I’m wondering if a recent interview experience was normal, or if I was right to run the other way.
After months of searching, I finally got an interview. It wasn’t my dream company or dream job, but it was in my field and a great way to get started in a new city. But early on, there were some things that made me hesitant. The scheduling of the interview involved two people who didn’t seem to be in communication with each other. Then I never received written confirmation of where to go and whom to meet, despite being told that I would. Red flag No. 1.
The day of the interview, I got lost in the impossibly complex office park and had to be given step-by-step instructions to the office. When I finally arrived, not one person knew to expect me, and I was asked to wait nearly ten minutes after the interview was supposed to start. Once it started, I was told the interviewers would be using a standard set of ten questions in “fairness” to all candidates. I was slightly annoyed to hear “Tell us about your entire employment history to date,” after I had already completed a detailed five-page application with that information. While not terrible, it didn’t leave me feeling confident that I wanted to work for the company or that it wanted me to work there. My family and friends all told me this type of generic interview is common, but why ask me to complete such a time-intensive document if I was just going to have to repeat it all in the interview? To me, that showed both laziness and a disinterest in candidates. Red Flag No. 2.
To my surprise, the CEO of the company called the next day and offered me the job. I expressed gratitude and asked if he could email me the details of the offer while I took a few days to consider. He asked why I would need time to consider and, sounding agitated, said he had other people waiting to hear back. He said that, if I had come to the interview, I must have wanted the job and that he had never had someone need time to think. He also told me he didn’t understand what I meant by “email me the offer.” Had I not read the job posting for details? Red Flag No. 3.
I was floored by how angry and aggressive he was in response to reasonable questions. I explained I was asking for details like salary, benefits, official title, etc. I said I wouldn’t be asking for this info if I weren’t seriously considering the job, and that, as it was a Thursday, I felt it wasn’t unreasonable to get back to him on Monday.
When I told family and friends about my experience, including my hesitation to accept any offer from this company, I got mixed reactions. Some said I was being reasonable, but others said this was normal for a small company without a formal HR department. I felt they were saying that I was “supposed to” accept unprofessionalism and borderline abuse and that these were sacrifices I needed to make to get my foot in the door.
When the written offer finally came in, it was vastly under market value and said I would be obligated to work weekend hours, something that hadn’t been discussed. I politely declined and feel confident I made the right choice. But I have some questions about this process and how to look for good companies in the future. Is this type of generic interview, in which it appears no one has read your application, the new norm? Why do companies require such time-intensive and elaborate applications if they aren’t even reading them? Is it okay for a job offer to be handled like this just because a company lacks an HR department? And do I really have to compromise my standards to get an opportunity in a competitive field?
There are some red flags here — but they’re on both sides!
To be fair, the biggest flag is coming from the employer. The CEO’s reaction to your questions about the job offer was bizarre. If he’s never had a candidate ask for time to think over an offer before, he hasn’t made many job offers … or he’s hiring only people without any other options. And if he assumes anyone who interviews will happily accept the job (at any salary offered, I suppose?), he has a fundamental misunderstanding of how this works. If he’s someone you’d be working with closely, or if he has a significant hand in the day-to-day culture of the organization, that alone should make you wary.
But most of the rest of this doesn’t really seem like cause for concern.
Slightly messy internal communications while scheduling an interview? Eh, happens with perfectly good companies. People are human, and sometimes they mess up. Having to wait 10 minutes before your interview starts? Completely within the normal realm of things to expect. An hour would be rude, but 10 minutes is not. And interviewers using a standard set of questions for all candidates isn’t uncommon.
“Tell us about your entire employment history to date” is not a great interview question. As you point out, the company has your résumé and a lengthy application, but on its own, it’s not something that should give you serious pause about the company. Many interviewers want to let candidates talk about their experience in their own words and hear what you emphasize and how you frame things.
The interviewers weren’t saying, “Recite exactly the same info that’s on your résumé.” They were (most likely) saying, “Walk us through your professional background and how your career has progressed.” And while they almost certainly did look at your résumé, that lengthy application you filled out is likely for legal purposes (you probably signed something at the end of it attesting that it was all true), rather than something each interviewer on the panel had reviewed.
Now, if no one knew to expect you when you arrived, that’s a problem. If it’s just that the person who greeted you was out of the loop, that’s not terribly alarming.
But if even the people who interviewed you weren’t expecting you, that’s a sign of real disorganization. If everything else seemed great, it might be a fluke — but when you pair it with other signs of dysfunction, it’s worrisome.
And yes, small organizations can sometimes be a bit chaotic because their staffs are often stretched thin, with each person juggling multiple responsibilities. Even so, not remembering a scheduled interview would be an unusual level of disorganization that you should factor in when considering whether you want to work there.
In sum, some of this is red flaggy, and some isn’t all that abnormal or alarming.
But you’re bringing some odd expectations to the process too. It sounds as though you were quick to bristle at things that are pretty typical parts of interviewing, like waiting 10 minutes or being asked a list of standard questions. That’s particularly surprising since you say this was your first interview after months of job searching! It’s not that you should accept poor treatment just because you don’t have lots of options, but it does sound as if you’re in a place where you need to be more tolerant of minor employer imperfections. (“Minor” meaning things like the late interview start, not the CEO demanding to know why you didn’t accept his offer on the spot.)
The reality is that job hunting is aggravating. The power dynamics mean your interviewers are able to get away with things you’d be judged for if you did them as a candidate, like being 10 minutes late. And because the people involved in hiring are human, you have to make room for human flaws, like delays in communication and interview questions that serve them while annoying you. You’ve got to be able to separate the minor irritating stuff from signs of real dysfunction. That’s not about “accepting unprofessionalism,” as you wrote, but accepting that the people hiring you are humans — and probably busy ones whose primary job isn’t hiring. (That’s especially true at small companies, as your friends and family pointed out.)
You should turn down jobs when someone you’d be working with is hostile or unreasonable or where the culture seems toxic. There are a lot of reasons why it made sense for you to turn down this company’s offer, including not only the CEO’s behavior but also the under-market salary.
You should do due diligence on anywhere you’re considering working: Interview the employer right back, talk to people who work there, pay attention to what the company shows you about itself, and keep an eye out for serious signs of toxicity.
But I do think you need to show a bit more grace and understanding than was in your letter — especially in a competitive field where you’re having trouble finding work.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.