Having worked in industry and been a consultant for 40 plus years, I’ve been through many interviews. Some of them deserve special recognition for how wonderful, horrible, or downright surreal they were. So, I am announcing my interview Academy Awards.
The man winced and looked at me again. "I'm really sorry, I thought you were the stripper."
A tie between the interview that landed me my first “real” professional writing job at Beckman Instruments and a late-in-career senior editor job at a large biomedical company.
For the Beckman job, a delightful manager about my father’s age leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, and we had a good, free-wheeling talk. I was barely qualified for the job, without a professional portfolio, and figured I would need to compete with hundreds of applicants as was standard for the time. Later, a long while after I got the job, I learned that only 17 people had applied, and no one ever figured out why.
For the editor job, I knew half the department I’d be working in, was very familiar with the technology, and had all the requirements boxes checked. Fortunately, the company had a lot of “older” workers, so at 53 I wasn’t a complete anomaly. I passed the large committee interview. When I went to HR, that interview was surprisingly smooth. However, I noticed on the forms I had to add a lot of details about my work history.
I’d been consulting for 25 years, so the companies where I’d been an employee either no longer existed or had been bought and sold so many times as to be unrecognizable. And sadly by this time, every supervisor I’d had was deceased. I tried to explain very diplomatically, and the HR rep chirped, “Oh, don’t worry, we only go back ten years, so your consulting references will be fine.” My offer, background checks, and the like then went through in record time for a company that was notoriously slow in its processes. The only reasonable explanation was that it turned out to be the HR rep’s last week and she was trying to finish up quickly.
Most Overt Discrimination
Sex discrimination was eliminated from this category because any woman who participates in Retrospect likely has plenty of her own stories. Age discrimination is particularly painful. At age 62, faced with the possibility of layoffs at the large biomedical company, I started looking for writing and editing positions. I figured out how to make my resume look as if I’d been working for 15 to 20 years rather than 40, without any obfuscation, and I did get a couple of nibbles. The most promising was a corporate scientific communications position at an up and coming biomedical company, and my phone interview went very well, so I was excited.
For my in-person interview, I tried to dress “young,” and I made sure my hair was freshly colored. The first person I talked with was a communications consultant who was helping the company hire someone, and that talk went very well. The next person was a writer in the department. She walked into the interview room and I felt the temperature sink as low as a refrigerator for the COVID-19 vaccine. I could read the balloon of thoughts over her head “Not very young and cool.”
So it went from there. The content of the conversation no longer mattered, and this continued with her boss, who was obviously young and ambitious. Later that day I got a phone call from the boss telling me that they were “rethinking” the job and weren’t sure what or who they really wanted. The job vanished, not mysteriously. I survived the layoff scare but decided that my future work was back in consulting.
Best Interview Team
The most effective interviewing team I ever served on was not in industry, but in academia, at Mills. I was asked to be on a search committee for a new editor for the alumnae magazine. The all-woman team assembled was the ideal combination of skills, experiences, ages, professions, and personalities. It might have been luck or the alumnae board’s skill, but we just clicked and quickly identified a set of finalists for the position.
I was assigned to evaluate writing samples and ask questions about editing and production. Others with excellent people skills evaluated the candidates’ diplomatic abilities. The team unanimously decided on the person we wanted–who was a man. We knew we’d take flak for that, but he had been a graduate student at Mills, so he met the alum requirement in the job description. Eyebrows were raised, but his work was terrific, and the magazine was well received.
Cruelest and Most Grueling
At my editing job at the biomedical company, I worked in the technical writing department but also was responsible for editing all the division’s marketing material, which I really enjoyed, and especially liked working with Susan, the director of the marcom group. I had “topped out” in my opportunities to be promoted in the tech writing group. Susan was able to open up a new job in her group for a program manager, and I got her unofficial notice through the grapevine.
While the job wasn’t ideal, I was eager for a change, so I began the internal candidate process. Essentially I had to re-enter online all my information from my original application and go through other bureaucratic hoops, including having to inform my current manager and deal with a lot of politics. However, I kept quiet about my plans with anyone who didn’t need to know.
As the next step of the process, I had to interview with eight different people, plus an HR person, on the same day. I started at about 8:30 in the morning, and by about 3 PM I’d had coffee, energy bars, and little recollection of what I’d said to whom. Generally I thought I’d done OK, and I knew Susan wanted me. At 3:30 I was supposed to interview with the HR person, but right before I was to leave my cubicle I got a call saying she’d been summoned to an emergency meeting and would get back to me at the end of the day. She didn’t call that day.
The following morning about 10, a flood of murmurs began to swirl through the building, and we noticed security guards at the doors. That meant one thing: layoffs. One of our tech writing group members came trotting from the other side of the building, saying “Oh, my God, it’s marketing and marcom!” I went flying over to my colleagues in marcom, where a couple of women were in tears and men were red in the face with anger. “It’s marketing folks and also Susan! She’s gone!” So not only were many colleagues gone, so was Susan, so was the job, and I didn’t even want to tell anyone what had happened and why I was even more upset than other people.
Finally, that afternoon, the HR person called me. I knew this wasn’t her fault, but now what? “The job still technically exists until the requisition is allowed to expire,” she explained. But it no longer made any sense. “What are my options?” I asked. “Well, you can withdraw your application,” she replied. “I withdraw my application,” I answered immediately. Fortunately the tech writing manager had really wanted me to stay in his group, so there were no lasting repercussions, which is the only positive thing I can say about the entire experience.
Special “Stripped Down” Award: Most Absurd
In my first few years of consulting, when I was in my early 30s, I went on many in-person interviews for projects, where I’d show my portfolio and go over how I could meet a prospective client’s needs. On a blustery, cool late afternoon I drove into a newer industrial area by the San Francisco Bay (close to where Facebook is now located) to discuss a project with a startup biotech company. I was to meet with the marketing director, a man, and the chief scientist, a woman, neither of whom I’d met before. The industrial park was so new that I was glad I had tall black boots on to navigate a muddy walkway and a blazer to keep out the wind.
When I entered the lobby, I was right on time and announced my arrival to the receptionist. The receptionist called back to the chief scientist and then said that she was running a bit late, but to have a seat and wait. I chose a comfortable seat and placed my portfolio case on my lap. After about ten minutes, a man came into the lobby and made eye contact with me. I thought he might be the marketing director, but after another quick look, he turned and left.
Ten minutes later, the same man returned, this time looking me over head to toe, almost to the point of being inappropriate. He smiled, practically whispering, “Perfect, perfect, totally convincing,” and again turned around and left. Another ten minutes went by, and in the front door walked a very tall, platinum blond, slender woman in a pinstriped business suit and tall black boots, carrying a briefcase. She spoke to the receptionist in a soft voice. Almost immediately, the same man who had been looking at me was back, very confused. He looked at me again, then looked at the other woman, and his face turned white as he approached me.
“I’m here for the brochure project,” I said to him. He stammered, “Uh, I’m so sorry, you see, Joe in accounting turned 40 today, and we are giving him a special surprise.” The blond woman opened her briefcase, which contained a tape recorder. The man winced and looked at me again. “I’m really sorry, I thought you were the stripper.”
Well, I did eventually have the real interview after an hour, and perhaps the chief scientist and marketing director felt sorry for me, because they gave me the project, which turned out to be horrible. We soon parted ways. But I guess there are worse outcomes than being mistaken for a stripper.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.