things you don’t need to apologize for … or, don’t kowtow to your interviewer

A reader writes:

Some time ago, I interviewed for a job. I sent a nice thank-you email and didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, so I followed up with an email reiterating my interest and asking for information on next steps. Soon after, I received a rejection letter from the company’s HR manager.

I was disappointed, but I took a day or so to gather myself and sent a thank-you letter to the HR manager. Fast forward to last Monday. I received an email from the woman who interviewed me, stating that the position I had interviewed for had reopened and that she thought of me, so she was writing to see if I was still interested.

I am still searching for a job in my field, so I replied and said that I was absolutely still interested in the job. I asked if she would like to set up an interview (as I was unsure of the next steps), and she wrote back the next morning, saying that she was pleased to hear that I was still interested, and that she didn’t think another interview would be necessary.

She said that she would contact her HR rep, and that I should hear from them soon. That evening, I was at the store buying some things for my brother (who has special needs), and I found out that he had had to go to the ER. Naturally, I was a bit startled, and I was about to pay the cashier when my phone rang.

It was a fair amount of time after the employer’s business hours had ended, but I answered, just in case. Sure enough, it was the HR rep. She needed my driver’s license number and my date of birth for my background check (which presents no issues). I asked her to hold briefly (around 20 seconds), so I could get out of line and give her my full attention/get my information for her.

I was mortified by the situation and apologized, and she said that it was okay and thanked me for my information, and told me to have a good evening. Since I knew that the woman from HR was the rep for my contact, I sent my contact a brief message about the situation (not knowing anything about the HR rep other than her first name), following your book’s guidance (saying that I was mortified, that I had extenuating circumstances that led me to act out of character by having to make the HR rep hold, and that it wouldn’t happen again).

That was late Tuesday evening, and I have heard nothing. I know that background checks take time, but I am afraid that I somehow bungled things due to a rough set of circumstances. I don’t want to seem pushy by following up, but I am not sure what a reasonable timeline for background checks in my field (social work, therapy specifically) take, so I am a bit nervous, especially due to my perceived inconveniencing of the HR rep.


You did nothing wrong — stop freaking out and stop apologizing!

You asked someone to hold for 20 seconds because you were in line at a store and they called you at an unscheduled time. This is not something that you need to apologize for. What you did was perfectly normal, not something you bungled or anything in any way rude.

(And before we go any further, let’s clear my name — my book does not suggest apologizing for something like this! The advice in the book that you’re referring to — to say that you’re mortified and that something was out of character — is for when you make a mistake. This was not a mistake, not even close. To the contrary, my book and I recommend not acting like the employer holds all the power and you have none, because that’s not the case and it’s detrimental to your candidacy.)

While you certainly want to be respectful of people’s time when you’re interviewing, that doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to kowtow to them and act like you’re not doing anything other than sitting by the phone waiting to take their call at whatever moment it might be convenient for them, and you certainly shouldn’t feel you need to do penance for it if you’re not.

Would you apologize like this to a coworker who reached you at an inconvenient time and had to hold for 20 seconds? You would not.  Would you expect an employer to apologize like this to you if the roles were reversed? You would not. So why do you feel you did something wrong here?

You are a businessperson contemplating a relationship with another businessperson. You should not be obsequious or overly deferential; you should be normal, like you would be with a coworker — not too cowed to do reasonable things, like not being available every second of the day or putting someone on hold while you step out of line.

Employers (and other people) respect people who respect themselves. Stop kowtowing, and signal that you’re worthy of their respect. Because you are, right?

Now, as for what to do next, background checks take a while. It’s been a week since your last contact. Wait a few more days and then email either the hiring manager or the HR rep and ask what the timeline is likely to be for moving forward. Do not reference the situation last week, and do not apologize again. You are not seeking an indentured servant position; you’re making a mutually beneficial business arrangement, and your communications should reflect that.

Good luck!

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