How to Completely Screw Yourself in a Job Interview

How to Completely Screw Yourself in a Job Interview

by Kerry Scott on 25 March 2009


On Monday, I posted a list of dumb job interview questions, and there were some great comments (which made my day—comments mean people are actually reading this stuff, which still kinda blows my mind.).  Alison from Ask a Manager is a non-profit executive and a real-life hiring manager, and she pointed out that she really does want to know what people’s weaknesses are.  She wants to ensure that they’re not going to be ones that will be fatal to the candidate when he/she is in the job.  I completely agree, and here’s why.

A long time ago, I was in a situation where I needed another job really badly.  I was desperate, and I was also pretty inexperienced, and the combination of the two made me kind of an idiot.  I was interviewing for several different jobs, and there was one in particular that I really wanted, for all the wrong reasons: it was a very stable job, with a very stable company.  The benefits were good.  It was comfortable.  It was with one of the most desirable employers in my town.  Everyone wanted to work there, and they were interviewing me.  I was flattered.

Plus, like I said, I really needed a job.

So when they interviewed me, I gave every answer I thought they wanted to hear.  Every single person who interviewed me there said, “This place is very, VERY conservative.  Are you okay with that?”  And I said, “Oh yes, I’m very conservative.”  Now, if you’ve read this blog more than a couple of times, you know what a crock that is…but I needed a job, and I really wanted to work there.  I was coming from an environment where conservative and stable sounded fabulous, and like said, I was an idiot.

I got the job.  I worked there five months.  It was hell.

Now, let me say right now that there was (and is) nothing wrong with this company.  In fact, it’s a great company to work for and to do business with.  I have recommended them as an employer to friends since then.  But for me, it was a terrible fit.  It was very, VERY conservative, just like they said, and I felt completely suffocated.  My boss tried hard to help me adjust, but I would have needed a personality transplant to make this job a fit for me.

Culture plays a huge role in how well you like a job.  In fact in some cases, it’s the primary determining factor in whether you enjoy going to work or not.

I feel bad to this day, because I wasted five months of my manager’s time, and she was a very nice person who had been completely up front with me in the interviews.  I just didn’t listen to her, because it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  I also screwed myself, because for years afterward, I’ve had to explain that five-month stint on my resume.  It was awkward at first, but now I use it as an opportunity to tell this story to potential employers.  Then I tell them how I learned my lesson, and what sort of culture is a better fit for me.  If that’s not their culture, well, then that’s not the job for me.

I’m not suggesting you walk into an employer and say, “You need to conform to what I like, or I can’t work here.”  No one wants to hire a prima donna, and no job is going to be an exact perfect fit for you.  That’s unrealistic.  You’re always going to have to do a little bit of adjusting and conforming.  Those are good things, because the experience will help you expand your horizons and discover new ways to work.  Adaptability, in fact, is a trait everyone should cultivate, because it makes work (and life) much easier.  Plus, as Elizabeth from Tink’s Mom points out, sometimes you just really need a job, and other times your long job search has beat the crap out of you.  Under those circumstances, it’s harder to assess just how much of a stretch it’s going to be to fit in.

But if you’re having to go through each interview with a completely different personality, that’s a red flag.  Personality transplants are rarely successful, and they’re exhausting.  If the job you’re interviewing for requires one, consider whether you really want to put yourself (and everyone else) through that kind of grief.

Photo by sirgabe

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FreeRangeHuman March 25, 2009 at 10:49 am

Very true. Two corroborating stories from me:

- My best ever job (aside from working for myself :-) was highly sought after in my industry. I got it by being less than complimentary about the company’s brochure… saying flat out (when asked) that I thought it was unclear and that it didn’t portray the company’s strengths. It turned out the hiring manager was keen to change it for the same reasons. It worked because a) I had decided that I only wanted to work somewhere that I could speak out and be listened to b) I had done my research and knew the hiring manager liked this style.

- As a career coach, I get my clients to figure out their approach to a range of interview answers in advance, and make sure they have a nice mix of honest-yet-attractive answers, so that they don’t get that in-interview “I have to agree with everything” panic.

Thank you!

FreeRangeHuman’s last blog post..A quarter of the way through 2009. How is your career change going?

Sabrina March 25, 2009 at 11:46 am

I just left a job (last week) that I took because I needed a job. I knew from the time of the interview that it was not for me. I never thought they’d offer it to me. I didn’t even send a thank you note which I always do because I really never thought in a million years that they’d offer me the job. And they did. And I felt like I HAD to take it. I had been out of work for 4 months, funds were running low, and my husband was standing right there when they called. What could I do? Well it was the worst six months of my life let me tell you. The culture was not a good fit, the nature of the work was not a good fit, nothing was good. I did learn a lot while I was there and made two friends that I’m thankful for but now that I’m looking again, I’m going to be a lot more selective in where I apply and what I accept. Even in this economy. The economy is temporary, and like you said, explaining that stint is going to last years. Luckily I was at my last job for 10 years so I’m hoping THAT can help prove that I’m not a job hopper, that this really was not a good fit for me (or them).

Sabrina’s last blog post..Of Job Searching

Maruca March 25, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Great Advice! One should not settle for job, even in this economy

lloyddabbler March 25, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I was recently asked the “what is your weakness” question and although I came up with the answer in the middle of a sleepless night after the interview rather than IN it, I’m glad to know the honest answer for myself now. “I’ve had a long, healthy career and as such have received lots of feedback over time. At different times, I’ve had different weaknesses but I have adapted myself where I valued the source or saw room for improvement myself, and so my edges are pretty smooth by now.” It’s a diplomatic denial to play the silly game with the recruiter, but more importantly it shows what is crucial in every employee… which is that one will flex and adapt to anything thrown at them.

HRPufnstuf March 25, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Very true, and really quite timely with as many people looking for new jobs and needing one now. I guess you have to balance what’s important, but for me, I’ll always err to the side of sanity.

Also, that picture made me laugh and laugh and laugh!

Kerry March 25, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Sabrina—with a 10-year run at your last job, I think you’ll be okay. Most people have had an experience like this at some point; in fact, in my experience, the ones who haven’t are sometimes the ones who have been in one job forever. That has its own hazards.

HRPufnstuf—I love that picture. That guy is like, “I like to wear a dress, but I like my beard.” He’s not stuck in what a guy needs to look like OR what a guy in a dress needs to look like. He’s just rockin’ his own look, and he’s unapologetic. That’s cool. More people should stop to admire themselves when they are marching to their own drummer.

Ask a Manager March 26, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Right on! I so agree. I just posted a link to this from my site too.

Amanda March 27, 2009 at 9:34 am

Thank you so much for sharing your story it is SO true. The same thing happened to me a year or so ago. I needed a job so badly and I had a friend of a friend who owned a very successful insurance agency. I aced the interviews and like you said the owner warned me that it was VERY different than she thought I was used to but I NEEDED a job so I made it work. I aced every test.. even got certified faster than any of her other employees but the job was not more me. After 3 months I was physically ill because I was so unhappy. I never have experienced anything like it. I was hitting my goals and performing great but I cried when I got into my car to go home each night and like I said made myself sick (headaches, vomiting) no matter how well I did… that was not where I was supposed to be.
A year later I am still embarrassed about that time in my life. I (like you) am riddled with guilt for wasting the owners and managers time and money training me. Finding a job is hard but you need to take the time to find the right fit for you – it is only fair to you and the company.
I have been where I am now for a year and see myself here for a very long time! I have been promoted twice and our company has doubled in size since I was added to the team. I wish I had been more patient before and I could have been here even earlier than I was.

Amanda’s last blog post..Business Owners Need to be More Involved with their Marketing Strategy

George Guajardo March 27, 2009 at 11:28 am

I agree that we should not force ourselves into an organization we know we won’t fit into… for the most part. It would serve us well to remember that we do not always have the option of being picky. Sometimes we have to take a job we know we won’t like because it is the best (or only) option. Punk Rock HR is having an interesting discussion on this very topic: Check it out for a different perspective.

I have first-hand experience with this situation. I joined an organization I was pretty sure I would dislike. I was fresh out of college and fresh out of options. I convinced myself that I could get that personality transplant… Months later I realized I was wrong and the desperation was substantial enough that I would rather be unemployed. I understand that I wasted a lot of people’s time, but I also understand that the income for those few months made a huge difference for my family.

Thankfully, I am in a position where I don’t have to compromise like that (I hope)… However, if I ever face the choice between an ill-fitting job and homelessness, I know which way I will go.

George Guajardo’s last blog post..Blog Type Analyzer

J. March 27, 2009 at 6:24 pm

It took me waaaay too long to figure out the job I have right now is a bad fit, partly because I’m so adaptable, I can take a lot of crap and will twist myself into corkscrews making supervisors happy. It wasn’t until it started effecting me physically that I really realized, and even so, it’s taken me months to quit (much to the dismay of my long-suffering hubby.) I guess I’ve learned the value of a decent paycheck and good benefits, and I’m reluctant to leave them behind, even when I desperately NEED to.

J.’s last blog post..Desperately Seeking Dynamo

Kerry March 28, 2009 at 7:29 pm

George–I agree. This advice is mostly for people who have some sort of choice, but bottom line, your first responsibility to to feed your family, always. The stress of not being yourself at work sucks, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the stress of losing your house.

Kerry March 28, 2009 at 7:31 pm

J–you might find that putting some energy into looking for another job helps you deal with the effects of the current one. I have found that (for me at least) stress mostly comes from feeling helpless or doomed, and you’ll feel less of those things when you’re actually taking some positive steps to change your situation.

I also wouldn’t recommend that anyone quit a job without another, unless you’re being physically assaulted at work or something. That’s not a good idea even in a strong job market…and we are years away from a strong job market.

Gabriel Mathews September 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Thanks for the photo cred. That photo has been seen by everyone in my company and I still have a job, so I assume these rules are malleable.
.-= Gabriel Mathews´s last blog ..The Best Reuben. =-.

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