hardball With Employers:

  • “Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer” — pp. 11-12
  • “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it” — pp. 23-25
  • “Judge the manager” — pp. 26-28

Every concession an employer agrees to or declines early in the process tells you something — it’s a useful data point or signal you can use to your advantage.

Is this “opportunity” really good for you?

When I “go along” because I want a gig (with a new client, for example), I never forget that I’m looking for compromises. If I’m the only one compromising, if I’m the only one who’s agreeable, then I’ll probably be taken advantage of in the end. So, I keep testing, I keep probing, I keep asking, and I keep track of whether and how the other party will bend for my benefit.

Give and take is all part of a good relationship, and you need to know as early as possible what the other guy is willing to do for you. If the employer tells you the application and interview process is “their way or the highway,” then hop the nearest bus.

I think you have it right: Be ready to walk away, but be prudent. Even big companies will sometimes flex when they encounter a candidate they are really interested in. If you haven’t inspired that kind of desire in an employer, then why bother with the process at all? Do you really want to be another beggar at the door?

Make reasonable requests to gain some advantage. And don’t stop too early. For everything they refuse, have another request – and see if they try to meet you somewhere in the middle. That’s the sign of a company that may be worth it, even if their process is clunky.

The reader follows up

Thanks for your response and advice. It’s definitely tough to know when to push boundaries at the biggest companies, but I really liked how you put it: At minimum, test the process a little and collect data points. This is the first time I’ve gone through the hiring process completely solo.

A big thing that I’ve learned is that every step and decision tells you something important about your relationship with that potential employer. It can be hard to understand what’s going on and to capture all the lessons as you move through the process, but your site has been really great in demonstrating how much strategy is involved at almost every step. It has really helped me be mindful of things I would have never considered. Keep it up!

Nick’s Reply

knotLike my old mentor used to say, Use your judgment every step of the way, and do the best you can. And in the end, make choices — don’t let the other guy make them for you.

One of my favorite quotes is from Henri Frederic Amiel:

“To be always ready, a man [or woman] must be able to cut a knot; for everything cannot be untied.”

It’s easy for people to get so caught up with “trying to win” at the interview game that they lose sight of the larger objective: to get a good job, the right job, working with good people in a good company, where future prospects are good. They’re so busy trying to satisfy the employer’s demands that they lose sight of their own needs. Then they get tied up in knots before they realize they’re in a bad situation.

Yes, be ready to walk away, but after you try to get your way, too. I admire your fortitude!

Do you know when to push back on the employment process? Or are you afraid you’ll anger the Interview Gods? What requirements do you make of the employer before you invest your time in interviews? If you just take any interview offered (Hey, I’m not ragging on you) — what problems have you encountered?

: :

31 Comments
  1. In my searches the past four years plus counseling over one-hundred job seekers I have never heard of a company doing in person interviews where the hiring manager is not part of the process. Initial phone screens are a different story but usually are 30 minute or less commitment of time for the interview.

  2. Thanks Nick for once again offering common sense in the place of nonsense. I agree that a job interview is a negotiation. Sometimes the best alternative to a deal is to walk away.

    Every time you interview for a job, you need to keep that principle in mind. Here’s a case in point.

    A candidate I know was interviewed by three people for a program management job with P&L accountability. He passes with flying colors with the recruiter, the head of marketing for the product line, and the chief technology officer. The decision maker, interview #4, is the senior VP for the business segment, one of three that report to the CEO.

    This interview goes south from the start. It turns out the VP has not read the interview notes from the other three interviews, barely read the resume, and opens the session with the candidate with a series of “what would you do with your hair on fire in this situation” type questions.

    At the 60 minute mark, the candidate has had enough. He says to the VP. I am not the person you are looking for. I am not interested in a job that is all about fire drills.

    Subsequently, the candidate lands another job. Later he learns from the recruiter that he was the leading candidate as far as the other three people were concerned, but the VP’s lack of attention to the requirements for a successful recruitment of top talent sank the firm’s prospects for a hire decision of someone who could have significantly impacted their bottom line.

    My point is that sometimes it looks like it is personalities, but it is also about a company that tolerates ineptitude in hiring. You can’t blame HR for this one because they were never in the picture.

    If firms are wringing their hands about their inability to recruit top talent, maybe they need to look at what a great job they do driving away the very people they need to bring on-board.

    • “I am not interested in a job that is all about fire drills.”

      Put another way:

      “Oh, so this is a circus? Sorry, I don’t jump through hoops without significant quid pro quo.”

      It’s also known in negotiating as the “take away”. Cut the interview short and stop wasting your time if they persist – unless you enjoy being a doormat.

  3. The mayor makes a good point. A similar thing happened to me for an internal job transfer. A reorganization had created a big hole in my old department and the managers there had asked me to write a job description for myself which they used to create a new position that I was supposed to have. They had to post the job per company policy. No internal candidates applied, but there were a few external candidates who did not meet the requirements.
    The group I was in had been given over to a new manager who had pretensions of greatness, but not much else.
    I had 100% backing from the hiring managers since I worked with them and essentially invented the job.
    Just when all seemed finalized, a VP who we will call Richard Cranium decided that he wanted to hijack the job and offer it to someone outside the company. This person met exactly zero of the 10 skill and experience requirements in the job description. He further mistakenly assumed that I would train the new hire. My new managers would have none of it and said the new guy was on his own.
    The managers who had asked me to create and fill this position were furious, but couldn’t change Richard’s mind.
    The situation gradually spun out of control. I was terminated after demanding a transfer back to my old group. I refused to accept a severance agreement and hired a lawyer who filed a complaint with the EEOC. I can’t go into details of the settlement but let’s just say the matter was “satisfactorily resolved”. Also, the manager behind my termination was fired shortly afterward.
    But getting back to the interview process, when we were transferred to the new group, we were assigned to a new supervisor who was a real piece of work. He was a new hire and had no idea of how and why things were done, but he was going to make huge changes per the flawed ideas of his manager (the guy who was eventually fired). After 15 minutes talking with him, I knew that either he or me and my coworker would be gone within a year. After I was fired, the other person quit. I have heard that no one will talk to our old supervisor unless they have to. He is not welcome in the building where we used to sit despite the fact that he is in charge of a several important facility projects. I’ve been told that the lab managers “hate him with a passion”. All in all a colossal management screw up.

  4. Mayor Bongo – such an experience is a crystal clear preview of what to expect if you went to work for that person. No one needs that.

  5. @Martin P: I believe you. But in many years of headhunting, I’ve seen many, many job applicants brought in for in-person interviews with HR, staff members, and other “screeners” before the hiring manager talks to them. Worse than that are the many cases where the applicant is brought in WITH NO INTERVIEW AT ALL — they’re required to fill out an hour or two worth of forms or tests.

    • This happened to me! Or, almost happened because I had the guts to say no thank you. It was an interview for a supervisor position. I received a very unprofessional (in design and wording) email from HR confirming the interview time/date and that “after the 30 interview there would be about 3 hours of testing.” What?!?!? Oh my goodness! Beyond me not having four hours to devote to an interview, what is this testing of which they speak? :-) I politely declined.

  6. My experience matches that of Richard P. Why would a hiring manager want to bring someone on board in a position that affects his or her job effectiveness without interviewing the candidate?
    It did happen to me once – the hiring manager was on sabbatical. Worst job I ever had. Otherwise, a company where the manager does not interview a candidate is not one I’d want to work at.

  7. @ Nick, add in to that when part of the interview is a psychologist who’s there to give you a stress interview (not for the Secret Service but for a healthcare marketing VP/director position) and a battery of psychological tests. This happened to me long before I met your work here. I should have walked out after the first inappropriate question. (No, I never did meet with the CEO, who would have been the hiring manager. And I know people who subsequently worked there and had unpleasant, short stays. A healthcare company that serves the urban underserved and largely disabled…you’d think they’d behave differently.)

    Recently this experience: A hiring manager (at C-level, in this case strategy officer of a $90 million funded company, and brother of the chair…you can tell where this is going!) who skips out not once, but twice on the phone interview–and can’t be found by HR. (I am employed, but always looking to improve the situation, and they sought me out.) I was able to end the whole process gracefully and directly with a note saying this was disrespectful and predictive of a future working relationship. (Company just got a new 40 year old CEO, so that may have been a factor–but they should have disclosed. And I’m staying in touch with the pleasant young HR person who reached out to me first. Always keep lines open when you can!)

  8. Nick’s comment here should be embedded in our brains when working to get a job or stay in a job:

    “If I’m the only one compromising, if I’m the only one who’s agreeable, then I’ll probably be taken advantage of in the end. So, I keep testing, I keep probing, I keep asking, and I keep track of whether and how the other party will bend for my benefit.

    Give and take is all part of a good relationship, and you need to know as early as possible what the other guy is willing to do for you. If the employer tells you the application and interview process is “their way or the highway,” then hop the nearest bus.”

  9. @Dee: Psychologists and stress tests are even worse than HR screeners and aptitude tests – incredibly presumptuous of an employer, especially when THEY are recruiting YOU. Imagine pursuing someone you want to date. You finally get the date. And you don’t show up – instead, you send a doctor to “check the person out first.” Sheesh. The analogy really is apt. Kudos to you for how you handled these two situations!

  10. @Lynne: Honest, I’d have sent a note to either the hiring manager (if you knew who that was) or to the CEO, and ask how his or her HR department expects a busy professional to blindly devote all that time without even knowing whether there’s mutual interest in working together. “If I show up, can I bill you for my time?”

    Sheesh. You can’t make this stuff up!

  11. Even better : employers who want free work, either to be considered or to “move you to the next round”. Marketers are asked all the time for critiques, generally verbal. Sometimes you are asked for a specific critique on their business, which can be fair as to how you look at the job ….or fishy as in free advisory services.

    Example:I was asked by the CEO of a small company after round 1 to send in electronic form how I would reorganize the department before a next meeting. I insisted on presenting in hard copy. I did…and he would not return the copy. So when I didn’t hear (as expected) I sent an invoice to him and his accounts payable, several times. Never got paid but made a point.

  12. Very clever, Dee! A great response to a moocher who probably felt very smug about his demand.

  13. @Dee: I’m not sure I would have put in the time and effort to reorganize the department–that sounds like something you would be asked to do after you are hired, not as a prerequisite for being considered.

  14. @dmls it was anodyne as I had only a vague idea naturally of the current one and came with plenty of probing questions. I knew the guy and his company were suspect but being between gigs I could spend the time. Turned out to be exactly as expected. A fat zero, but fun to send bills to.

  15. @Dee, please tell me you turned your bill over to a collection agency. Now that would make an impression on the hiring company :)

  16. Shabby candidate treatment became pretty much the norm about 25 years ago. After repeated scarring I’ve become somewhat desensitized. But I still can’t abide the criminal style interrogations where you are guilty until proven innocent. Actually, I’m surprised when an interview isn’t unpleasant. Curiously, the overblown interviews big tech companies are famous for doesn’t seem to have improved their hiring results compared to less “stringent” companies.

    Unfortunately, employers have become so flinty and conceited that the least bit of assertiveness or perceived imperfection gets you instantly eliminated from consideration. As a small example, recently while awaiting phone interview scheduling, the hiring manager called out of the blue to interview, saying it had been scheduled (it hadn’t). Not expecting the call I wasn’t entirely prepared, yet I was willing to go ahead, but the manager declined, saying she preferred to reschedule. When that didn’t happen, I was told they decided to “go with another candidate”. So apparently their screw up became my fault. This was a household name international Fortune 500 company. It is all too typical of how job hunters are penalized for other’s mistakes.

    • …exactly why I follow the legal principle of “statute of frauds” in many areas of life.

      Get it in writing, a simple text message will do. If it isn’t in print you’ll just get manipulated. Their arrogance leads to excuses such as the “stupid” applicant screwed it up.

      Even then (printed proof) you can still get shoved under the bus for proving said facts which they’ll write off as you being “too aggressive” or “not [fill-in-blank] company material/worthy”.

      Yep, welcome the the hyper-sensitive and easily offended liberal culture.

      Offended by facts?

      Then I want nothing to do with them.

  17. I particularly liked the comment from Stevie Wonders who writes about “. . . the criminal style interrogations where you are guilty until proven innocent.” AND “how job hunters are penalized for others mistakes.”

    A colleague of mine had both of these in a ‘best and final’ interview at the “C” or executive level.

    First, the “penalized part.” The firm’s recruiter gave the candidate the wrong hotel information for where the interview was to be held. There are two hotels in the same town both starting with the name of the town in their location information. Luckily, cell phone numbers were also provided which got everyone to the right place eventually. This did not get things off on the right foot.

    Second, the interview was composed a series of in your face fire drill questions about how the candidate would deal with massive screw ups by customers, the firm, or both. Almost all of the so-called crises had more or less the same root causes, and these were a lack of contingency planning by the consulting firm combined with unrealistic expectations by the clients. As far as “management was concerned, there was no “there” there on either side.

    While my colleague did not get the job, and, frankly, didn’t want it after that experience, it’s a confirming anecdote about bad behaviors in hiring processes.

    This story has a postscript. About two years later a recruiter for a third party firm called my colleague to tell him about a “great new opportunity” with company X. His answer is an example of why some people refuse to ever have anything to do with some firms ever again. And companies wonder why there is a war for talent?

    • Perfect example of why it is so important NOT to waste time with HR.

      The situation involved a recruiter so at least the candidate skipped the “paper chase” black hole time drain of corporate HR.

  18. Speaking of weird interviews, while job hunting around 1995 in Seattle, I responded to some (apparently legitimate) ads by Microsoft. Coincidentally, Microsoft ran several highly specific laundry list ads, which at the time were a dead giveaway for H1-B sponsorship. (A company I worked for did the same thing while sponsoring several H1-Bs). Sure enough, I was subjected to two identical highly surreal phone interviews where I was questioned about my citizenship, birthplace and the like, expressing no interest in my technical qualifications. I didn’t have the presence of mind to complain to the EEOC, and haven’t encountered this since, as I suspect they got into trouble because it was just so blatant. Never got a legit interview. Now that most ads are laundry lists, fakes are not so obvious. Of course, Microsoft, as always, like the other tech companies, were loudly complaining about the “critical” talent shortage, despite a higher than average unemployment rate.

    • LOL.

      Yep, Remember the recent (few years back) ads employers blatantly put out declaring “not employed? – don’t apply”.

      Better yet, I’ve seen ads for convention workers that specifically ask for candidates picture and/or stating “only female”.

  19. Here’s an interview offer story.

    About six months ago, I had a first interview with a large company in another town.

    I heard absolutely nothing and, in fact, had one follow up email ignored.

    Now, six months later, I get an email from the recruiter that they would like to continue the process!

    I decided that I will not spend any more of my money heading down there, so I simply responded by saying that I’d talk if they’d fly me down.

    They have to have some skin in the game. Otherwise, I open myself to being treated like garbage again.

    Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if I’d want to work for them at all.

    • I had the pleasure of telling an employer, who delayed like yours, that I accepted another position. It felt soooooo good :)

    • Let us know if you hear from them. I lay odds you won’t. God Forbid…you’re not on bended knee, begging…but demanding!

    • My God, even a slightly distant response like mine was not enough to stop them from trying to abuse me again.

      They just offered to re-start the process with ANOTHER screening phone call with the recruiter!

      I turned that down, saying that given both the delays and the fact that I’ve already spoken and met with her, that I had expected to be talking with the hiring manager at this point.

      I also told her that I am very busy running my own consultancy so I really do not want to start the process from square one at this point.
      [not a lie, as I am….exhausted from 10-11 hour days of proposal writing, scheduling meetings, and running my website and developing marketing materials and SEO]

      If the hiring manager would like to have a detailed discussion about growing the department’s business, however, I would welcome that discussion.

      @Nick, do these people have no shame?!

      Why would they want to ‘scrub me clean’ through their recruiter AGAIN if I already passed to the point of talking the hiring manager 6 months ago (before the radio silence) AND IF they were the ones to reach out TO ME?

      • Carl: “Why, Carl! Your database record in HR has expired! We need to create a new one!”

        It’s not about shame. It’s about inept. HR is busy producing a talent shortage and you’re it :-). The good thing about this kind of experience is, it reveals who not to work for.

        On to the next!

        • “Why, Carl! Your database record in HR has expired! We need to create a new one!”

          How true – and clearly a lie by HR.

          …and, a direct insult of Carl’s intelligence too given they were clearly aware that he is “…very busy running my own consultancy…” HR obviously packages all candidates into the same “dummy box” figuring that you’ll just believe their BS and obey at the drop of a hat.

          Exactly Carl, they reached out to YOU. With that fact in mind, candidates should use one of Nick’s earlier ideas – getting paid to interview.

  20. I know this is an old post, but it’s very fitting and I feel the need to reply. I recently was handed an opportunity from my old consulting firm, to interview for a full time position in a smaller city over 3 hours away from where I am right now. My last contract ended December 31st, and I only just today started working a part time job to slow the bleeding from my savings account. The company in question refuses to do a phone screen, and insists that I drive over 3 hours, do a group interview, then drive home. Let’s see, mileage, wear and tear on my car, and losing an entire day where I have a lot of important things to do locally, all to interview for a job that a) I don’t know if I would want, and b) I don’t know if they would want me. All that could be solved (or at least mitigated to some degree) with a simple 30-minute phone conversation that they refuse to have. All right then, company X, you decided for me – it’s not worth it! You’re not going to respect this candidate, who not only has to spend an entire uncompensated day to interview, but also has to relocate if I did manage to get the position? Then I’m walking away with my head held high. And no, even paying me mileage to get me to interview wouldn’t help, it’s more than the mileage. It’s the respect. Thanks Nick!

    • Jim: I read new comments on old posts :-). You just told a story I wish everyone would read. Job candidates are so abused by employers that they run and jump when ordered. But when an employer asks you to invest time to discuss a job, it’s got an obligation to invest in meeting your needs and requirements, too — or it’s not worth working for.

      I don’t know how much you want to stand on principle, but my guess is that top management at company X has no idea what was just done to you and how that affects X’s reputation. If I were you, I’d take a few days to think about the best way to do this, then place a call to the CEO’s office. Leave a brief message that inspires the CEO to call you back. Something like this: “I just had a troubling transaction with your company, and as a businessman, I’d want to know about it if your company were my company. My number is… I hope to hear from you.”

      AVOID leaving any more details, even with the CEO’s assistant, who is likely to channel you to HR if you say any more. Don’t even hint it had to do with a job. Politely insist that your message is for the CEO. The point is to get the CEO to call you back.

      My guess is the CEO will call you unless he or she is an idiot. I’d calmly explain what happened without any rancor. Pretend the CEO is your best friend and you just want to be helpful. Don’t dwell on any anger or on how you feel. Keep it factual. Close by saying you’re sorry the HR department/recruiter couldn’t have been a bit accommodating to do a call first — because you admire the company and would have seriously considered a job there.

      This kind of call accomplishes a few things. First, it demonstrates you’re a responsible businessman who cares about his professional community. This will really come across if you keep the emotion out of your call.

      Second, it helps the CEO. A smart CEO will go fix the recruiter’s behavior.

      Third, you’ve just made an incredibly good contact that you’d otherwise never make. Handle this right, and you’ve got a new CEO friend.

      I’ll caution you about one thing. If the CEO invites you to interview under better circumstances, I think I’d politely decline. “Sorry, but I’m committed to my current job. I can’t leave them hanging. But I’d definitely be interested in talking with you again in the near future, because as I told you, I admire your company and would like to work there.” And if you ever have an interest in a job there again, contact the CEO directly — you’ll have a huge “in.”

      The other issue here is your “consulting company.” I think I’d give them the heave-ho. If this is how they manage their clients — like company X — they’re actually as much to blame. Part of their job in recruiting great people like you is managing their clients so people like you will continue to work through the consulting firm. If they’re not doing this right, you may be better served by a better consulting firm if that’s how you want to find your work.

      My compliments for keeping you standards high. If anything you read on ATH helped, I’m glad. Thanks for posting your story.

Leave a Reply