Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Job Hunt

When I was a freshly-minted graduate with an opportunity-rich history degree, I applied for a job at my hometown’s museum. The Otago Museum is about what you’d expect from something that serves a college town of 100,000 – it’s no Smithsonian, but it’s certainly not terrible. But let’s be honest – it’s not really anything special.

But a job’s a job, and I was quite pleased to be offered an interview. A thirty-minute slot on a warm January afternoon was assigned to me; I shined my shoes, tucked in my shirt, and drove my mother’s van to the museum.

It was a panel interview, a variety of interview I’ve only seen in New Zealand. Three middle-aged women were gathered at the other end of a long table, staring me down and bidding me to have a seat.

The usual questions were asked – why do you want this job, what kind of pay do you expect, yahdayahdayahdah. I negotiated them fairly well, I think, but then I tend to assume the best of my performance unless I’m presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Which makes the next events – presentation of said evidence – rather fortuitous. They asked me what I liked about this particular museum and I, all smiles and naiveté, said in what I thought was a charming fashion that I couldn’t say because I hadn’t (ha ha) actually been there.

Wrong answer.

“How,” a panelist breathlessly stammered through her rage, “do you expect to work in this museum if you’ve never even been here.”

I began to suspect that this interview wasn’t going as well as it possibly could, but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how I was going to dig myself out of this hole. This would become a theme.

“Well, I have been to a lot of other museums that are about the same size as this one, and to be honest I’ve never found them to be that different from one another.”

Silence, as she gripped her pen so hard that I feared for its health, and furiously scrawled some notes. Something tells me they weren’t positive.

“Well,” another panelist intervened, “it’s been great meeting you and we’ll. Be. In. Touch.” As she showed me out the door, I glanced at my watch – it had been ten minutes.

It will be clear by now that the interview process has never been easy for me. The above example is a particularly egregious one, but similar examples positively (or negatively) abound. Which is a shame because, if I say so myself, I am quite employable.

The vast majority of this blog’s meagre fanbase will know this, but it bears repeating. Entry-level job interviews are almost always conducted by a low-level manager, occasionally backed up by an HR rep. HR reps, with their contagious anxiety and perpetual looks that can only be described as existential, don’t deserve an internet-lambasting; they’ve got it bad enough as it is.

Lower-level managers, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. For one, They tend to have an enormous chip on their shoulder. I suspect that this is because of a similarly-sized insecurity on their part – their place on the employment ladder is the kind is acquired not by skill or aptitude but instead by simply paying dues. This creates the type of person who has an incredible amount of expertise on the minutiae of their section of whatever organisation they work for, but very little capacity for big-picture thinking, or even, more often than not, basic social skills.

I’m substantially, and quite obviously smarter than these people, and please don’t take that as arrogance. You probably are too – it’s a really low bar.

I recently interviewed for a job at a call centre at a large Australiasian bank. It went okay, I thought – they asked me all the questions I expected, I fielded them all fairly well, and I’d even done some research beforehand to back up my answers. I didn’t mention that I actually do my banking with someone else, and nor did I tell them that I can’t really tell the difference between banks.

In short, things were looking good – they even had me come in and listen to some calls to “get a feel for the job.”

However, in the very final few minutes, after I’d put on my jacket and said my goodbyes, the lower-level manager showed me her sleeve’s final trick. Out of nowhere, she whipped out a copy of my cover letter. Shock and horror – in my application process, which involved responding to more than one job ad, I had put the name of a different employer on top of the letter.

And that is pretty bad, I’ll admit. It shows a certain unprofessionalism, apathy, and inattention to detail, three attitudes I would certainly bring to a call centre role, but which I had until now managed to hide.

“Well?” she said, shooting daggers at me.

I explained myself – that I had applied for more than one job and this mistake had fallen through the cracks. She nodded and let a smug smile pass her face at my recognizance of her authority as “team leader.”

“But to be fair,” figuring that now that we were friends again we could be honest with one another, “you did have me in for an interview anyway.”

The cogs in her assistant manager's brain ticked over once or twice while she processed what had just happened. Then it was back to the all-too-familiar tight-lipped smile and ice-cold handshake. “You’ll be hearing from us.”

Luckily for everyone involved, I never did.