[New Rules] The Interview: People Aren’t That Curious


A nice Sea Gull

A nice Sea Gull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What do I say?” he asked. Do I tell people that I found it impossible to work with her because she swoops in, swoops out, and leaves a trail of poop behind? “I mean.” he added, “she didn’t get the nickname ‘The Seagull” because she had webbed feet.”

It’s not likely to happen, I assured him. Let the interviewer simply know that there are some parts of her that you’d work with in a second, and there were some parts that you found challenging because you had very different styles. If you get pressed, just describe the parts that click and generally describe the part that was different. No one is going to hang you because you prefer to work in a highly collaborative manner and your former boss prefers a much more formal, hierarchical style.

People, I added, just aren’t that curious.

One of the challenges for someone being interviewed for a job, or considered for any other opportunities for that matter, is how to be accurate, honest, and not torpedo your chances. It’s can be a curious dance: one part forward, two parts weave.

The goals seem threefold; 1) don’t dig yourself into a hole, 2) state the truth or at minimum don’t lie, and 3) get a shot at the job or opportunity.

It helps to remember two things. First, as noted in an earlier post, Thumper’s advice from Bambi is spot-on: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say nothing.” He didn’t say don’t be accurate – just don’t say things that are not nice.

I think it’s helpful to be descriptive as a way to be accurate – you need to remember to drop any value judgment or pejorative language. “Yells and screams at people,” for example, can be “Enjoys having spirited conversations with folks at full volume.” “Micromanager” translates to “My manager wanted to be involved with everything from big picture to small details at all times.” You get the picture. Descriptive – not evaluative.

The second thing is that generally people are just not that curious.

Years ago in the late 1990’s I took a brief 97-day role at a start-up in Marin. As a VP and officer of the company, I figured I had enough moxy and experience to handle the Chairman and largest shareholder who had just been removed from his CEO role by the board for “abusive behavior.” What I hadn’t counted on is discovering that fraud and embezzlement looked like it was present compounded by the fact that the Directors & Officers insurance was compromised and likely void because the Chairman had falsified several areas. Instead of just corporate liability I likely had personal exposure. My outside legal advice was to get the heck out of there properly and quickly.

After discharging my corporate responsibilities and informing the new CEO and board why I was resigning, I left.

When people interviewed me they would ask why I left and I would give them the 60-second snapshot outlined above. If the interview was in person, mouths dropped. If the interview was over the phone, silence would ensue. Generally I was not asked back for further interviews.

Finally one search person stopped me and said, “Is that what you really tell people?” “Sure I said – it’s the truth.”

“People can’t handle it” she replied – “just tell them it didn’t work out. People are not that curious.”

So my brief 97-day job experience became simply “the job was different than advertised.”

My answer was truthful, accurate, and concise. And no one, after I’ve given that response, has ever asked anything further about the job. And I have been offered any number of opportunities.

New Rules is an occasional set of writings focused on changes in norms, culture, or ways of navigating work and careers. More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar.


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