Laid off in America

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

I just read another NYT's article this morning about unemployment. This time it was about how difficult it is for college seniors to get jobs. Places that are "less sexy", not-for-profits, and organizations that can't pay well can be selective in who they hire right now. Graduate school applications are up. And I continue to read articles about how our recovery probably isn't enough to get us out of this employment slump. I talked to a networking buddy of mine who landed THE PERFECT JOB. She was thrilled. At least a few months ago she was. Now, she's scared. Her company declared chapter 11 and is starting to lay another round of people off. She had been out of a job for over a year and is not financially or emotionally prepared to go through another round. I talked to a middle aged woman yesterday as I stood volunteering to solicit votes for the candidate of my choice on the street corner. She's a techie and has been out of work for years. She doesn't EVER expect to work again (at least in that field). I was planning to talk today about how I prepare for interviews. But that's not much help when so many people can't even get an invitation to get interviewed. But I'm going to talk about the topic anyway because I have a funny story to tell.

I start by finding out everything I can about the company. That was actually much easier when I had access to the outplacement firm. They had subscriptions to all kinds of websites. It was much more difficult once I had to search on my own. And it was just plain difficult, period, to get information about private companies. So I often felt like I was lacking in my company knowledge. But what I could get, I read voraciously, and made sure I knew the information well enough to bring a juicy tidbit up here and there during the interview. I also used that information to form a few questions that I would plan to ask (which I will talk about in the next week or so). If I knew who I was going to talk to (which surprisingly often I didn't!!!), I would try to get information about them. Sometimes company websites had bios. Sometimes folks were "grooveable". If I shared any commonalitieis with the person, I would note that. If they were somehow known outside the company, I would note that. If I knew someone who knew that person, and I felt comfortable, I would call and talk to them. If I knew anyone who worked at the company (or even better, used to work there) I would talk to them. Once I even had the chance to sit in the lobby of a company and struck up a conversation with an employee. That was a goldmine of information. The key, I learned though, is to make sure you do your research on the RIGHT company...

The next thing I do is take apart the job description, piece by piece, to determine what exactly I want to concentrate on in the interview. What kind of person are they actually looking for? Where do I fit particularly well? And where do I have less of a fit. I want to make sure I zero in how my strengths meet their needs. I want to mention in passing detail how I have done other things that aren't as pivotal in the job description. And I want to be upfront about where I don't have experience in some areas they are looking for (never the main areas though) and why that won't be a problem (thinking of other things I've done that are similar for example).

Finally, I write, yes write, a several page document. This is for my eyes only. In school, I found that if I write something down, in detail, I'm more likely to remember at least the essence of it. No, I don't memorize this part,I just want it in my mind somewhere I can easily access it. In the document, I put the questions I know I will be asked.

There will ALWAYS be a question that is something like "Tell me about yourself". Guaranteed. I always have a nice pat answer that covers what I want to cover during my interview. I start with some summary statement that's basically my objective. But at the end of it, I tack on a statement that says, "As I look back over my career to date, three (or sometimes 4) themes stick out for me. And then I list, without going into detail, 3 or 4 themes about myself that I think particularly fit what they are looking for in the job. And I leave it at that.

Another question that often gets asked is "Why are you looking?" I actually have an exit statement for why I left my last company. It is short, pat, and completely benign about both myself and my previous company. I say it calmly, without any rancor or depression and keep my non-verbals upbeat. Then I move on. This is one of those questions that having a nice short answer and positive (or at least nuetral ) nonverbals and nothing else counts.

A question will come up about values, skills, strengths. This is the one to shine on. This is the one that I make sure I can talk on from now to the day before forever. I take each one of those themes I listed in the "Tell me about yourself" question and expound. In my interview preparation, I literally write stories (real examples that is) to demonstrate each one of those themes. And I practice them out loud to hear my own voice (very key, especially if you haven't told stories before). If the company is looking for someone who can handle project management, for example, I have implanted in my brain several "stories" about my project management. Details about how I can handle multiple, complex, large, long term projects that include many people with relative ease. I sometimes have 2 or 3 stories prepared about each one. If I have a difficulty that I had to overcome on my way to success, that goes in as well (think plotline and conflict in stories). And if I can refer to the new company in some way, I throw that in too--but it has to fit and be natural. Why stories and not bulletpoints? First, for me, it is easier to remember the story. And I like to tell stories. My energy and personality bubbles out (both strengths of mine anyway). Second, people like to listen to and remember stories better than a short list of skills with no examples attached. They will remember that yes, I have something that they were looking for, that I gave a behavioral example about it, in relative detail, and that I was successful at it, despite a difficulty or two. Third, It sure makes the interview go quickly, smoothly, and even enjoyably for both parties (no one likes a lot of uncomfortable silent space in an interview). Fourth, the interviewer will get a better feel for your "fit" (personality, style, etc.) to the organization. You definitely don't want to work for a place that doesn't "fit" you, at least I know that I'm miserable.

There might be a question about style. I have a few stories for that as well. Here, I include a story about how I discovered I needed to manage in a way that I was not accustomed to managing and how I changed my style, what I learned, and how it worked (successfully of course). I figure that the extent to which I can include certain strengths without actually mentioning them by name (in this case, flexibility and willingness and ability to learn) is good too.

There probably will be a question about limitations or weaknesses. This question is like the "why are you looking" question. It needs a pat, well thought out answer that is over quickly. And it shouldn't be too "weak", but instead developmental (why this particular job is a key and natural next step). I usually say something like (and it was true), "I have been able to do a variety of different aspects of ...(usually leadership development or succession planning)...but have never had the chance to bring all the pieces together into one. I'm really excited about this opportunity because I will be able to bring all the different pieces together plus have a chance to use my management skills to do so.

There might be one on future goals. I never really knew how to answer this one well. I usually said that the world was changing so fast that it was hard to know and I wanted to be open to a variety of opportunities. But I did know that I wanted to do something that takes my core skills to a broader and deeper level and hopefully add additional skills along the way. But I do think of what I do as a profession, not as a step in the organizational ladder. Others who want to move up might want to add that as well.

There MIGHT be a question on compensation during the first interview. I usually dodged that completely and truthfully by saying that I needed to better know the scope and scale of the job and whether I would be a good fit before discussing compensation, but that if it came to that, I was confident we could work something out. I don't know how to negotiate salary and frankly, no interview came to that anyway. The job offer I eventually accepted is unionized. There was little room for any kind of negotiation.

And usually, by this time, the interview had run its time or had gone overtime. So those were the basic questions I got. If I did get some others I wasn't expecting, I usually was on such a story telling roll that I just yanked another few (turning them a bit to fulfill the question) out of my bag of stories or retold a portion of one I already used. I rarely had a lot of time to ask my own questions (not good time management), but I had a list prepared anyway.

For each organization, I put together a packet of the organization materials I had gathered, my "written report" I had created including the list of questions I wanted to ask, and LOTS of extra resumes and lists of my publications and presentations. And I took this packet with me. It made me feel comfortable to have all my "stuff" at my fingertips although I would have died of embarassment if anyone saw my "written report". I also, if possible, scoped the place out before hand so I would smoothly know where to go with no glitches.

So I actually enjoyed the interviewing process. Except for one that didn't go so well. I got the lead through one of my networks. And landed the interview. I prepared intensely for the interview--exploring the company in depth because there was a lot of information about it. The company was an international recognized company that consisted of a holding company, and a bunch of entities that it owned, one of which had the same name as the holding company. I spent my time and effort on the holding company, and glossed over the other companies, just remembering enough to sound like I knew they existed. And I confidently went to my interview. Within the first few minutes, I mentioned something about the new CEO and the interviewer said a different name than I expected, I blurted out, "I thought X was the new CEO?" And the interviewer said "oh, that's for the holding company." I was prepared for the wrong company. GULP. The rest of the interview proceeded the same way. Every time I opened my mouth, frogs, toads, and salamanders came out rather than pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. I tripped over my tongue. Even when something came out smoothly, it was the wrong answer (for example, in the goals statement, I gave my usual answer and they were looking for someone who wanted to move up in the organization). At the end, I casually mentioned that I also liked to write and gave the interviewer the address of the website my husband and I keep together on our travels (now why the heck did I say that, kick myself in the butt!). I felt like a total loser dork. I walked out exhausted, confident I could write that company off... and a little giggly.

Well, much to my surprise, they called me in for round two. So you never know. Sometimes things go perfectly and you walk out confident that the job is yours and you never hear a thing again. And sometimes you walk out knowing you screwed that one up royally and for some reason you get another chance. I ultimately canceled the second interview because I received another completely different and non-comparable job offer that I accepted. But I will always wonder at least a little, what I missed on that path. posted by Valerie 6:51 AM

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The experience of the new rite of passage among today's professionals: Being Unemployed

Contact me
You can contact me by sending me email at

This blog's mention in the July 2003 issue of Fast Company
Web of Despair.

Other unemployment blogs I have found
Ask your ass.
All about Jen.
Homee's job search.
Get that job.

Some blogs I like but haven't been updated in a while
Where The Hell Did My Job Go.
Invisible Matrix.

Credit problems?

What's keeping me occupied while I'm unemployed?
My husband and my travel photography blog.


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