Terrie's Job Tips -- Fear in an Interview

Not so long ago I had an interview with a talented candidate having both bilingual and technical skills. At around 40 years old, he is becoming borderline in terms of hire-ability by age-sensitive Japanese firms, and as a result he has been on the job market for the last 3 months.

Finding a new job when employed is hard enough, but being unemployed introduces the extra pressures of financial and emotional insecurity. These sorts of gaps between jobs are times when even the strongest person can get depressed and it is easy to lose hold of reality and your self worth. I might add that this candidate lost his previous job at a start-up through no fault of his own. So this added to his general disappointment.

Bilingual, technical, and with some management experience to boot. Normally I would have high hopes of being able to place someone like this. He presented well, and was quite lucid in his speech, but during the interview there was something not quite right, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’m not sure whether it was the fidgeting, his inability to look me in the eye, or while I was trying to help him narrow down his scope of opportunity, his over-eagerness to look at every job discussed. Whatever it was, he came across as having something to hide. That worried me and would certainly be picked up by a seasoned corporate HR interviewer.

Since the interview was in my capacity as a recruiter, I reminded him that as the candidate that he could be frank with me. I was there to help him figure out a suitable career path and to discuss what he could really expect to get paid. Hearing that he wasn’t on trial, he cheered up a bit, and I decided on a tactic that often gets issues out in the open. I talked very directly about money and the maximum and minimum salaries he could expect and those he would accept.

As we started probing his minimums and why they were the numbers they were, his story started coming out. It turned out that he hadn’t expected to be out of work for so long, and he’d agreed to let his wife make a major new financial commitment. Something she’d looked long and hard for and had set her heart on. Like any husband, he wanted to keep her happy, but the problem was that with the purchase contract due within the month, he still had no job to pay for it – and thus there was a strong possibility they’d lose the opportunity to buy.

My sense was that that his image of the husband having to be the provider was leading him to some serious personal distress and the pressure was palpable. As the interview progressed, we discussed his willingness to take a lower-paid, less prestigious position just to get back into the market, and he agreed that providing he could make a fairly modest minimum salary, he was more concerned about keeping his partner happy then the initial nature of the job.

When I heard this, I wasn’t sure how I felt: glad that he cares about his wife, or worried that he was willing to grasp on to any opportunity so long as it got him out of a fix. I was particularly concerned that under pressure he may be making promises he wouldn’t keep. My rule is that I want candidates to commit to 2 years when they are placed, so I felt that I would be putting him in front of a client while still having doubts about his sincerity. This was a strange situation, because if he’d been more positive and relaxed about temporary unemployment, I probably would have gone into bat more vigorously in helping him find a job. Attitude is everything in job hunting.

As it was, I had to decide whether or not to spend the time helping this person face up to realities and refine his expectations. It really isn’t my job to be a counselor, but I knew that if I didn’t intervene at some level, the candidate was unlikely to land a decent position.

I felt that he needed counseling on at least two fronts. Firstly, learning to communicate better with his spouse and their financial reality, and secondly overcoming the fear of interview failures and job insecurity. I’ve said it before, that people can sense emotional fear and pressure in an interview – and it doesn’t play well. HR managers are paid to pick up quirks in candidate personality long before the person makes it into the business manager interviews. If they don’t, the company will suffer for the oversight later as the local labor laws make it difficult to release unhappy or dissatisfied employees.

In the end, I chose not to counsel him, and he eventually found a job with another start-up firm – hopefully one that this time will treat him better. Now that he is employed, perhaps in another year or two, I would like him to try again for a job more fitting of his experience and talents. But this time, I’d encourage him to stay employed while looking, and to refrain from any more big purchases until the bonus is in the bank.