The Modern Business Interview

The BBC reports on feedback from people who’ve been asked daft questions in job interviews, and as usual doesn’t bother telling us half the story:

Katherine Irvine was 37 when she went for a job as a recruitment consultant in Cornwall. She was shocked to find her interviewer was concerned that she was too old and wouldn’t have the energy to do the role.

“It was a group interview and the interviewer commented that myself and one of the others were ‘older’. There was a concern about us being able to work long hours.”

She was then asked: “What do you think? Do you think you’re too old?”

This was probably a fair question. Recruitment consultants these days are basically minimum wage telemarketers: they know nothing about what they’re buying, even less about what they’re selling, and work on a volume business taking a cut of whatever they manage to shift. From what I’ve seen it’s a young man’s game and populated mostly by greasy spivs you’d not trust with a blank piece of A4, let alone a CV.

Katherine was surprised at such open discrimination and informed the company’s HR department who said they were “shocked”.

Sounds as though that HR department is doing a splendid job. I wonder how many people it employs and what it costs in overheads, yet still can’t get company managers to conduct interviews without breaking the law?

Mature student Kevin Helton told us: “The interviewer asked, ‘You used to be in the Army, how many people have you killed?’

“My answer was, ‘Depending on the outcome of this interview, the number might change.'”

Heh! Good answer.

Others have faced a grilling about their personal lives, particularly women of child-bearing age.

Francine is a high-flying solicitor now but when she first entered the job market and applied for a medical secretary role, she was asked if she was going to get pregnant and leave.

I believe companies are entitled to ask this. What they’re not allowed to do is reject a candidate because of their answer. But given how much employers have to shell out when one of their staff takes maternity leave, it’s hardly surprising they ask about it.

“I was 24 years old then and it was one of my first interviews. I turned down the job when they offered it to me.”

So did you get pregnant and leave whichever job you did take? Alas, the BBC doesn’t ask. I would have, which is probably why I don’t work for the BBC giving interviews. But note she applied for a job as a medical secretary and is now a solicitor. Perhaps the interviewers sniffed that she wasn’t fully committed to the role she was applying for?

Even just a year ago an interviewer asked her, “Are you Jewish?”

“In retrospect, I should have said that was none of your business,” she says.

Marc Callow was shocked to be asked in an interview for a recruitment management position if he was gay. “I was that gobsmacked that I just replied ‘yes’. I got the job but it was a portent to what the company was like.”

Companies are forever being told that “diversity” is paramount and more minorities should be hired. This has got to the point that many companies keep statistics on how many minorities they employ and in which positions. But companies aren’t supposed to ask about this minority status in interviews. How does that work, then?

These kinds of questions really have no place in a job interview, because there are laws against discrimination, as Peter Reilly, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), explains.

“In a legal sense, you have to be careful,” he says. “You have to ask, is that relevant to the task? And if it’s not, you shouldn’t be asking it.”

That’s the entire diversity industry out the window then, isn’t it? Indeed, I wish we would go back to those halcyon days when “Is that relevant to the job?” was something we could ask.

That goes for racial issues too. One person told the BBC: “The interviewer said he was surprised I was white because he thought my name sounded black.”

The interviewer must have been as thick as mince to have actually said that. But nothing surprises me about those who turn up in modern businesses.

And this is an entertaining list of questions you should not be asked:

Is English your first language?

The concern is that if the answer is “no”, you might be able to put together an email in proper English.

Are you married?
Do you have children?

Because taking into account an employee’s work-life balance is completely unnecessary. I mean, has a couple ever got divorced because the breadwinner was spending too much time at work, away from home? I don’t think so.

Do you have any criminal convictions?

No, instead you can request a far more intrusive DBS (formerly CRB) check.

What are your sexual preferences?

You can’t ask whether anyone is LGBT but we expect you to employ more LGBT people. You’ll just have to work it out from the adam’s apples, the limp wrists, and the Birkenstocks.

There was a time when job ads would, as a matter of course, contain details of the salary that the company was willing to offer.

But nowadays, as one PR executive found out when he was approached by a well-known tech firm, it can actually be quite hard to pin down an interviewer on that kind of detail.

“The second question was: what’s your current salary? I asked, what’s the range for the role? and the response I got was, ‘We don’t reveal salary ranges, it’s not our policy, so you go first.’ I was astonished,” he says.

“I just thought, that, for me, is completely unprofessional, and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a very productive way to go forward.'”

The candidate is spot on here. I also find companies’ refusal to indicate a salary to be highly unprofessional, and this is compounded by them having the cheek to demand you tell them what you’re earning now. But this is just one of many ways in which HR and recruiting has gotten much worse over the course of my career. Sadly, the decline has been interpreted by most corporate managers as progress.

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21 thoughts on “The Modern Business Interview

  1. I’ve been spared a lot. My job interviews list consists of (i) a whole bunch I had as a final year undergraduate, and (ii) one other. I was usually headhunted and offered a job, and only one outfit felt obliged to stage a formal interview – maybe because there was an internal candidate too, maybe because the rule book said so.

    I don’t know how I’d cope with the modern world of work. A couple of bosses were good at directing and encouraging me, one turned out to be a crook and probably going out of his mind, several others just gave me my head. One largely neglected me; he reckoned, I suspect, that if nobody complained I must be doing a good job so he’d put his effort into coping with those who seemed to be a problem. One was scared of me because I was far cleverer than he was.

    The only time I remember interacting with an HR department was when I was called to a meeting about HR topics. Did I have anything to recommend? I did.

    (i) There was no such thing as “best practice” but that there was undoubtedly such a thing as “bad practice”. A cheap and effective way to encourage staff, said I, was to sack the buggers who were repeatedly guilty of bad practice.

    (ii) Never be frank by e-mail. The remarked shocked them. Not yer top-drawer intellects, HR people.

  2. The main problem is of course if you are bright you don’t go into HR. In these parts it seems to be one of those jobs taken by uselessly qualified (Linguistics degree anyone) but very well spoken young ladies.
    I try to limit my dealings with them but if we are holding job interviews then the rules are there have to be a HR drone present for some reason possibly they fear we will wear SS uniforms or something. The good ones keep quiet and fill in the paperwork that needs doing but the vast majority like to interfere. Last year I held an interview with two candidates , one native British who it soon became apparent was a bullshitter. The second was a recent immigrant who English was basic yet functional but technically evidently knew his stuff and was well qualified. Afterwards myself & colleague agreed 2nd candidate was the best and should be offered the job. HR drone was aghast telling us the 1st candidate was way better as he was “passionate” about engineering. I asked how she knew that and HR drones reply was that he said he was passionate and therefore he was !

    I would hate to think I would be going for a job which involved these people at any point of the process.

  3. and this is compounded by them having the cheek to demand you tell them what you’re earning now.

    There are some questions that you should answer with a lie. This is one of them.

  4. I feel stupid saying this, but yeah, how do you hire for diversity when you aren’t allowed to ask a question to verify these characteristics? I don’t know why it took me so long to awake to this. Really, how do you make sure that you are “inclusive” to gays, for instance?

    Skill Requirements:
    Gay Male – Must exhibit excessive flamboyance.
    Lesbian – Must not exhibit any flamboyance.

    How do you hire for a lifestyle and keep the job description pertinent to the actual job qualifications. Could it be a subjective judgment? No! I thought only whites did that.

  5. The crux of it is that anti-discrimination laws have gotten so ridiculous that interviewing has become more an exercise in dancing around the point than trying to find a good candidate.

    The salary question is a legitimate Catch-22, though. On the one hand, if a candidate is looking for way more than you’re going to pay, knowing that straight up keeps both of you from wasting time. If they’re looking for way less, they may be underqualified. On the other hand, salary at the professional level is highly negotiable and at the recruiter stage it’s premature to be discussing it.

  6. More often than not there’s a stroke of good fortune involved. For me, two key posts when starting out were crucial. I was unceremoniously turned down for both by the respective HR Manager. As luck would have it, on both occasions the Boss Man was sitting in and overruled his staff.

  7. On the one hand, if a candidate is looking for way more than you’re going to pay, knowing that straight up keeps both of you from wasting time. If they’re looking for way less, they may be underqualified.

    Then why doesn’t the employer state up-front the approximate salary? Oh, I know why: because dickheads who have found themselves in management positions believe they can “save the company money” if they find a candidate willing to do the job for less money than they thought. A company ought to know what the market rate is for every position: if they don’t, what the hell is an HR department for?

  8. Back in the day when I used to conduct interviews, I expect I asked a lot of questions that, today, I wouldn’t be allowed to ask.The one exception was that one about English as first language. Even in the late 80s it was pretty much assumed most candidates who had penned a letter (remember those, folks?) applying had already made it clear that they were familiar enough with English. Virtually none of the interviewees hailed from anywhere more exotic than Bridgend, Lanark or perhaps Skegness. I used to think that I had to get as much information about the people who would be working with me and my team as possible to get a fair picture of who they were.

    Being a parent (or potential parent) wasn’t a black mark, but those who couldn’t communicate were crossed off early doors. One bloke who never got far was the guy who couldn’t stop wanting to tell me about the cottage he was renovating, like it mattered. I suppose I was meant to be impressed by his free-ranging ‘do or die problem solving’ enthusiasm. Wrong. No, I didn’t think he was likely to hit his thumb with a hammer and have three weeks off work, but I did think if he let me speak first he might do a bit better.

  9. In other news: I was once ‘head-hunted’ by a firm for a job somewhere in the south west. The ‘hunter’ drove up t’north and we had a good chat in sunny Chesterfield of all places. He assured me that the job was between me and a woman and we would each spend a day with the MD so he could see who we were and she and I could each see if he was worth working for. But, never happened. Got a call from the ‘hunter’ to shamefacedly tell me I hadn’t even got the free day out.

    Apparently the MD was shown picture of me and this woman, who looked like a younger Tina Turner. This unknown MD said he preferred looking at her, so job’s a good ‘un as we northerners say. I have to say I saw this lady at a conference a year later and yes, perhaps she looked ‘simply the best’ though I was pained they never asked me how good I would look in a frock.

    Now there’s an interview question that isn’t asked as often as you might think.

  10. ” Recruitment consultants these days are basically minimum wage telemarketers: they know nothing about what they’re buying, even less about what they’re selling, and work on a volume business taking a cut of whatever they manage to shift”

    When I moved to the UK I really struggled dealing with recruiters, I don’t easily fit into their boxes and had never dealt with such a time before. My first use of Linkedin was to look up one I was dealing with to discover he was a grad with a degree in modern dance, while recruiting a mid-level engineering project management role.

    Perhaps I was a bit slow, but it was only then I realised they had not the slightest clue what they were doing, and I may as well have been a mobile phone or some double glazing for all the difference it made to them.

  11. Well fortunately for me I am old enough such that HR obstacles were not existent when I started in my professional career. At mid level I was involved in writing recrutiment and other “HR” procedures, led the audits as well so I was in like Flynn with the chickie babes.

    At senior level was always approached by the incoming organisation to come on board, so package was agreed before it was passed on to HR to document, they fucking hate that cos they know you are untouchable.

    We don’t and wont have HR in my current firm, good paymaster, outsourced industrial relation and employee relations advise. Line managers do the performance management. Have taken many scalps and never had a commission on me. Ask what team they support, how old they are and family status, they don’t have to answer and I dont have to appoint them either. Usually ask them their salary expectations before and definitely during the interview.

    Tip for the execs out there if you get an offer that has a meaty non-compete clause (they are unenforceable) say that you can take it only if the double the notice period, works every time.

    The new ism for me is jumped up commercialism in people in my clients organisations, full of self importance and legal bullshit, off to do battle with two of them today in Sydney.

  12. “Are you married?
    Do you have children?”

    Those used to be on CVs and we’re good ice breaker questions. When I was in the Army it was the sort of information you were expected to know about your troops.

    ” I also find companies’ refusal to indicate a salary to be highly unprofessional, and this is compounded by them having the cheek to demand you tell them what you’re earning now.”

    It’s a scam to try to find out what the going rate is in the industry.

    When I was consulting we were bought out (by a French company) and I was instructed to place a dummy recruitment add in the trade press and use the resulting interviews to find out what was wrong in the various mobile companies. I was then expected to go back to their management with “solutions”, leaving those who’d come for the interview hanging around having wasted a day’s holiday. I told them to fuck off and resigned.

  13. The N Sea had a pass on employment regs. Didn’t do any harm.
    I reckon I got fired more often than a 21 gun salute.
    We had an expression: You’ll never work for this company again… until we need you.

  14. One day the interview will go like this:
    Interviewer – ‘Tell me a bit about yourself.’
    Interviewee – ‘I’m a black female trans-gender, bi-sexual’
    Interviewer – (tick, tick, tick, tick) ‘You’ve got the job!’

  15. HR drone was aghast telling us the 1st candidate was way better as he was “passionate” about engineering. I asked how she knew that and HR drones reply was that he said he was passionate and therefore he was !

    I’ve seen technical managers who weren’t much better. Part of the reason is weak managers want to employ people they think will be compliant and easy to manage, rather than competent.

  16. There are some questions that you should answer with a lie. This is one of them.

    Indeed.

  17. So, “Get your tits out, sweetheart” is a definite no-no.

    Unless you’re casting for a porn film or running a strip club.

  18. We had an expression: You’ll never work for this company again… until we need you.

    Yup.

  19. Tip for the execs out there if you get an offer that has a meaty non-compete clause (they are unenforceable) say that you can take it only if the double the notice period, works every time.

    Yeah, I’ve come across these non-compete clauses before. I once had a potential employee, a mate I’d known for years, have his former boss call me up and say employing him was illegal because he’d signed a clause saying he couldn’t work for anyone in the same industry! I wished him luck in pursuing his case through the courts.

  20. When I was in the Army it was the sort of information you were expected to know about your troops.

    Damn right. I try to know a little about my guys’ personal lives, just so you can cut them some slack if their kid gets sick or something. It goes a long way, especially with Nigerians.

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