The Nation's Pulse

Death by Interview

So what is your greatest weakness?

By 7.22.10

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Coming home last week from my third job interview in a month I decided Scott Adams was right: Human resources people are evil.

Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, has created a whole gallery of unsavory characters: the pointy-haired boss, the lazy co-worker, the preventer of information services, the sham consultant, various accounting trolls and marketing weasels. But none can match his Catbert -- evil director of human resources -- for sheer malevolence.

Nothing delights the evil director of human resources more than dreaming up sadistic policies meant to torment hapless employees. I sometimes think it was someone very much like Catbert who came up with today's standard interview questions.

I can usually predict how well I will do in an interview by whether I meet with my potential boss or the HR director. The latter will not inquire into my qualifications or my experience. Instead, he will ask cryptic questions meant to gauge whether I am a psychopath who will one day crack up and burn down the company's headquarters.

What I find disturbing is how the questions seem designed not to determine whether I am qualified to do the work, but to solicit falsehoods or complete BS. For example, the truthful response to the question: "Why do you want to work here?" is almost always, "Because I am a responsible adult and I have a family to support."

Only you cannot say that. HR directors do not care why you are really applying for the job. Instead, you must play make-believe and concoct some warm and fuzzy story about how since you were a toddler you have dreamt of creating market-driven strategies for Grunt Technologies, Inc.

The questions get more asinine as the interview drags on. "What is your greatest weakness?"

Everyone, of course, answers this the same way. "I'm a workaholic." Inwardly the HR director smiles. Another workaholic! That's the tenth workaholic today! How fortunate to live in a time when no one has enriching personal lives or cares to spend time with his wife/husband and family!

"Why did you leave your last job?"

Even if your boss was constantly creeping up behind you and sticking his tongue in your ear, you cannot say so, because it would label you a complainer and one who is not a team player. So you wince and recite some meaningless boiler-platism about wanting to "change your challenge." Again, the HR director's heart flutters: a challenge-changing workaholic who has dreamt of creating market-driven strategies since he was messing in his diapers. That's the tenth one today!

I have no idea how HR directors decide whom they will hire because, unless the candidate is a complete moron and answers the questions honestly, all prospective employees' answers will be the same. Perhaps they draw names out of a hat.

I GOT MY FIRST real job at a small Ozark newspaper back in 1986. I showed up and the publisher introduced me to the outgoing editor and we chatted. "Well, does he want the job?" he asked a moment later. I did. Eight years later I interviewed at a major metropolitan association for a public relations job. The boss asked me a few pertinent questions, saw I had the right experience and skills, and, after checking my references, hired me the next day.

Today, it is not unusual to sit through a dozen interviews before an offer is tendered (or not). The first two rounds with the HR director are but prelude to a succession of meetings with various staff, hiring panels, and committees. If you happen to have a job, it means taking a dozen days off so you can be asked the same questions a dozen times by hundreds of different people in the same company. Obviously, with so many interviewers it is almost impossible to reach a consensus. So they drag the candidates back in for round 12.

Of course, by round 12, the best candidates have been snapped up by a more decisive company.

I lost count, but I imagine I have been to nearly 20 interviews this year. I have read that the average number of applicants for a job is six, but each time I ask an HR director how many candidates applied for an opening I am told anywhere from 50 to 200. Am I disgusted by the whole process? Of course. But I persist because I am a responsible adult with a family to support. Though, of course, I would never say so. 

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.