Friday, August 2, 2013

Fifteen interviews, one brown box

I’m sure there are many ways that my “freelance women in communications” networking group is not like a room full of feral cats, but, when someone mentioned “going to work full time at a corporation,” at our lunch today, I swear I saw some hackles being raised under those pretty print blouses. And when the stories of “HR encounters I have known” came up, several members of the group were practically hissing.

There were two especially great stories. One woman talked about working a short-term contract gig that, because it was for a massive conglomerate, required her to trek across town to St. Paul for an interview with someone who had no day-to-day role in the location where she’d be working. The interview went fine, she thought, and they signed her on. But at the end of the gig, her manager was required to conduct an exit interview, and, referring to the notes from six months back, shared that the bigwig in St. Paul had “not appreciated your wearing open-toed shoes to the interview.”

You could practically see the black thought bubbles over the heads of the freelancing feral types in the room, most of whom consider clean pajama pants as “office dress up day.”

Then the conversation turned to a “can you top this?” beaut of a story.  Another woman told us she has a friend who works in HR, and when they’d met for coffee one day, the woman had seemed especially harried. Pressed for details, she revealed that she had passed along what she considered to be a very well-qualified candidate to a hiring manager in her company. On the way over to meet my friend, she’d gotten a phone call from the manager, who had told her she’d need to see more people, because the woman hadn’t liked the way the candidate “had held her purse on her lap.”

THAT started some lively conversation among the felines, let me tell you.

I’ve been working in the freelance world for more than ten years now, and it’s provided me with interesting work, terrific clients, lots of variety and decent, if occasionally a bit too sporadic, pay. It’s also eliminated by several muck-bucketfuls the amount of manure with which I must deal. The interview process in my line of work is usually pretty simple: “Help! Can you work over the weekend?” The way I know  I’ve succeeded is when I get called back the next time they’re in a panic. My performance reviews are my paychecks, and all anyone ever cares about is that I can get the work done well – I don’t need to be a team player, a good brand ambassador or a drinker of any particular flavor of Kool-Aid.

As much as I have thrived under this system, I’ve been watching several people of my close acquaintance struggle mightily of late with the giant cluster-cuss that is the current trend for the interview process in the corporate world. The first thing I have noticed is that, unlike in my world, no one, ever ever ever, is hired on the first interview. I’ve heard reports of as few as three and as many as fifteen for these all-day-interview-slash-soul-crushing-sprees that entail having a “chat” with everyone in the company, except (so far, anyway) the guy who empties the trash cans at midnight.

The interviews, I hear, are always positive, all-smiles affairs, but they contain unexpected land mines that can destroy a candidate for reasons as obscure as toe-revealment or purse deportment, as mentioned above. And, once you’re out of the running, no one ever calls to say, “Sorry, we picked another candidate. Your second toe is longer than your big one, and that creeped out the head of HR.” Instead, the phone simply stops ringing, and your upbeat emails (Subject line: “I’d love to come in for even more evaluations of every aspect of my personality!”) go unanswered.

It’s as if corporations are the teenaged boys of the working world, and the candidates are the girls of the sophomore class, waiting endlessly by the phone. It’s enough to make you wish that every corporate logo would suddenly sprout acne and floppy bangs that get in their eyes, but that sort of poetic justice will never come to pass, I fear.

Why do companies do this to people, you may ask – make them return for round after grueling round of interviews, smiles pasted on their faces and sweat stains spreading in their underarms? Here’s my theory – Because They Can. When you enjoy unlimited power, why not spend whole big chunks of a workday making other people miserable? Sounds good, right? Well, not to me, that’s for sure, but I imagine a group of people sitting around a conference table, reviewing the “next round” of candidates who have made it through the previous six, eight or twelve rounds of job interviews. Someone picks up a resume. “Ooooh, I HATE her!” the staffer says. “She uses ampersands, and I HATE ampersands, plus I thought her pearl earrings were too small.” “Shall we tell her she’s not going to be hired?” asks a well-meaning colleague. “Of course not! Maybe she’ll have to buy another new navy blue suit for the next interview. She really pitted out that one she was wearing last time,” cackles the woman, reaching for the phone to “schedule availability” with the doomed ampersand lover.

And so it goes. Here’s the part of the process, though, that causes me to experience what they like to call “a disconnect” in certain, annoying circles – if it takes fifteen interviews, a personality test and lunch with the president to decide if someone is worthy of being asked to “join our family,” how long does it take to decide that, due to “deselection,” or “a reduction in force” or “rightsizing,” that this very same person is going to lose that job? My observation: ten minutes, or as long as it takes the HR person to uncover the stash of cardboard “personal effects” boxes from the secret storage shed hidden behind a painting in his office, then press the red “Outta Here” button that summons security to the revolving-door conference room. Oh, and some Kleenex. It might take an extra minute or two to grab a few of those.

Once that sad sack is out of the building, the only thing left to do is sent the secret “Shunning Memo.” I have never actually seen one of these, but I’ve witnessed their principles put into action so often that I’m sure they exist. They must go something like this: “Dear Colleagues, We fired Suzy’s sorry ass today. Her earrings were always too small, anyway, and don’t get me started on the shape of her toes. If you call her, text her or communicate sympathy with her in any way, you will catch Unemployment Cooties, and you will be next. I just got another shipment of cardboard boxes delivered to my secret storage shed, and I’m not afraid to use them. Make it a productive day! Your HR Director.”

This is just one feral freelancer’s opinion, but, given the current state of our economy, there are only two growth industries that any of us can truly count on these days – sweat-proof interview suits and cardboard boxes. 


  1. I have been living in the world you explained for a year and a half after being employed for over 30 years. To say it is humbling, is an understatement. But alas, I charge forward knowing that someone, somewhere will appreciate this well-seasoned marketing woman just waiting for her new place to flourish. And up to this point, I have never worn open toed pumps or held my purse on my lap, so there is something else I am getting overlooked for. Most likely, my experience. I have had two interviews for two different companies that lasted seven hours without a successful offer. But I am doing as much of the interviewing as they are. I want a good fit for me, too. Maybe I'll luck out and find my dream job soon! One can only hope (and be sure not to sweat through my blue suit!).

  2. Great blog post and sadly right on! A certain large corporation where I worked for years with my toes modestly concealed in their black/brown/navy/beige pumps had (& probably still has) a dress code that forbade/bids open-toed shoes. All the easier for the HR ladies to boot you out the door with THEIR closed toe pumps after that 10-minute conference. Seems funny now though cuz getting gone was the best thing that ever happened to me! LOL