On interviewing

Many people (millennials, at least) have been trained to kiss ass when we’re interviewing, to basically “fake it til you make it.” This can take several forms:

  • People pleasing
  • Professional ambition
  • Sacrificing personal boundaries

Many of these behaviors actually hurt candidates during interviews, especially marginalized candidates and young people early in their careers.

These are behaviors that reduce the signal around whether the candidate will fit with the team. The interviewer’s confidence in your person is one of the most important qualities in an interview, arguably beyond your qualifications for the role. If your resume is a dead ringer for the role but the interviewer can’t be sure whether you’re actually who you say you are, what your motivations are, or what your personality is like, it’s going to be a hard sell.

And for the most part, hiring managers can figure out when someone is being authentic, has a genuine interest in the position, and is trying to figure out if the position matches their needs. It’s easier to ascertain whether there’s real alignment when candidates are open about their own requirements.

On the other hand, a candidate who is trying to say the right things in order to get the job is harder to get quality information about. They might actually be qualified, but it’s harder to tell because the candidate is trying to guess what the interviewer wants. When this is obvious it’s damaging, and for many early career applicants it’s fairly obvious. Behaviors like showering the company with faint praise, dissembling, and never disagreeing, pushing back, or showing vulnerability.

Interviewers must also make judgments beyond the candidate’s basic competency. Will they stick around? Suddenly drop out of contact? What’s their work style? It can be difficult to read between the lines if they’re putting up a facade. This once again lowers the confidence the interviewer can have in their decision making process.

For their part, candidates should also ask questions about their own requirements, but generally younger people won’t because they haven’t established work-life boundaries. So they people please instead, or talk about how they are ambitious and eager to learn and grow, work overtime or without pay. Let’s talk about each of those in turn:

  • People pleasing – lowers the confidence in the interviewee being entirely truthful
  • Professional ambition – the candidate might outgrow the position which might not be a benefit to the company
  • Sacrificing personal boundaries – could telegraph unprofessionalism, disorganization, or a bad culture fit. Abusive employers might take this as a good sign, though.

Any of these might disqualify the candidate from consideration which would exacerbate their lack of professional experience.

And we can’t forget that the power dynamic will almost always be tilted in favor of the employer. So I don’t blame candidates for choosing not to be vulnerable, especially if they’re early in their careers or from a marginalized background. And here’s really where the crux of the matter lies – most of the power in the USA is concentrated in capital, in the business’s hands. As much as everyone deserves to have a living wage (and universal basic income!), ultimately everyone is forced to produce under capitalism.

What does that mean for interviewees? Well, it means that people early in their careers, people from marginalized backgrounds, people who are economically disadvantaged, and many others will appear less palatable than those who were already born into privilege. They do not fit in, or they can’t perform authenticity, or don’t seem “professional.” This extends to the first impression – the resume. While a resume may seem like a culmination of one’s own efforts, it can also be seen as a list of privileges that have been afforded to you, a snowball of privilege that helps roll up the next opportunity.

And then the problem compounds because they will have less life and professional experiences to draw from for the next interview, or they will have experiences that others deem unsuitable for the same reasons. Think of someone suing an employer for being racist and then being seen by future employers as the problem instead of their previous employer.

Anyway, I’m a bit far afield, but this all came from several conversations with my wife, who has been hiring for her team and finding it really hard to find people who engage in an honest conversation, especially young candidates. We believe that every candidate – every person – deserves a living wage, but she can’t hire them all. And we see a lot of young people making the same mistakes that we did – people pleasing and playing up strengths that are irrelevant to the job description.

For instance, sometimes ambition is valued. In my wife’s case, and we suspect in many other cases, it is not. Hiring managers don’t want a candidate to be everything their company could ever want now or in the future – they want someone to fill a present need, and oftentimes that need will not go away, so if a candidate telegraphs that they will outgrow the position it’s potentially disqualifying.

(Side note, as RPG players, my wife and I shared this misconception about employment early in our careers, too – that you can never outgrow a position. If you’re level 100 of course you can do level 1 work! But employers disagree; you can definitely be overqualified because you’re a flight risk or odd goods.)

So something that my wife and I both landed on in our careers is that it’s easier to be authentic about our own needs and wants and push back on what we perceive as the business’s requirements. If there’s a lack of mutual respect or alignment, then it’s a quick way to find out that it’s not a good fit. However, we have the advantages of being in the middle of our careers in highly demanded fields.

I suspect that, for many, it starts early. Children’s team sports, for example. I think social knowledge and the urge to contribute on an organizational level can get a good start here. Another one is just exposure to professional settings. The push and pull of an interview, not just as a rubric for the employer, but also for the employee, requires a level of comfort that doesn’t come to many people naturally without practice.

(Incidentally, these types of things are coded as very white to me. The most white-adjacent people of color I know are all very into sports, and it’s probably an advantage in your career because you learn how to socialize and organize for a group of people. Just another quiet advantage that white people take for granted, like 529s and legacy admission.)

But that said, is it possible to teach confidence and authenticity to other job seekers, especially younger folks?

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