A few days ago, I read an article on LinkedIn about someone’s bad interview, and it reminded me of my own terrible interview experience.
It was the summer of 2000 and I had yet to discover what I wanted to do with my life. Someone told me that I would have a knack for marketing, so I looked up ads for marketing jobs in the paper. For those of you who have only known job searching using the internet, rest assured that those were simpler times. I remember the ad was especially vague and only called for people with great personalities and “tenacity” (or perseverance, I don’t remember which). I thought to myself, “I’m a good guy, and I think I am tenacious.” So I called the number and they invited me to interview.
I got up early the morning of the interview to pick out a newly dry-cleaned, black, three-button suit, a pressed white shirt, and a pair of almost new dress shoes that, while not at all comfortable, had been polished to the point of looking like patent leather. I then drove to the address, which turned out to be a dingy office snug between a used tire shop and a lawnmower repair business. Walking in, the smell of the neighbor’s used tires didn’t mix well with what smelled like mold and looked like water stains on a carpet that likely predated me by two decades. There was one other candidate sitting there who was also dressed to the nines. After a short wait, a half dozen employees came out holding clipboards and invited us to step outside, which we did. On my way in I had somehow missed what was now a pair of creepy, carob brown vans that looked like the preferred vehicle for the villain in The Silence of the Lambs.
My spidey sense was shouting, “Hey, don’t get into that van,” while my wallet was saying, “You need a job, suck it up.” Right then, my “interviewer,” who for the sake of anonymity I will call Larry, opened the side of the van and invited me to sit in what looked like the last place a person is seen. Once in the van, Larry told me that they just wanted to get a feel for how I conduct myself around clients so I would be tagging along with him and his colleague for the day. I assumed the same was true for the other candidate, but, thinking back, I sometimes wonder if he was an intern or someone otherwise posing as a candidate.
After driving for half an hour without seeing where we were going because I didn’t have a window, they stopped the van and let us out. They might as well have hoodwinked me because I had no clue where we were, until Larry said we were in a neighborhood in Potomac, MD. What were we doing there? Our charge was to walk to every single home in that neighborhood, ring doorbells, and, in the sweltering summer heat, try to sell people new furnaces.
I kid you not.
There was a script that Larry would mutter for about 20 seconds before his other accomplice would hear a cue for her to jump in and start talking. Meanwhile, I, “the candidate,” was standing there with my suit soaked all the way through in sweat, my ankles bleeding from walking in new dress shoes, and not having an out as I didn’t have a ride home. Around noon, the van showed up again, this time with a slice of pizza from Sbarro’s for each of us and some slightly-warmer-than-room-temperature lemonade. An hour later, we were back to canvasing the neighborhood. I was starting to think that if they had actually kidnapped me, I would at least have been in-doors.
The “interview” ended around 4:00pm, when we all got back in the van. Larry started telling me that it was really neck and neck between me and the other candidate, but that he believed I had “what it takes” and that as a favor he would go to bat for me to get the job. Thankfully, a couple of minutes later the van pulled up and I politely told him that I would feel bad about taking the job from the other candidate and insisted they go with him.
Before Larry could respond, I was already in a delirious sprint for the freedom and air-conditioned safety of my car around the block. I don’t know that there is a moral to this story that you haven’t heard before, but just so we’re clear, “Do not get into a van with a stranger! Ever.”
I can offer three other lessons that might be more practical:
- Do your research before applying to a job or showing up to the interview. Companies like the one mentioned above pray on the ignorance of people that don’t prepare.
- In addition to being prepared, know how to dress for the interview. A simple call ahead of time would have had me in much more comfortable clothes at the beginning of the day.
- There are a lot of companies out that capitalize on desperation and the false assumption that there is a shortage of jobs out there. This enables them to hire candidates and spit them out in short form once they are done with them. The U.S. is nearly at full employment; if you are persistent, well informed, and well prepared, on a long enough timeline, you will get a good job.
Stay cool, safe, and well-informed this summer.