Monday, July 25, 2005

World's Worst: Is there anything you'd like to know?

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in a job interview and just as you're beginning to relax and think that things are going well, the interviewer turns to you, says "Do you have any questions for us?" then leans back in his chair and watches sadistically as you sit there, squirming like a performing seal who's just run out of hoops to jump through. It's as though you went to sell your soul to the Devil and he started offering you instalment plans.

What is it with these people anyway? They're going to be doing these interviews all day - you would think they could go to the trouble of having enough questions for a lousy twenty minute interview. Did they run out or something? (Were my answers too short? Was I talking too fast?) Haven't they ever heard of division of labour? Listen, buddy, you ask the questions around here, see?

If you're really naive you might think of this as a 'nice' gesture. Like asking someone if they want a blindfold before you bring out the firing squad. Do they seriously think that I'm sitting there, thinking "All right! This is the right, non-threatening setting to ask all the questions about this place that have been bothering me!". I mean forget about the judgements they're going to make about you based on what you ask*. Do you really think you'll get an honest answer - think about it - if they want to hire you they'll lie through their teeth to get you, if they're not interested, they're hardly going to give you the opportunity of turning them down.

Personally I think the whole point of this question is that inside every sour-faced interviewer is an anxious young interviewee just bursting to break loose. Like my mother when she's teaching me how to cook, these people aren't content to just stand by and watch - they feel the need to demonstrate how good they are at it, thereby shattering any vestige of self-esteem you might have left - "See! That's how it's done. Wasn't that simple? Now you try it again."

Of course, there's also the fact that these questions provide considerable fodder for subsequent gossip and amusement - I call this the Rumpelstiltskin effect (what a catchy name, no?) - letting people try something purely for the amusement of watching them fail spectacularly. I remember how back at the Firm** we would have all these young starry-eyed applicants asking questions about work-life balance - we would fob them off with some faff about flexibility and setting your own priorities, then laugh ourselves silly at the water-cooler afterwards (picture Macbeth's witches after he left and you'll get the picture)

Anyway (and this is the point of all of the above), here are:

The Ten Worst things to say when the interviewer says "Do you have any questions?"

1. "You talkin' to me?" ("Hey you! I asked you a question. You deaf or something?")

2. "You're seriously thinking about hiring me?" ("Does this mean you're okay with the fact that I have no experience and my degree is a forgery?")

3. "Why do we exist? Is there a higher meaning to life?" ("Are you my mommy?")

4. " it normal for planes to be flying this low around here?" ("Just how soon can I get my signing bonus?")

5. "Are you wearing any underwear?" ("I just wanted to be sure you were properly briefed.")

6. "What's the difference between a job applicant and a professional spitter?" ("One gets the job and the other jets the gob.")

7. "Do you have any special medical benefits for people with degenerative psychoses?" ("Not that there's anything wrong with me, you understand, at least there wasn't until those aliens came and took me away to experiment on (sob!)")

8. "So let me get this straight - I get to handle millions of dollars of company money, and if I disappear one Monday morning, it'll be five days before you find out that the money's missing?" ("I just wanted to make sure. And while we're about it, what is your policy on office supplies? Can I order whatever I want?")

9. "Is it okay if I put my clothes back on now?" ("I really think working with you will be great exposure for me.")

10 "So do you want the pizza or not?" ("And after all these fool questions, there'd better be one heck of a tip!")


*Actually, this sort of reverse questioning involves a number of really tricky trade-offs. To begin with there's the basic trade-off between actually asking a question (and getting the "THAT's what you want to know?" look) or not asking a question (and ending up seeming arrogant, uninterested or just plain dumb). But there are many other trade-offs, for instance:

Compensation vs Lifestyle

Do you
a) Ask about compensation ("Assuming I make the median bonus for last year, adjusted for salary inflation, of course, and invest 40% of my post-tax income in fixed income bonds at a 5% yield, will I make more than $ 132,516.34 which is what the other job offer I have will pay me?") and come across as a shallow prick or
b) Ask about lifestyle ("So what are work-hours like? Do you guys usually get weekends off? Will I have time to spend with my family?") and seem like a lazy wuss who's already thinking about taking time off.

General vs specific

Do you
a) ask something hopelessly general and generic ("So, if I join the equity trading desk, will I have to deal with, like, shares and stuff?") thereby making it clear that you've never looked at the company's website or
b) ask something incredibly detailed ("So I read the report you guys published on the Oncological biotechnology sector, I was wondering whether you thought the market will finally succumb to counter-inflationary pressure from the rapidly improving yeast supply situation in East Nicaragua, or whether, on the contrary, business in that sector will continue to boom following the recent legislation by Congress on the use of carcinogenic air freshners?") and risk getting it wrong and making an even bigger fool of yourself (Ans: "No.")

Big-picture vs. detail

Do you
a) ask something suitably global and abstract ("What would you say are the four great qualities that the Firm instills in each of its employees") and risk falling asleep halfway through the answer (not to mention having them think - this guy seriously believes in this stuff?) or
b) ask about some practical, everyday thing ("So is it okay to wear a tie of any colour to office or are there specific approved Firm colours?") and come across as a hopeless worry wart.

Starting-off vs Exit Options

Do you
a) focus on near-term profile ("Do you do some training in the first month or am I just supposed to know all of this?") making it clear that you are completely incapable of seeing beyond your own nose or
b) talk about long-term exit options ("where do people who leave the firm typically end up?") thus telling them that you're already thinking about quitting.

Presumptuous or defeatist

Do you
a) assume you're getting the job and start settling down to details ("So could I get the corner cubicle on the 22nd floor, the one with the view of the outside world if you stand on tip-toes on your chair") or
b) give up ("So if I don't get the job, will we ever see each other again")

** A period in my life when I actually had a proper job, also known as "my life as a suit"

***Boy, that first note turned out really long.