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the office

ThE joB inTERviE w is gEnER AllY considEREd To BE ThE momEnT oF TRUTh, FoR BoTh ApplicAnT And EmploYER . in RE AliT Y, iT’s oF TEn ThE lE AsT honEsT (“i mE T A loT oF gRE AT pEoplE AT Harvard! ” ), RE AlisTic (“i sEE YoU moving RighT Up ThE l AddER hERE!” ), oR RE vE Aling (“mY BiggEsT wE AknEss? i woRk Too hARd!” ) convERsATion YoU’ll E vER hAvE AT woRk
CeCil Donahue

i k eep a fa ded

Dan Piraro cartoon stuck to the bulletin board over my desk, pockmarked with thumbtack holes from numerous relocations over the years. I’ve had it for so long, through so many jobs, I can no longer recall which newspaper I clipped it from. It’s titled “The New Job” and depicts a pair of men reaching over a desk, preparing to shake hands. They are both wearing suits and smiling broadly. The older gentleman, bald and bespectacled, is saying, “Congratulations, young man! We’ve decided to let you waste the greater portion of each day here with us in utter misery.” To which the younger man, portfolio tucked smartly under his left arm,

responds, “Thank you, sir! I’ll do my very best to pretend I don’t hate you.” Of all the strange rituals in the animal kingdom—the suicidal sex act of certain species of male bees, the elaborate burlesque of birds of paradise, the extreme shopping proclivities of the Real Housewives of Orange County—none is more bizarre than the job interview. We all know the rules of this particular form of corporate Kabuki: The supplicant, having memorized key facts and figures

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ROBERT ERIC/SYGMA /CORBIS; NABIL JOHN ELDERKIN/GETT Y IMAGES.

So, Tell Me What I Want to Hear

the office
about the target organization, arrives early to the meeting, dressed in muted business attire, and is then kept waiting for at least eighteen excruciating minutes, punctuated by awkward conversation with a bored receptionist and numerous false starts as various employees wander through the lobby. Then the harried interviewer appears, apologizing for the unavoidable delay and feigning interest as the pair wander down a hallway engaged in idle chitchat. Once seated in the office, the interviewer pretends to have trouble locating the relevant résumé, at which point the prospective employee whips out a fresh copy. The ensuing dialogue, when practiced by skilled professionals, may resemble an actual conversation, but it is of course a game of verbal cat and mouse in which both parties attempt to ascertain precisely the same thing— namely, where the other is located on the Psycho-Success Cartesian plane. From the interviewer’s perspective, there are four types of job candidates: no-talent psychos and talented psychos; no-talent nice guys and talented nice guys. From the applicant’s perspective, there are four types of employment situations: fucked-up and unrewarding, and fucked-up but rewarding; tolerable but unrewarding, and tolerable and rewarding. Obviously, most interviewers seek employees who are talented nice guys, just as most applicants are out to determine whether an organization will prove tolerable and rewarding. But sussing out weirdos and organizational dysfunction isn’t always easy—and it’s damn near impossible based on one meeting. Desperation tends to cloud judgment, encouraging people to talk themselves into lousy decisions. I, for example, never once set out to work for a lunatic, yet I have found myself at various points under the superviWhen iT CoMeS To AssEssing A pRospEcTivE EmploYEE, REpE AT AF TER mE: ThERE is no RUsh. good pEoplE ARE hARd To Find. YoU mAY BE dEspER ATE To Fill ThE posiTion, BUT hiRing ThE wRong gUY onlY compoUnds YoUR pRoBlEms.

sion of bankrupts, bullies, drunks, gropers, douche bags, screamers, and even one accidental arsonist (a wack-job farm boss who managed to set his neighbor’s wheat crop on fire). Conversely, while successfully avoiding ever having hired a certifiable nutcase, I have on occasion been seduced by attractive smooth talkers who turned out to be total Bartlebys, impressive credentials and solid references notwithstanding. In theory, the point of the job interview is simple—now that we’re face-to-face, can we imagine working together?—but the reality is much more treacherous. If you’re an applicant, here are five tips to help you figure out if this is a match made in heaven or one that’s headed straight to hell.
1 > Your success in the interview depends on your level of preparation.

likely to spark enough interest for followup interviews.
5 > if, after an interview or two, you should find yourself growing increasingly excited about the opportunity, don’t forget the final step: ask for the job. At a certain point

in this relationship, you’ve got to invite your new sweetie pie into the bed. On the flip side, when it comes to assessing the character and quality of a prospective employee, repeat after me: There is no rush. Good people are hard to find. You may be desperate to fill the position, but hiring the wrong person is only going to compound your problems. Here are four things for the employer to keep in mind.
1 > Talk to the candidate’s references, then ask for even more.

Research the company. Check out its Web site. Study SEC filings and analyst reports. And, most important, seek inside intelligence. If talking to family and friends doesn’t lead you quickly to someone who works for or has worked for this outfit, a couple of hours online will probably turn up bloggers who have a thing or two to share. Without this kind of firsthand insight, you’re flying blind, and since such information is so readily available, if you choose to ignore it, then you deserve what you get.
2 > Research the person who will be conducting the interview.

But remember: References should always be viewed with the same degree of skepticism you’d apply to a classified ad for a used car; people will lie to unload a lemon.
2 > Work the candidate:

Give him assignments and tests. Ask for ideas. If he balks at hard work this early on, good riddance: You’ve just saved yourself a raft of grief.
3 > Schedule multiple interviews with colleagues up and down the chain of command.

It’s amazing—and appalling—how many candidates will reveal their arrogance to folks with less impressive job titles.
4 > ask the candidate why he wants this position at this company.

The company is not hiring you; the person you’re interviewing with is. The point is not to come off as a stalker but to enable you to align your own experience and strengths with the interviewer’s areas of interest.
3 > Make sure everything on your résumé is true.

4 > Go in armed with a ton of good questions.

A genuinely engaged, inquisitive applicant is far more
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cecil donahue works at a major American media company.

JIM NAUGHTEN/GETTY IMAGES

Seems like every few months, we read about some big shot getting caught having fibbed about his accomplishments— bogus military service or fake PhDs. Exaggerations like this start small: You fudge your employment dates to cover up those six weeks you spent stoned out of your mind in Amsterdam. Big mistake. A diligent employer will ferret these things out, and then you’re toast.

You’ll be amazed at how often applicants struggle with this most basic question. I myself am embarrassed to admit that I came to a rather late appreciation of many of life’s simplest lessons: What d’ya know, money really does matter! Or, you can’t trust everybody. Or, you can’t always rely on your first impressions. I was well into my thirties before I truly grasped these ideas. (Like many cynics, I’m a guileless midwesterner by nature and inclined to want to like people.) Instincts and first impressions are fine, but you’ve got to put them to the test. The best interview training for any manager? Having to fire someone you once hired. I’m here to tell you: Nothing will cure you faster of overconfidence in your great gut instincts. Regardless of how extensive your due diligence, the final decision winds up being a leap of faith, so you’d better make sure you’re leaping from a solid ledge.