The candidate interview is a unique experience ó that strange dance between two strangers sitting across from another, one asking the other about their life and accomplishments, with an eye towards assessing if they are a fit for a particular role. I guess one of the great things about human nature is our unpredictability. You don’t know what’s going to come out of the other person’s mouth or how the experience will end up. How many of us have gone in with high expectations of an individual based on their experience on paper, only to be let down?
Conversely, who of us hasn’t had that rush of excitement when a candidate unexpectedly turns out to be a winner, surprising us at every turn with their responses, and reaffirming our belief in what we do as recruiters and staffing professionals? Regardless, it’s a setup that’s bound to produce interesting outcomes. I’m not an interviewing guru. I don’t sell my interviewing process in training sessions, books, or other products. The purpose of this is not to produce a best practices approach to interviewing. Rather, as someone who has done a lot of interviews (as a former corporate head of staffing and recruiting, and currently as a staffing and recruitment process optimization consultant), I’m in a position to share the following stories. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe you’ll cry, maybe you’ll snicker, but maybe, like me, you’ll learn something as well. So consider this our inaugural “Strange but True Interviewing Stories” article. After you’ve read these, send me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your stories, as well as what you learned from them, so we can begin our collection for future articles.
During my time in staffing for a consumer company, we had a search for a head of marketing. There was a woman who ran marketing for an entire restaurant chain whom my bosses (clients), the operational heads of the company, were particularly keen to recruit. This executive had attracted a lot of buzz because of her recent accomplishments and bold marketing initiatives. After several attempts to contact her, the woman finally agreed to meet with me but would not travel to our city to interview. Knowing how important this was to my internal clients, I flew to her city and interviewed her in one of her local restaurants. The interview seemed to go well and I remember thinking, “My bosses were right. She is solid.” We talked about next steps and I mentioned we would want her fly to our company to meet with my bosses/clients. That’s when the conversation took an interesting turn: “So we’d like to fly you out to meet with some additional executives in our company,” I said. “We’re very interested in proceeding.” “I’d be interested in that,” she replied. “Great!” “I’d be happy to meet with you and your company further,” she continued, “but it would have to only be in one of the local outlets of this restaurant chain.” “Excuse me?” “I said I can only meet you in one of our restaurants in your city.” “Why?” “Because the world is a dirty place,” she said. “There are germs everywhere and I don’t trust cleanliness, food, or service anywhere but in one of our restaurants.” “You can’t be serious,” I said. “I’m completely serious,” she replied. The problem was my bosses had already pre-judged her favorably and were sold on her!
When I returned from my trip, I had to take a pretty hard stand with my business leaders. They had convinced themselves that they needed to hire this person before we even called her. Now I had to convince them (even though it was my job to snag her), that she was not going to be a culture fit. It was a tense situation but I stood my ground. Ultimately, they agreed. What I learned was that as a staffing professional and recruiter, taking a stand to protect our company’s business by not hiring someone is as important as trying to snag an elite person.
I once worked for a hotel company where we offered candidates the ability to fill out applications that had a short essay about why they wanted to work for the hotel. We had created an open, walk-in interview schedule whereby anyone could submit an application and we would interview anyone who had applied. A guy came in and filled out the application and was very earnest in his desire to work for the company. My colleague interviewed him and he seemed like a congenial, straightforward individual. It was a busy day for us all and we didn’t have time to thoroughly review every application before beginning the interview. During the interview, my colleague turned over the application to the back section, which included the short essay about why they were interested in working for the company. He read the following:
I have spent the last several years as a male escort/prostitute. I have recently turned my life around and “found God.” I am looking for a “real” job, something more stable and with a healthy future. When I was considering all the companies I might want to work for, I immediately thought of this hotel. I have done a substantial amount of business here — for which I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies — and always found it to be an incredibly nice place. It would be an honor to work here.
As strange as this was for my colleague and I, we really appreciated the fact that this individual was straightforward with us. Though he didn’t get the job, we were very open and honest with him about why. It underscored the value to me of being open and accepting, yet at the same time being honest about what is appropriate and what isn’t.
When I was head of staffing for a large entertainment company, we were doing a search for a particularly difficult role in which there was an individual whom we knew we wanted and who was very appropriate for the role. It was nearly impossible to get through to him. We tried to reach him for weeks and finally did. Even then, he was reluctant to talk to us. He had worked for the same company for 15 years and was really not interested in making a move. Nonetheless, we persisted, and begged and pleaded with him to give us an opportunity to talk with him. Finally, he relented and agreed to come in for an interview. He had mentioned at the outset that he had not really had to formally interview at all through much of his career. The interview began typically enough. I asked him questions about his life, professional experience, and so on. Almost from the very beginning, this individual shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Soon he began to sweat. Not perspire, but Albert-Brooks-in-Broadcast-News sweat. In the middle of a response to one of my questions, he popped up, grabbed a folder from my desk and started fanning himself, talking all the time. I asked if he was all right. He said he was fine. We continued our conversation, but his discomfort only increased. It began to make me uncomfortable. Finally, I asked if he wanted to take a break and go to the restroom, which he did. About thirty minutes later, no word from him. Finally, realizing something had gone seriously wrong, I sent someone in to check on him. Apparently, he was a wreck. He had thrown up all over the place and had become overcome with anxiety. We offered to help him any way we could, and set it up so he could excuse himself discreetly through the back door.
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Our problems with this individual began when we tried too hard to develop him as a candidate. If someone is very reluctant at the outset, there are usually reasons for it. It doesn’t serve anyone well to persuade someone to do what they really don’t want to do. We also could have done a better job of pre-screening this individual on the phone.
When we eventually followed up with this individual, he was very grateful for the way we handled this very awkward situation. We kept in touch and on a separate assignment, he ended up giving us a referral that was very helpful. It reminded me how important it is to treat those we interview with respect and how they do not go away. I can’t tell you how often I’ve bumped into people in my personal life whom I interviewed in the past for a particular role.
“Doggie Bags and My Homey”
There are other stories. I once, for example, was wooing a well-respected recruiter from a competitor and took him to lunch at a casual dining restaurant. During the course of our lunch interview, he proceeded to order a massive lunch. It was enough food for a family of six. That struck me as odd, but I could chalk it up to “I guess he has a big appetite and maybe eats his main meal at lunch.” The problem was, he ate a normal-size meal and carried the bulk of his food out in doggie bags. I couldn’t shake this creeping sense that he had just done his grocery shopping for the week. I once even had an executive-level candidate show up for an interview in my office with a t-shirt that read, “Jesus Is My Homey.” We’ve all had experiences in interviews where people act strangely. It’s part of the joy of this job and the unpredictability of human nature. But when that happens, here’s what to remember:
- Remember, the interview is a strange setup to begin with.
- No matter how awkward the situation, always treat people with respect and dignity.
- In certain types of roles, especially technical ones, star performers can be bad interviewers.
- Individuals who have been with the same company for a long time may not be as practiced in their interviewing skills.
- It’s not what the interview subject does ó it’s how you handle it.
- If someone does something peculiar or odd in an interview, consider it one data point that can be explored further during the referencing process (assuming it’s not too peculiar or odd).
Lastly, be sure to document experiences with strange interview situations so that you can remember these precious moments for your own amusement ó and for this annual article!