I was a middle-class migrant worker for most of my adolescence because my father believed in hard work. I started at twelve in California picking bruised plums up off the ground to be dried for prunes. I walked acres of soy beans in Illinois, pulling weeds too small for equipment or chemicals. In Iowa, I detasseled corn, sorted tiny machine parts and clerked at a gas ‘n go mini-mart. I babysat children across several Midwestern states. I had a substantial if unglamorous resume, and yet had not actually interviewed for any of these jobs. My agricultural gigs were arranged through friends or family connections.
Although not ungrateful for the help I had received, by my first year of college I was ready to change my line of work. I noticed a “help wanted” sign in the window of my favorite record store and applied immediately. I was so excited. What kid doesn’t dream of working in a lair-like record store, painted posters hanging off the walls, new bands blaring, boxes and boxes of hot-off-the-press records and cassette tapes stacked in the corner? The manager called within a few days and set up an interview.
The day of the interview, I paced the store waiting for the store manager, absently leafing through albums. I realized my desire to work at a hip store might have clouded my judgment. Up to this point I had worked at jobs that didn’t require much more than walking, breathing and surviving the work. Here I was, about to be interviewed for the first time for a job that fifty other people wanted and I was not a shoe-in candidate.
I was not cool. I had yet to transition successfully from the seventies to the eighties—no layered hair, no shoulder pads, no shiny neon belt crisscrossing an off-the-shoulder jersey tunic. My jaws were wired shut. I had recently had jaw surgery and was recovering with full closure, less than a half inch between my teeth. I stuttered, even through the wiring, the repetitive movements causing me to jerk and grimace in pain every now and then on hard consonants. And on top of all else, my musical tastes ran rather eccentric for a nineteen year old.
All of these limitations made the first part of the interview excruciating for me and my interviewer. Her questions were basic, my answers halting, awkward, and the antics of broken speech through an immobile mouth must have been distracting. Things started to wind down when I couldn’t name any of the current Billboard hits. She set down the clip board, our shared discomfort almost over.
I sat back and my eyes wandered to a David Bowie poster on the wall above her desk. Without thinking, I murmured reverently, “Bowie.” She looked up. “What do you know about Bowie?” she asked.
Perhaps because I knew I had failed. Perhaps because I knew the interview was over. Perhaps because Bowie has a way of commanding any stage, I started talking. I said I had seen David Bowie on “The Midnight Special” when I was younger and became obsessed. I loved the way he teased us, mixing male and female, human and alien, man and diamond dog. He was the ultimate trickster god, flickering in and out of the shadows of rock and roll banality, playing music beyond time, scraping the edges of harmony, a mix of magic and cacophony, always risky, never boring, I would stare into those crazy colored eyes on the cover of greatest hits one and the words called to a hidden wildness, “making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind …” I had seen every movie, every video, and could name all his musical stages by name and discography.
The poster was from a concert–one of many the manager had attended through the years. She was a huge fan, the only one in the store, “until now.” I got the job and worked there for five years.
This memory of my first job interview came back to me as I was flying home from a day of interviewing other people. Twenty years later, I now teach managers like the record store manager how to interview to determine the right fit for their stores. Occasionally I get out and support the hiring process myself. As with all practical knowledge, teaching how and actually doing are very different experiences.
Teaching people how to interview is like teaching algebra or baking a cake. Students learn a formula, and if they follow the steps with precision and discipline, they should get a consistently recognizable result. The formula is simple: put the candidate at ease; ask a few questions that they expect and probably prepped in the car to get things going; make a silent decision; confirm or refute this decision with a series of more complex, probing questions; use various techniques to facilitate discussion; give some sort of spiel if applicable; be non-committal when you close. Of course there are issues of questions, legalities, non-verbal behaviors, dos and don’ts on the part of the interviewer; it goes on for eight hours of class time. We role play and the students leave clutching outlines and articles, believing they can sort the sheep from the goats with ease.
When I move from the podium to the interviewer’s chair, supposedly making actual career life and death decisions, I have trouble sticking to the structure I preach. My mind wanders to irrelevant questions, “You worked at a zoo?” “That is a great handbag! Where did you get it?” “Wow, you majored in anthropology and theater? Let’s talk about dramatic ritual in ancient societies!” I confuse finding the proper corporate player with finding potential lunch dates. I’ve hired many wonderful people, but also a few that turned out to be mentally ill, some unable to talk to strangers and a couple of thieves.
I love the theory that an interviewing strategy can give us the power to judge objectively. If we assume we can structure and control human interaction, we can predict to what extent present behavior will translate into a future standard of performance. We imagine that a right answer, “I love to be greeted when I walk in a store,” means that this candidate in turn will greet our customers. It is intellectually satisfying to posit but the support data is sketchy. People with sloppy interviewing skills sometimes hire winners and the slickest, cleverest conversationalists make poor choices. There is something else at play that the methodology can’t seem to capture, something we are searching for that cannot be quantified or tracked. There was no logical reason I should have been hired at the record store. A random comment happens to elicit a shared passion. One more minute and I would have been gone.
For all my expertise, every time I have a live person in front of me, I wonder whether or not they like Bowie.
Last week’s hiring event was no exception. It was a case study assignment for me—prescreened applicants, part-time positions, lots of interviewers. I chatted with several lovely people, nice answers all about service, product and brand, warm, well-spoken, right out of the text books.
Then I sat down with “Jane.” She was an older woman, with a plain bun and a dark, Amish-inspired suit. Despite this apparent lack of style or trend awareness, something we do assess in our environment, she had a spark in her eye and a wiry, buzzing physicality in the way she moved. She seemed younger than she looked. The interview went fine, but I was thinking she might be quaint or out of touch and was worried that her primary work kept her relatively isolated. How would she fare in our diverse, chaotically populated world? I asked her this question. She thought for a minute and then started talking.
Her answer stunned me. It seemed that she was mining and assembling her ideas from unique depths of collective wisdom. Building in confidence and volume, she spoke with genuine wonder at how people help each other, how we seek each other out, and how much she learns every day from these chance encounters. I heard in her voice voices that had moved me before, echoing Tom Joad saying, “I’ll be there,” Martin Luther King’s dream, George Harrison telling us the sun is out and it’s alright, the human wave at a ball game, Mulder telling Scully he is nothing without her, Free to Be You and Me, Sam carrying Frodo the rest of the way up Mount Doom, finishing the AIDS walk holding hands and singing he ain’t heavy.
I started to cry—not blubbery boohoo, but definite misty tears. This is generally not recommended in interviewer protocol. It disrupts the power balance, gives an artificial sense of validation, and snot can smear the application ink. But I gave in, surrendering to this blissfully subjective Bowie moment.
I pulled myself together and discussed her availability. Pay. Training dates. I offered her the job. She may last a week. She may last five years. We can only speculate that she is the right person after a thirty minute conversation.
Scripts, rote process, all of those comforting rules that make us feel in control are useful; my job security depends on people believing that they are effective. But I am ever the skeptic of my own shtick, waiting for the moment when the right question will meet the right person and I will discover not just a potential employee but maybe, just maybe, an unexpected, completely spontaneous connection.
A fabulously right answer.