The Information Problem & Interviews (Or, Maybe We Should Just Go Home)

The information problem is a concept taught in introductory economics (and perhaps in other guises in other disciplines). The information problem is the situation in which the parties involved in a transaction do not have equal information.

I have always framed job interviews as an attempted solution to the information problem. Interestingly, most guides to hacking an interview consist of tips on how to best the other party in the transaction – that is, most guides tell us exactly how to answer exactly which questions. If the idea of the interview is to find accurate information for both parties, then guides telling you to “never say you are a perfectionist” are actually just making the whole situation worse.

As a solution to the information problem, the job interview leaves much to be desired. It suffers from a number of serious problems – probably too many for me to list so I will focus on a few that strike me.

If the main goal of an interview is to get to the bottom of the interviewee’s disposition and qualifications and for the interviewee to figure out if they actually want the job, then asking your interviewee canned questions cannot be a particularly good method, can it? We say the interviewers want to learn more about a candidate, and yet they simply present one half of a semi-improvisational script and wait for the interviewee to provide the other half. There is little to induce a candidate to answer the question, “How do you deal with failure?” with anything other than a carefully planned answer based on all the expert advise one can muster, perhaps with a little personality thrown in to make it believable. Essentially, the canned questions (even the infamous Google, “How many ping pong balls can fit on a plane?”) test only one’s knowledge of “acceptable” responses.

The power dynamic in an interview has always seemed wrong to me. Perhaps that is because I am in a perpetual state of I-Have-To-Pay-My-Student-Loans. How can you expect to figure out a candidate when you force them to dress up in clothing that most people rarely wear, put them in a room with people who have virtually nothing on the line (while the candidate on the other hand likely has a fair amount on the line), and play at interrogating them? I am sure you have heard of stories where police garnered confessions from suspects after questionable interrogation techniques only to later discover indisputable evidence that the suspect was innocent. Popular knowledge has that it’s the suspect’s desire to rest or be left alone that results in them telling the police what they want to hear. I cannot help but be reminded of this. Interviews make the interviewee desperate to please – at what cost to the truth?

The power dynamic is related, though perhaps not the same as, one more issue I take with interviews. Do you remember the kids in high school that told you they didn’t do well on standardized test? Maybe they got test anxiety or the form of a standardized test boggled their brain, but you knew without a doubt they were intelligent, capable students? I think the same thing goes for interviews. Not everyone performs well or displays their attributes well at an interview, even if they are the perfect candidate for the job. Like over-weighting of test scores in a college admissions process will result in rejecting many students with tremendous potential, so does over-use and over-emphasis of the job interview result in rejecting potentially great job candidates.

At last we come to my favorite – the “networking” problem. I have had my fair share of interviews in my rather short life. I have rarely seen a candidate get the job who didn’t already have a connection with the hiring managers or interviewers. From networking with alumni to networking with past co-workers and so on, we are unduly impressed by interviewees knowing people we know. Worse, those interviewees have ridiculous advantages – Ms. Doe will be impressed if you mention having read this book or Mr. Xue will be impressed if you mention that you love Malcolm Gladwell. People call this “research,” but I think that is unfair to the word research as it seems to imply anyone can find out that information. Frankly, the fact that we give jobs to people because they know people we like is disheartening at best.

You can tell me it’s all about “fit” if you’d like, but as far as I can tell the job interview is simply a return to the popularity contest that new college students think they are leaving behind in high school. The difference seems to be the level of ease – try to become more popular in high school and one might stand a chance, try to get a foot in the white collar door with a network of blue collar acquaintances and perhaps one should just go home.

Introverted or Shy?

I was reading “An Introvert’s Guide to Networking” and the comments that followed, and something bothered me about the comments. A lot of the people that commented seem to equate “introvert” with “shy.” They are not the same thing (wikipedia even agrees with me).

As an introvert, I prefer solitary activities. I am not a particularly social person, although I do enjoy being around close friends (just not all the time). Even when it comes to my friends and family I need time alone to recharge. I like being alone, and I like thinking deeply without interruptions. A lot of these characteristics fit the definition of introvert, and yet I am not at all shy.

Depending on which site or dictionary* you look at, shy is defined as something along the lines of this:

1. Easily startled; timid. 2. a. Drawing back from contact or familiarity with others; retiring or reserved.

I do not fear or draw back from interaction with others. I am not easily startled, and I don’t think anyone that actually knows me would ever say I’m timid. Reserved at times, I suppose.

Anyway, it bothered me that people didn’t know the difference between “shy” and “introverted.” At a networking event, a shy person would be afraid to introduce themselves or talk to anyone. An introvert would simply prefer a more intimate event or a smaller group, but they may still easily introduce themselves or start a conversation. You might, of course, be both introverted and shy – in which case I wish you the best of luck, but I definitely do not envy you.

* Originally I didn’t even include “dictionary” here: sign of the times?

Notes on my Job Search: Phone Interviews

The phone interview – it’s like someone took a big vat, filled it up with everything that sucks about interviews and job searches, added some of the worst aspects of phone conversations, then poured it into a mold titled, “Phone Screening.”

What does a phone interview tell you?

Well, people claim it’s an easy way to vet candidates before bringing them in for a face-to-face interview.

The telephone. It’s the bridge between conversations in person and conversations via text (whether that text is an e-mail, letter, text message, etc.). There’s the benefit of immediate response time and audible cues, but phone conversations are still very lacking. You cannot, for example, see body language or facial expression. You may be able to hear your sister smiling, but the likelihood that you can pick that up when speaking with a stranger isn’t particularly high.

What I’m saying is that a phone interview is like a regular interview with all visual cues removed and decreased emotional awareness for both parties.

Add to that:

  1. the level of nerves many people feel during initial job interviews
  2. fear of long pauses in conversation, especially over the phone – dead air is not fun
  3. too many outside stimuli – many people don’t have private offices or even a good room to go into for a job interview
  4. lack of personal impression – there’s no opportunity for small talk or a memorable handshake
  5. inability to show how prepared you are with printed copies of resumes or references
  6. unexpected questions for which you are both unprepared and unable to read the visual cues of the interviewer
  7. additional anxiety that a phone will die or a call won’t go through or that the procedure isn’t perfectly clear (who will actually dial the phone?)
  8. Inability to ask for a business card – this can make it awkward to get contact info

What else do you think sucks about phone interviews? I know I make a much better impression in person than over the phone. Thoughts?

Notes From My Post-College Job Search Part 1

You know what I dislike the most about my job search? I don’t like that I often feel as if my resume and cover letter disappear into cyberspace, I don’t like interviews, and I hate phone interviews. Writing cover letters can kind of suck. Feeling like a zombie and forgetting where you’ve actually applied and where you couldn’t see any possibilities isn’t so great either. The worst part of all of it, though, is the need to put on a show.

I often feel as if I need to be initiated into the etiquette of business and job searches. I feel out of place, young, and naive at almost every meeting or interview I go to. People seem to have this odd expectation that I’m going to display a maturity and knowledge beyond my years even when I’m applying for an entry-level position. I never know how acceptable it is to admit I’m a little lost or overwhelmed. I never know if I should say that I am trying to start a career from scratch, but my job search isn’t honed in on one ultimate goal or position. I hate that even when you apply for a position that lists 0-2 years of experience, you’re expected to be able to talk knowledgeably about the work you’d be doing in that position.

I have so many questions, and I can’t seem to find answers for most of them. When is it okay to add people to my LinkedIn network? When is it all right to call people by their first names? How formal do I need to be? Am I even allowed to make jokes? What can I ask about in an interview – I know things like salary and benefits are off limits, but there’s a lot of other stuff left in a grey area.*

I don’t know the answer to most of my questions, and the majority of them don’t have easy-to-find answers available online. I have no mentor to ask and most of my friends are in a similar situation to mine. I grew up in a solidly blue collar household, went to (very good) public schools, and am now expected to enter a completely unfamiliar world.**

I am so tired of having to put up a front for recruiters. I do want to tell them about my accomplishments and what makes me a great candidate, and I understand the need for a certain amount of formality, but I’m tired of feeling fake. I don’t want to be in an interview and feel like it’s almost expected of me to fake everything from simple confidence to certainty that my Excel skills will be adequate for a given position.

A speaker, talking about career advice and interviews at Dickinson, once said you should never use phrases like, “to be completely honest” or “honestly” during an interview because it implies you weren’t being completely honest before. That may be true, and I’ve avoided all such phrases in professional situations, but there is a reason people use those phrases. I resort to such phrases when I’ve been honest while also being diplomatic, but the question calls for a more straightforward answer. I hate that I have to put up special barriers every time I enter into a professional conversation or an interview.

I would love if I could go into an interview and be myself. I don’t mean that I want to be able to go into an interview and talk about atheism and feminism and all of that, but I do mean that I want to be able to wear pants with my suit jacket if I feel like it and not worry about it affecting my chances. I want to be able to talk about my activities and my college with candor. I want to be able to admit, without trying to diplomatically twist, that Dickinson College wasn’t the best choice for me. I want to be able to admit, without diplomatically twisting my words, a lot of different things.

I want to be able to talk about my leadership experience with Secularist Students United without ignoring its purpose as a secular community. I want to be able to say that, while being an Orientation Assistant taught me a fair amount about leadership, the system was not well designed and I didn’t feel effective. I want to be able to say the truth without diplomatically twisting everything into something that applies directly to the position for which I’m applying. The truth is, most people’s backgrounds in a liberal arts college do not prep them directly for the workforce. To try to push our experiences into that framework is like trying to milk a bird.

Maybe I should just focus on finding a job for the year and applying to graduate schools. I’m starting to think I’m not quite cut out for a corporate desk job – at least not the ones available right now.

*Please note that I don’t want you to answer these for me. Seriously, don’t leave a comment telling me the answer to these specific questions – I’m simply illustrating a point.

**One might argue I entered such a world when I went to Dickinson College, but the truth is most of my friends were from relatively similar financial situations as myself.