The Worst Interview I Ever Had

Hint: I didn’t take the job.

Illustration by Bodil Jane

I still remember my first job interview after leaving college. I was in the second round of meetings for a role at a government agency helping disadvantaged folks find work. I was starry-eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to do good in the world. And then, I met the agency’s director: a small but intimidating woman who quizzed me not only on whether I was single, but how much my partner earned, and whether I planned to quit and start a family. Freshly schooled on the legal dangers of questions like this, I was shocked. And I didn’t return their calls for a third round.

Fast forward a decade, and I’m texting with a friend. She’s an incredibly talented software engineer who has won awards for her work in improving the tech industry. Basically, she’s the unicorn every recruiter looks for. And she was looking for a job. With her credentials, companies and recruiters should have been falling all over her. Instead, they were falling on their faces. Weeks went by with no contact, companies sent her lengthy (and unrelated) at-home challenges, and couldn’t answer basic questions about their benefits or how they ensured their companies were safe, inclusive spaces. Regardless, she ended up with a number of offers, some of which baffled her, because they didn’t even seem that interested.

The twist? She did not take the highest paid position, by a long shot. She took the one where she felt welcomed. The winning company was always on time, always remembered her name, always followed up, clearly laid out how compensation and promotions work at their company, and even had snacks laid out for her during a long coding challenge. She’s been loving every day at work since.

At Bright + Early, we’ve written a lot about how to create a great interview processes. We believe they should be designed with the same precision as your product. Bust out the personas, map out a journey, and commit to an amazing user experience. But, my friend’s experience got me thinking- there must be similar stories out there. How can companies do better? I put out a call in my network asking for folks to share their scariest interview stories, and boy, did they deliver. However, we’re not here just for the juicy, jaw-dropping “glad that wasn’t me” moments (of which there are many). We’re here to help. For each one, we’ve written a tip that will keep your company out of those brunch stories, and into the hiring hall of fame.

#1: The Accessibility Blunder

“I have a visible disability, and people who are interviewing often ask what’s “wrong with me”. If someone says “hey so the job requires X, can you explain how you do that” then I don’t mind, if it’s genuinely related. I’m happy to answer things like that rather than have them just assume I can’t do something. But don’t just ask “what happened” when I walk into the room!”

To avoid this, try: Making sure interviewers are trained on the protected grounds, and what they can and cannot ask.

#2: The “Surprise!” Interview

“ I once had an interview where someone asked me to describe an algorithm I’d build to sort a deck of cards. Over the phone! I was new to Canada and I did not yet know the translation for what a “club” or a “diamond” was. To top it off, no one told me that it would be a technical interview. “

To avoid this, try:

a)Providing information about your interview process ahead of time, so candidates know what to expect. Some companies even lay out the process right on the job posting or their careers page. Extra credit!

b) Learning about cultural differences in the workplace. We like this article by Ritva Nosov, an expert in the space.

#3: The Company Badmouther

“At the last interview I had, the hiring manager went on and on about how disorganized HR was throughout the whole time I was there. It didn’t seem like a supportive, cohesive company.”

To avoid this, try: Interview training would be a start, though it sounds like deeper issues are at play here. If your team is experiencing lots of conflict, it’s better to work through it before adding more humans to the mix.

#4: The “I didn’t read your resume”

“I was asked by a friend who really wanted to refer me if I would chat with HR to get a feel for the company, and agreed. The HR person didn’t have any information about me, so they asked questions that made no sense for my skillset, even after multiple attempts of me telling them that I’m a systems person and not a programmer. It was a waste of my time.”

To avoid this, try :Making sure you’re using an applicant tracking system (ATS) where interviewers can leave and share resumes, notes on candidates, and more. When you don’t have a defined process, candidates can end up in disjointed, disorganized interviews where they end up repeating themselves.

#5: The Clueless Cathy

“The head of HR didn’t know if they had a parental leave policy when I asked her.”

To avoid this, try: Outlining all your benefits and perks on your careers site, and creating a more detailed PDF (you can even make it branded and fun) to send to candidates. Often, this information is important to candidates but they won’t feel comfortable enough to ask.

#6: The Creepily Intrusive

“I was once asked a list of questions for every ‘period’ of my life (every place I lived, every job, every school I attended) and asked to tell them the best and worst thing about each. It was so intrusive! They finished up by making me take an IQ test.”

To avoid this, try: The interview described is obviously a topgrading interview, which is controversial in the talent world. Some swear by it, some swear it reduces diversity on teams. Either way, make sure to keep your process friendly and human. You’re selling to them, too.

#7: The Lowballer

“It was the 4th interview, and we were discussing pay. The CEO eyed my rings and mentioned that he knew my husband worked at Apple, so he thought I wouldn’t need (and shouldn’t be asking for) the salary range my experience demanded.”

To avoid this, try: Not being the worst? In all seriousness, equality means that someone’s family situation should have zero bearing on what they are paid. The job is the job, the pay is the pay. Don’t do this.

#8: The Cheater

“After one of the phone interviews, it was noted that my answer to a technical question was too bang-on, and that they thought I’d googled it. The question was directly related to a course I’d just created a curriculum for and instructed, and my own work was indeed the top google result for it. “

To avoid this, try: How embarrassing! If a candidate does “too well” on a challenge, it’s up you to investigate why. One metric we like to keep track of is the pass rate of each interview stage. If something has too high of a pass rate, it’s not effective, and if no one is passing it, it needs fixing. A pass rate of about 50% at each stage seems to be a sweet spot.

Overall, we’ve got a theme going on here. Design your interviews with intention, and as if you were selling to your top customers. Not only will you sign your top candidate every time, you’ll have a lineup longer than that place with the marionberry pancakes.

Happy Hiring 🚀


PS: At Bright + Early we help companies create culture-friendly hiring processes, HR policies and employee experiences. If you need support making your amazing hiring process happen, get in touch!

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