“Sarah, it’s Lynn, can we talk to you,” said my boss. “I’m in Rachel’s office.”
“Sure, be right there,” I replied. It was unusual for my boss to call me from Rachel, our H.R. person’s, office but I wasn’t worried. So far at work, I’d only heard about how well I was doing. “You’re hard-working and you have a great attitude,” had been the sum of it all.
“Have a seat,” they said when I arrived. The two women exchanged glances, and my boss came out with it:
“We no longer want you to recruit at Penn.”
Let me back up.
It was winter, which meant recruitment season. In a few weeks, a colleague and I were going to visit my old college campus to interview students for positions at our small financial consulting firm in New York.
Three years prior, I had been one of those interviewees. And I was looking forward to returning to my alma mater on the company’s dime and being on the other side of the table.
But before we started recruiting in the Northeast, we conducted video interviews with candidates from universities that were too far to warrant a visit.
Before I was called into the H.R. office that day, I’d held an interview with a student from one of these schools and as instructed, I recorded our conversation. The recording would be used for review by H.R. in case we were unsure of a candidate.
However, I thought because of my relative seniority at the company, my interviews would likely not be reviewed by any of the higher-ups. In the small conference room, I felt like I was really alone with the student on the screen.
And it showed.
Back in the H.R. office, my boss explained:
“We were concerned about the way you discussed the company in your interview. Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Everything is great.” I was genuinely confused.
“Some of the things you said in the interview were alarming to us,” replied Rachel. “Are you happy here?”
Again, I really didn’t know what they were talking about. I sat there racking my brain, and all I could remember was my general state of mind: chilled out.
“Yes, I’m happy here,” I replied again. I wanted to keep my job. I was planning on leaving within the year, but I hadn’t planned on telling them yet.
“Well, that’s good to know,” said Lynn, “but we don’t think it’s a good idea you hold any more interviews, and we are going to have someone else recruit at Penn.”
My heart sank. I tried my best to undo it. “I’ll do better next time,” I said, “I still would like to recruit.”
But there was no use.
They sent me the recorded interview later on. At my desk with my headphones on, I listened and cringed.
It started out well. I’d asked the student the regular questions: “Why do you want to work here? What experience have you had that might help you in this job?”
At the end of the half-hour, it was his turn. “What is it like to work there?” he’d asked.
I took in a deep breath. “Well…” I said, exhaling. Hesitation. “It’s a good first job out of college,” I said nonchalantly. “But longer-term, I’d like to go live abroad for some time.”
My tone throughout the interview was the same. Jaded. Listening at my desk, I thought: “I should have acted more enthusiastic there,” and “I shouldn’t have said that.” How could I be so stupid?
I didn’t talk about my sex life or anything plainly inappropriate, but I wasn’t choosing my words in the same way that I would have if I had been speaking with a colleague. By saying: “it’s a good job for after college,” I had implied that the job wasn’t worth much besides that. I didn’t emphasize the company and its purpose, which I didn’t find important in the grand scheme of things. In short, I conveyed everything I believed.
And I cursed myself for it. I wanted so badly to go back in time and undo the whole week. “Why?” I thought. “Why couldn’t I have been like I always am at work?”
Not only was I not going to go back to my alma mater, but my good name at the office was ruined. What would my coworkers think? For years, I’d crafted a stellar image of my work-self. I’d gotten big bonuses, and I’d been promoted several times. Now, it felt like it’d all gone to shit because of some stupid phone interview.
It reminded me of that regularly quoted driver safety statistic: the majority of accidents occur within a 10-mile radius of home. This was similar to that. I had been on so many important client calls and performed perfectly well. But then give me a 21-year-old college student I’ll never meet again and that’s when I screw up.
We don’t make mistakes when we’re far away from home, out of our comfort zones, and thus, alert. We screw up when we think we can relax. When we are not really paying attention.
Because I’d let my guard down, they’d found out who I really was, and I could never go back.
I was very hard on myself for what had happened. The following weeks, I just wanted to avoid thinking about it, but the memory kept creeping up from the corners of my brain to whisper “you’re a failure.”
But today, looking back from the top of my wise mountain of the future, I know the only thing I really did wrong on that interview was failed to pretend I was someone else.
It’s normal to have a version of ourselves we present at work. Just like we may act slightly differently depending on if we are with close friends or with children or in a classroom. Depending on the context, we engage certain parts of our brains which may create slightly different personalities in different situations.
But there’s an extent to which this context-switching is healthy and one to which it is not.
It’s one thing to put ourselves in the frame of mind for work. It’s another to be on edge all the time. To feel like we can’t be ourselves. To feel anxiety every Sunday night knowing we have to put away weekend Sarah and put on business Sarah.
In any context, whether it’s at work or with friends, we should be concerned if letting our guards down and being ourselves results in reprehension. Especially if we spend many or most of our waking hours in that context.
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work and live in New York as a 21-year-old graduate with no real experience. I learned a lot while in the office and, in the end, I didn’t get in that much trouble. I stayed at the company for six more months as planned and resigned on good terms.
Still, my screw-up was a strong sign I wasn’t meant to be where I was.
Because of that experience, when I’m unsure of my job, I remember to ask myself this simple question: If no one was watching, what would I tell someone about it?
If it’s something that would make Human Resources call me in for a chat, that’s a sign I should try something new — not just for my sake but for my company’s.
In my current job, I can explain what we are doing and how we are making a positive impact. My job is not my personal passion, but I enjoy it, and it’s something worthwhile beyond the paycheck. Plus: it allows me the flexibility to work on other activities I’m interested in like writing.
I won’t ever again hand myself over to a cause I don’t care about it. My time is worth more than some corporate ladder, more than a higher-than-average paycheck. I love who I am, and I don’t want to hide that or waste my skills on something I don’t genuinely care about again.
In the end, my work screw-up wasn’t really a screw-up. It was only a sign I didn’t belong where I was. I couldn’t see it at the time, but now the skies are clear enough to understand the truth and share it with you.
See more and connect at nychickinberlin.com