My worst ever job interview… & what I learned from it!

My name is Jamie Van Cuyk and I’m a business consultant who specialises in employee management. The story of my worst job interview ever is a good one. While I did not enjoy the experience, I can’t help but laugh nearly 20 years later! What I learned from that event goes past the questions and how to tell if a candidate is a fit; I learned how to treat a candidate with respect during the interview process. This is a story you do not want to miss!

Setting the scene

It was December 2007, and I was searching for my first full-time job. I do not remember much about the job posting, but I do remember feeling excited to find an entry-level open position in my field. After all, it was the very start of the recession and many companies were going on a hiring freeze. I was surprised to receive a call quickly and had an interview set up for that week. This is it, I thought, I am going to get my first full-time job!

The first interview 

My feelings of excitement quickly dissipated as I walked into the hallway of the office. I learned about seven other candidates were given the same interview time slot. The interviews seemed to go quick, but nerves grew high while waiting for my turn. No one said a word or made eye contact. It was clear that none of us expected to walk into what felt like a cattle call.

When it was my turn, they led me into a small office. I do remember some of what they told me. One of the interviewers was the head of the branch. She talked about how she worked her way up and now leads her branch. It was presented as an easy thing to do and a goal that all employees should have. Could I have my own branch in a few years? I wanted the job!

The other thing that stood out to me was their response when I asked for more clarity as to the job duties. The posting had been very vague, and I could not find out any information online. They were eager to answer this question with the following details…

The day consisted of three parts:

  1. Strategy sessions; working together and preparing presentations
  2. Presenting to clients current results and future opportunities
  3. Celebrating successes and collaborating on new challenges

I wanted a team environment and the ability to work with clients. I was more determined to get the job and thrilled to be invited back for a second interview. 

The second interview 

The second interview was an all-day event where we had the opportunity to shadow a current team member. I was also told that I was a candidate and that I was going to be paired with a top performer in the office. A large number of us were invited back and told to wait in the hallway as the office was for employees only. An all-day interview where we will be shadowing an employee, but were not allowed in the office? I thought that was strange and started to wonder how the rest of the day was going to go…

Part one of the day, working together and strategising, didn’t last long. About 10 minutes after the workday started, this section of the day was over. I will never know what it entailed as it was all behind the closed office doors.

We were then assigned to our employee for part two of the day. Another candidate was assigned the same employee as I was and we hit the streets in a group of three.

I really mean that we hit the streets. One of the details they forgot to include was that this was not an office job. Seven and a half hours out of the eight-hour workday would be spent out of the office. Not really what I wanted but I would give it a chance. 

The actual job responsibilities

As we drove to our assigned territory, about 45 minutes away from the office, I learned more about the position. It turns out that important details were left out during the first interview. Overall, the job was 100% commission based, and it was cold calling, in person, on small businesses.

Unlike what was presented in the first interview, you did not have clients. There was only potential customers. Once they accepted the offering, there was no reason to ever talk to them again. No part of the business model required you to continue the relationship. In my opinion, this meant that you didn’t have clients.

Also, there were no presentations. Instead, the interaction involved convincing a small business owner or manager to hand over a phone bill and then you call a number to see if you could get them a better plan with a particular company.

Most of the businesses we entered that day were not thrilled to see us. We were even kicked out of a shop that morning and told that if we returned they would call the police. The business owners felt like we were trying to scam them. Who could blame them? After all, we did not work for the phone company that we were trying to sell them on, and we were not allowed to say that we were representatives of the phone company. To these small business owners, we were just random people demanding to see their bills. The employee had nothing prepared to help ease the business owners worries and try to build trust. Everything I was learning was making me not want the job.

Feeling stuck

By lunch, I wanted out. I did not want a sales job, and I did not want to cold call anyone. Instead, I wanted to have consistent clients and prepare and present actual presentations. Shadowing the position for a morning caused me anxiety; I could not imagine doing this job all-day, every day. 

During lunch, I was asked what I thought of the job. Politely, I said it was not what I was looking for regarding a career. That ended the interview process, but there was a problem. The employee I was shadowing would not be returning to the office for hours. So there I was 45 minutes away from my car, no idea where I was, and no money for a taxi. I couldn’t think of anyone who could get me in the middle of a workday. 

It gets better… or should I say worse!

After what seemed like forever, we headed back to the office. Along the way, however, the employee had to make a quick stop. She had recently purchased a puppy, and today the puppy was finally ready to go home. 

The puppy was cute and decided my lap was where it wanted to sit for the journey. I didn’t mind, at first, but then the puppy peed. Yes, the puppy peed on my lap to top off this fantastic interview!

As I sat in the hallway blotting my skirt, the employees went back in to the office for part three of the day. Once again, we were not allowed behind the closed doors. However, just like part one, it didn’t last long. I am still not sure how they work together as a team as mentioned in the first interview seeing they were only around each other about 20 minutes a day. 

After, I was called into a small office off the hallway for the end of the day review. I wanted to skip this review, but I never had a moment to excuse myself professionally. The review was quick and it was made clear from both sides that I and the job were not a match.

As I walked to my car while still trying to soak up more of the pee, I began to cry. Was this all that was out there? How long would it be until I found a job that I wanted? Would I be a part-time receptionist and a weekend restaurant server forever?

No, not forever. I was on my way to a successful career. However, that day, it was hard to see past what would always be my worst job interview ever. 

What I learned and how it impacted me as a hiring manager

For me, this interview is more than a story I will always remember. While I still had a lot to learn about effective interviews once I was on the other side of the table, I walked away with valuable lessons that continue to influence how I approach interviewing others.

Set proper interview expectations 

Excitement turned to dread when I entered the hallway for the first interview and realised that multiple candidates were scheduled the same time slot. The feeling could have been easily avoided if I was just warned about the situation. Indeed, to prepare me, they could have said, ‘The first interview will be relatively short as all qualified candidates will move on to a second round. To allow us to see the most candidates, we will be scheduling multiple people for the same time block. This makes it possible to move from one candidate to the next quickly. Please arrive on time, sign in, and you will be called to the interview room when we are ready for you.’ These four sentences would have prepared me for walking into a room where multiple candidates waited. I probably would have been nervous, but I would have known what to expect.

As a manager, we sometimes would do mass interview days when we needed to fill multiple account manager positions quickly. This was a benefit to both the interviewees and us as hiring decisions could be made in days versus weeks. Since we would typically have multiple pairs of managers conducting interviews, it was possible to have four or more candidates waiting in the hallway together. While I am sure they were still nervous as they sat there together, we did our best to prepare for the situation.

When you prepare candidates for the interview environment, it shows that you respect them. Companies that help prepare candidates are more likely to be the businesses that make sure their employees are always prepared to do their jobs. 

Be honest about the job details

Never lie to a candidate about the details of the job. If it’s a desk job, tell them. If it’s a job that requires them to drive around in their car all day doing cold calls, tell them. Whatever you do, do not try to make the job something that is not just to attract a candidate. Actual job details will not stay hidden for long.

In my story above, the interviewer would have been more honest about the job details if she said something like the following:

‘This is a sales job where 100% of your pay is made from commission. The commission is earned by selling new or updated phone plans to small businesses within your territory. Each morning we start the day with a quick, motivating team huddle here in the office. We then end the day with another huddle where we discuss our day’s success and challenges. The rest of the day is spent working in your assigned territory out of the office.’

Now, there is a difference between lying about a position and a difference of opinion. Some jobs are hard to explain, and sometimes people will misinterpret what you mean. For some positions, a short shadowing opportunity or even an information session at the desk of an employee can help clear up any possible confusion. It can also assist in determining if the candidate is a good fit for you and you are a good fit for the candidate.

Give the interviewee a way out

In my story, I was stuck in an unfamiliar part of town with no car and no way to get home. I had no choice but to stay with the interviewer all day.

As a hiring manager, I never needed to schedule a candidate for an all-day interview or all-day shadowing opportunity. Individual candidates were typically in and out of the office within an hour because the positions I was hiring for did not require anything more. However, if in the future I schedule day-long interview events for a candidate, I will make sure they have a way out. This could be done through a midday check-in. I would be sure to let the candidate know at the beginning of the day that if they discover during the morning that they are 100% not interested, they can use the mid-day check-in as their exit point. 

As leaders, we must understand that not all positions are for everyone. Even the candidates that seem too good to be true might not be the right fit for the position. Show respect to all candidates by letting them know that you value their time. Give them a way out instead of forcing them to continue with an all-day interviewing event. By showing that you value their time, they might be inclined to apply for future positions that would be a better fit. A bonus for you is that you or your team member gets time back to spend on value-adding activities instead of continuing to waste time with a candidate that will never accept the job offer. 

Finally, no animals in an interview!

Lastly, unless working with animals is part of the job, or they are a service animal, animals should not be part of the interview. As you heard in my experience, animal behaviour is unpredictable. You never know how the animal is going to react or what impact it will have on the interviewee. Keep everyone comfortable (and more importantly dry) by keeping the animals out of the interview. How you treat candidates during the interview process is typically an indication of how you treat employees of your company. Show candidates that you value them and their time starting from your first interaction. Do what you can to avoid being the company that produces someone’s ‘worst job interview ever’ story!

About the author: Jamie Van Cuyk helps small business owners and leaders become effective day-to-day people managers so they can hire, develop and retain the best employees, and have a staff that helps them exceed their business goals. Jamie transitioned to leadership consulting after seven years succeeding in formal and informal leadership positions within the corporate business world. She narrowed her focus to small business consulting after meeting many local small business owners and discovering that there was a lack of resources and training specifically designed to help them improve their employee management and leadership skills. Jamie resides in Florida, USA, but helps small business owners everywhere become confident leaders and feel adequately supported by their employees as they move their businesses forward. You can find Jamie on Facebook, or contact her via email: jamievc <at> 

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