I’m afraid I’m about to be offered a job I won’t be good at

A reader writes:

I had a second interview with a company last week and it went horribly, in my estimation. There were a bunch of technical questions, and I did my best to answer them to the best of my abilities, but for the most part, I did not know the answers and I told them so. The interview was to last about an hour and it lasted about 20 minutes, so I figured it wasn’t a good fit and that was that.

Fast forward to today. They asked for my references. I, of course, sent them back immediately. Now, I’m scared that if they offer me the job it will be to do a bunch of things I cannot do. Though they are aware of my shortcomings, I’m willing to learn and do pick up on things very quickly, but I don’t want to disappoint after 30 days and have them find that I am not a fit. The other thing that scares me is that I am completely versed on a system that no one at their company knows anything about and in the back of my mind, I think they could possibly offer me the job to pick my brain about that system and once they get their information they won’t need me anymore.

I haven’t been offered a position yet, but don’t even know how to react if it happens. I almost want to act surprised if they do call to get some sort of answer as to why they took me after not being able to answer the questions in the interview. Any advice would be helpful. If they were up front and said they are hiring me because of my knowledge in system X, but while I taught them about that they would train me, that is one thing, but if they just offer me the job without any speak of the “bad interview,” I would come away a bit afraid.

I’m fascinated by the HBO late-night show “Cathouse,” which is about a real-life, legal brothel in Nevada. There’s tons of fascinating weirdness to love about the show, but one of the oddest parts is this thing called “the line-up,” which is where a customer arrives and all the women currently on-duty line up inside the front door so that he can choose one of them. This is a one-way selection process; the customer makes a choice, the women wait to be chosen, end of story.

Your letter makes me think of that because you’re talking about interviewing as if it’s a one-way selection process too. But it’s not — far from it. And if you treat it like it is, you’ll dramatically increase your chances of ending up in a job that you won’t do well in or be happy with. (You also won’t come across as well to the employer, interestingly.)

You should see all hiring processes as two-way streets: The employer is interviewing and assessing you, and you should be interviewing and assessing them right back. It’s not about you just waiting for them to decide if they want you or not; you also need to decide if you want them.

So in this case, that means that you’ll ask these questions that are on your mind. Ideally, you would have asked in the interview: “I’m noticing that you’re asking a lot about X and Y. Is that a substantial portion of the job?” and “How important is it that the person in the job have technical knowledge in these areas from the beginning, versus being able to pick it up through training and learning on the job?”

But even though you didn’t ask then, it’s not too late — if you get a job offer, ask about it then:  ”During our interview, you asked a lot of technical questions and X and Y, and I wasn’t familiar with many of them. How much of the job will those areas account for? Is it something I’d need to pick up on my own or is there any training?”  And so forth — and anything else that you’re wondering about too.  Ask as many questions as you need to until you’re satisfied that you fully understand what you’d be signing up for, and never, ever accept a job offer until that part is done.

You are not in a brothel line-up. You’re in a two-way business discussion.

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