My Top 4 Interview Fails Doing my bit to normalise failure, rejection and bad interviews

By Tina Mason. Tina is a development / humanitarian generalist, focused on accountability, participation and localisation. In 2017 she founded re:viewed which seeks to create a space for transparent service user feedback in the humanitarian sector. She writes on Medium and lives in Barcelona with her family. 

This is crossposted from an original post on Medium.

Where job related announcements on social media are expectedly positive I often find myself seeking the cracks in the veneer. Not to take pleasure, or really even for comparison, but for some assurance that my own job seeking experiences — that verge on terrible — might actually be normal. I would like to believe that I can’t be that “unemployable”. I can’t be the only person that just doesn’t fit the mould.

Whilst I amble along with re:viewed I’ve been applying for other, notably paid, positions. Shameless networking with friends / contacts kills me inside so I become that person that fumes about the game whilst engaging in the aspects of it that tend not to work, out of principle, by actually applying for advertised jobs.

But despite realising the flaws in this approach, rejections still have ramifications. They hurl you back into the temperamental sea of disappointment and it requires quite some resilience to drag creativity back to the surface. That creativity is a lifeline — it enables you to imagine and create the alternatives you are seeking. But to maintain that clarity, reminders that that rejection, failure and crap interviews happen, may be useful — and if not — at least be somewhat comforting.

So, on that note, to do my part in normalising failure (whether or not there are particularly helpful lessons to be learnt), here, from the numerous more applications put in, are my top 4 interview disasters.

4. The cognitive ability test

I was invited to complete an online “Professional Learning Indicator” test as an initial screening for a Social Expert for Sustainability position with a global shipping container giant… 12 minutes timed, 50 questions. How hard can it be?

To be fair, their instruction was explicit:

“It is crucial that you dedicate sufficient time in a distraction-free environment without the involvement of others.”

I however decided to call their bluff. They may very well have their transport times down, but I — thank you very much — am the boss of mine.

 
 

3. The gap

I reached the telephone screening stage for a Grants Management position with the foundation of a company that create tiny multicoloured bricks. I quite like this type of screening, it was an informal chat on the phone, mostly uncomplicated questions, so I was free to pace.

The bit that rattled me were the question about what I had been doing since my former paid position. After detailing, “completing a masters, having a child (caring for said child, should I say that too?) starting an independent project” I was asked again, “so, just so I have it down correctly, what were you doing since?” It’s extremely difficult not to sound sarcastic when on repeat.

It was not the first time I’ve felt the tension between the social constructs of work and the realities of life, but it was definitely a moment of realisation that you can’t assume allegiance from your own gender. Female interviewers can be equally unaware.

(I don’t believe however that this had anything to do with not getting the job, I think it was more about a lack of seniority).

2. The automated online video

This one almost made it to number 1.

The application was for a Programme Support Officer in Turkey with an Irish INGO. To be honest the application from my side was a bit disingenuous — it was an unaccompanied position so not one I could have actually considered.

It was also exactly the kind of role that I fiercely believe should be open to national applicants only. As a generalist / non-specialist / non-expert (is anyone really?), I do not believe there are any international positions I am more qualified to take over a national candidate. Support roles, grants roles, many, many, most roles do not require expats. And with that said I have counted myself squarely out of the international aid market. Because even to specialise, is still at the expense of national investment.

Still, I thought an application could lead to a conversation, in which I was hoping to pitch re:viewed.

What I got was my first experience of an automated online video interview. You are sent a video link to record yourself answering the pre-set interview questions.

It’s a method sold on its convenience, claiming to “allow you to complete your interview at a time and place that suits you.” But in reality it is a reminder that interviews remain largely a one sided process, not a space to ask questions, establish a connection, find out more about the role and organisation and whether or not they meet your criteria. Whether or not its deliberate, its an extremely disempowering experience . Perhaps trivially, I found myself bothered about who and how many people would watch the video. Together? Would they discuss it? What faceless people would see me? Maybe no-one would watch it at all.

I recall my pitch being a bit deflated, after all why would they care about the power dynamics that we are focused on with re:viewed if this is how they conduct their interviews. I felt more and more detached with each question, listening to my unamused self, empty words worthy of an empty screen, considering whether to cut the video half way through. Or sing something. What did it matter.

Their rejection email indicated that on the contrary, someone had indeed been there, and they believed they had talked to me. The one way video interview might not be the norm yet, but it’s a frightening prospect about what could be around the corner.

 
 

1. The one I cared about

This was a “beneficiary” facing Participation and Accountability advisory position with a refugee focused INGO, Europe based. The role, out of the others, most in line with re:viewed, with how I am somewhat positioning myself and the area I have been all consumed with for the last year or more. My application cover letter was candid, I used it to try and initiate a deeper discussion about the meaning of accountability, in principle and practice.

After being told I had been shortlisted for the first screening I did my homework, prepared talking points and requested more information on the documents that had been referred to in the announcement. When I didn’t receive it from the interviewer, an alarm bell went off — if I had been a candidate they were seriously considering I believe I would have received a reply, better still, the information required about the position.

The interview went badly. It was a skype call without video, which threw me, considering it was a job essentially concerned with communication and that only 4 candidates had made it to through to this stage. Seeing faces didn’t seem unreasonable.

But the main issue was that I had prepared for a completely different kind of discussion, one that I thought might be a bit exciting, because when you stick ‘advisor’ in a job title you kind of imply that you are open to suggestions. Instead of this, it was a very dry and generic Q&A (experience mainstreaming tools, why feedback is important (!?), etc) and I came away with the impression that they were not really looking for an advisor on accountability, more for an advisor on their accountability strategy — that elusive document earlier sought.

I would put money on this being an internal candidate / just going through the motions scenario, but it tops the list as my number one rubbish interview because I let myself believe it was something it probably wasn’t and that at the very least, the conversation would be alive. I rode on this and under prepared the basics like a pro. But more disappointing than personal rejection was the realisation that the topic of accountability hadn’t triggered anything more interesting than an administrative discussion.

Lessons learnt?

  • Interviews are not necessarily the place for interesting conversations, pitches or explorations (But I hold out to be proved wrong on this).
  • Must have a better game face — better prepare examples and make out said examples are more amazing than they probably are.
  • Nap time does not guarantee a distraction free environment, but caring for a child is not a gap in your CV, whatever they would have you believe.
  • If the ethics of an organisations interview method are already questionable, chances are you wouldn’t relish working for them.
Craig Zelizer

Craig Zelizer

Dr. Craig Zelizer is the Founder of PCDN.global, which connects a global community of changemakers to the tools, community and opportunities to build careers of impact and scale change. He has strong experience in the development sector, academia and social entrepreneurship. From 2005 to 2016 he served as a professor in the Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University (where he still teaches). He has led trainings, workshops and consultancies in over 20 countries organizations including with USIP, USAID, CRS, Rotary International and others. Craig is a recognized leader in the social sector field. He has received several awards including George Mason’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s alumni of the year award and an alumni career achievement award from Central European University. Dr. Zelizer spent two years in Hungary as Fulbright Scholar and was a Boren Fellow in Bosnia. He has published widely on peacebuilding, entrepreneurship, and innovation in higher education.
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