Tuesday, 3 August 2010

'You're Not As Good As You Appear On Paper': The Interview Saga Continues

As regular readers will know for the second time in 12 months I am unemployed.  Having received a far better redundancy package this year I am not in as desperate situation as last year, but as the money drips away there is still the prospect of house repossession and the break up of the household I have lived in for almost five years.  This year for some reason, perhaps because of higher unemployment, the Department of Work & Pensions seems to be less concerned about my domestic arrangements and have decided to pay me some benefit within a couple of weeks rather than waiting almost three months to start doing so.  Even the council is paying me council tax benefit, though it has wanted a day-by-day account of all the economic activity of the people living in the house whether they want benefit or not.

One of the requirements of claiming unemployment benefit is that you apply for two jobs per week.  There is no specification what kind of jobs these should be.  You cannot limit yourself too narrowly in terms of type of work or location.  I have been looking for jobs over a 190 km radius.  Being keen to get a job, I have in fact been applying right outside my recent area of work, going into residential lettings, working for councils, work for colleges and civil service roles.  Unsurprisingly given how many redundant people there are anyway in those fields, I have not got a look in.  Some weeks I apply for jobs that I know I stand no chance of being interviewed for, just because there is nothing else to show me applying for that week.  Sometimes, as with an interview I attended a week ago, I get caught out and get invited to be interviewed for a job I have no ability in.  I have quickly learned that actually that is sometimes the point and the employers like a few hopeless candidates to make it appear to their bosses as if they are drawing from a wide field when in fact they have hardly anyone suitable or have already set it up to give the job to a friend.

Often the reason why companies have so few candidates is that they have set too many criteria that there is no-one alive who could fit all of them and certainly not for only £25,000 per year.  The number of criteria seems to have fallen in my experience, with last year's record being 36 Essential and 10 Desirable requirements to this year being 25 Essential and 4 Desirable, though you did have to write about each of these in five small boxes on a website within 30 minutes or you were timed out, so perhaps they are just introducing new ways to eliminate people.

In terms of my own industry, however, I have found myself rather too successful.  This should be heartening, but let me explain the problem.  I put effort in completing my application forms correctly, reading all the guidance and seeking to comply with it.  I try to answer every question on the form (some times very challenging when there is a limit on the number of characters and even spaces you can use in providing the answer) and do it drawing on evidence from my career.  Interestingly, at two interviews I have been told that I was the only applicant who filled the form in properly, so I do wonder how other people do it.  It appears that to a great degree this gives me an inappropriate advantage as I am called to interview not on my actual abilities but simply because I have complied with the process.

Despite this, more than 20 interviews on, I still have no job.  I beg feedback from the interviewers and after receiving none from a lot of companies I have been interviewed with, was surprised to get a spate of feedback recently.  The common theme was that 'in person you are not a fraction as good as you appeared in your application'.  The increasing implication is that I must be lying on my application forms.  One person went as far as to say that having met me it was clear I was utterly unsuited for the role that I had applied for and should not go for such roles again.  I have never lied on any application form in my life. In fact when having CV training back in 2005 I was told to play up skills and abilities much more than I do.  However, I keep it plain and simple and certainly stick to the truth.  In fact, given how restricted the space is for writing on these application forms, especially online ones, there is usually a lot more I could say if there was space.

When I get to the interview I try to respond to the questions as best as I can.  One key problem is that you are now supposed to answer complex questions and even scenarios put to you, in what seems like 2-3 sentences at the most whilst drawing on real life examples from your career.  This is something I have failed to master and I tend to give answers at least as long as the question and certainly long enough to address the issues being raised.  However, it is clear that somehow you have to get all of that into the head of the interviewers in fewer words than they have used themselves.  I have also learned that I have been under a misapprehension.  I assumed that if I saw the interviewers making a lot of notes that was a good sign, but fortunately due to the feedback I have now received, it is a sign that things are going badly, I am somehow 'diluting' the answers I give by adding too much.  So if they simply tick their sheet I should see that as good and shut up then.

Sometimes, of course, you realise that, in fact you are not suited for a job.  The last feedback I received said that first comment I had made was spot-on but then the issues I had gone on to were irrelevant to the answer.  From my side, the first comment was a throwaway one while I thought through the answer and what I moved on to was how I feel about the issue and how I see the right way to address it.  What the interviewer saw as me having weak interview skills in fact revealed to me that my approach was completely the opposite to what that company wants.  In many ways, in that case, the interview had done its job.  However, it is presented to me as someone who is bad at interviews.  Interviews are always about second guessing what the potential employer wants and there is no way to get it right every time.  However, my enthusiasm for my work, I now see, means I cannot shift position fast enough to bring what I am saying in line with the company's line, rather I say what I feel is the correct way to deal with an issue and the way I would do it and just have to be lucky if that happens to coincide with how the company sees it.  I am no better at mind-reading than the next wo/man.

I need to change my approach and quickly.  Not being a student or even recent ex-student, I have no access to interview training, which like CVs and everything else in recruitment seems to go through rapid changes in fashion.  If the Job Centre Plus was any use this is what they could be training me in.  It seems that it could get me off the jobless figures pretty quickly.  I seem, unlike many people, to have cracked the application form bit, it is learning how to be sufficiently chameleon-like in the interview so that at least they do not come out telling me I was wrong to have even applied and certainly raise the suspicion that if I am that unsuitable my application form must be full of lies.  Instead I am being sent to a session on my duties when I am unemployed, which I think by my weekly level of applications I am complying with.  I cannot magic more suitable vacancies out of the air and I do not seem able to get people in different industries interested in me at all.  The ironic outcome of all this is that I should begin to be less competent in completing my application forms, then at least if I am called to interview my performance there will not seem so out of step with what I have written on the form, so reducing the clear disillusionment on the part of the interviewers and the suspicion that I am a liar.

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