“No, it’s just, I was expecting someone older, that’s all,” said Brian Snow. It was his third straight job interview with the Parlay Group, a large diversified business conglomerate. Stephanie Winters looked much younger than 31. Her mother’s Swedish roots gave her an adorable childlike face. Stephanie sat across from Brian on the skinny end of a long boardroom table.
“Is my age an issue?” said Stephanie, playing with the corner of Brian’s resume.
“I was told that I would meet Mr. Adams today,” said Brian, leaning back in his chair with his hands folded over his stomach.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Adams can’t be with us today. As the associate director, I’ll be conducting the final interview,” said Stephanie, looking straight at him. Brian reminded her of a Just For Men commercial.
“Oh, my apologies. So I’ll actually be working for you?” said Brian, sitting up.
“No. You would still report to Mr. Adams.”
“Ms. Winters, if I may ask, what exactly is your role in this organization?”
“Mr. Adams is an extremely busy man. I assist him with all the decisions he makes throughout the day,” said Stephanie, firmly. Brian let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair again.
“Look. I haven’t been on this side of a job interview in almost 20 years…but doesn’t Mr. Adams have to meet me, at least?” said Brian.
“Mr. Snow, I’m fully authorized to make this decision. Just because you won’t report to me directly doesn’t mean I don’t have the authority,” said Stephanie. Brian stared at her patiently. She continued.
“You are obviously unfamiliar with how we work here at the Parlay Group. Our operations span every continent in the world. Mr. Adams is the CEO. He is responsible for overseeing all of it. You may rest assured that Mr. Adams has been briefed on your interviews and has reviewed your documentation. In fact, he has expressed his excitement to have you as a candidate. Unfortunately, he is unable to meet with you at this time, but that doesn’t stop this company from moving forward. In order to operate in so many industries and manage so many businesses, the key decision makers such as Mr. Adams have helpers, like me.”
“Right.” said Brian. Stephanie cleared her throat.
“Mr. Snow, with all of your experience you must have encountered a situation with conflict. Tell me a little about your approach to conflict,” said Stephanie. Brian sighed.
“Ms. Winters. Do you know what a treasurer does?” said Brian, tapping the arm of his chair. “You should be asking me about interest rate risk, or why I think you need to hedge your exposure to gold.”
Stephanie tucked in her chair, straightened her back and placed her palms down on the table. She raised one of her eyebrows.
“Mr. Snow. Mr. Adams is quite familiar with your work and we know that you have the technical competence to succeed here. This interview isn’t about that. This is to determine how well you would fit with our company. Now, tell me about a situation where you dealt with conflict,” she said.
“How old are you?” he said.
“I’m afraid our laws prevent us from talking about that,” she said, squinting at him.
“Actually, Ms. Winters, I’m familiar with our laws. I’m a boss, myself. I hire and fire people. As the interviewer, you aren’t allowed to ask me my age, because it could be insinuated, should I not get this job, that you discriminated based on my age, simply because you asked the question. However, if I ask you how old you are, neither you nor your company would face any legal liability from divulging such information. I’m taking all the risk here.”
Stephanie froze. When she moved her hands to her lap, they both glanced at the sweat marks left on the table. Brian leaned in and spoke in a low voice.
“You know, I became so jaded with the whole interview process that I had to stop doing interviews. I couldn’t ask any real questions. I couldn’t ask about family, upbringing, or even what was important to them in life. If you don’t know who you’re hiring until after they’re hired, what’s the point of an interview?”
“That’s not true. There’s personal questions, like the one I just asked you – tell me how you deal with conflict.”
“Ha! Are you kidding me?” said Brian. He proceeded to a mock interview with himself:
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Oh, if all goes well, I hope to work hard and achieve a position higher than the one I have now.
Great! You can have my job! And what are your character weaknesses?
I’m a perfectionist – horrible habit, but what can you do?
Oh that’s terrible. No other weaknesses? Go ahead, you can trust me.
Wait. I have to confess. <pause> Sometimes, I pay too much attention to details, you know? It’s like, I’m too careful.
Oh my. Well, lucky for you, all we’re really looking for is someone that can sit at a desk and hold a pencil…
Stephanie smiled at Brian’s one-man play. He continued.
“I used to do this thing where I sat silently for the entire interview while someone from human resources drilled the candidate with behavioural questions, then at the very end I would ask something obscure like, ‘Burger King or McDonald’s?’ These kids would look at me and think so hard about that question. They went through an entire interview anticipating everything perfectly and then they froze on which fast food restaurant they liked,” said Brian. Stephanie burst out into laughter. She was breathing normally again.
“Ms. Winters, you have no idea how bad it was.”
“Don’t you think you’re exaggerating?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?
“That question. You’re going to ask me that question, aren’t you? You must hear a thousand different answers – all the same. But what if I answered that I didn’t know? What if I just want to keep busy at work because of troubles at home? Or maybe my father just had a stress-induced stroke, and I’m thinking I don’t want to live the same life he did? The question isn’t about where I actually see myself in five years, is it?” Brian paused. “We’re orchestrating a play in this room.”
“So what should we do? Throw out the interview process altogether? Just hire people based on how fast they can choose between Burger King and McDonald’s?” said Stephanie.
“My question is more helpful than any of yours.”
“Look, Ms. Winters. I think you’re missing the point here. These questions are arbitrary. How about you hire me on probation for three months. It’s clear you’re not going to be able to read me through a series of questions that have little to do with my job. I assure you, in three months time, you’ll forget that you were even looking for someone else,” said Brian. Stephanie scanned Brian’s resume, scribbling out questions she had written in the margins.
“So do we have a deal?” asked Brian.
“Well, Mr. Snow, I can’t just put you on probation. I have to discuss –”
“You told me you had the authority.”
“Well, yes but –”
“Trust yourself. It doesn’t matter what we talk about, you have to make a judgment either way. I’ve been honest and open with you for the entire interview,” said Brian, standing up and offering a handshake. Stephanie slowly stood up and reached across the table, offering only fingers.
“Well?” said Brian, securing a proper handshake.
“Sure,” said Stephanie, offering a smile erased quickly by worry.
“Thank you,” said Brian. He hung onto her hand absorbing the sweat from her palms until she finally relaxed. Brian grabbed his attaché case and opened the boardroom door to a bustling corridor of employees, clearing the path for Stephanie to walk through.
“I don’t understand why you’re smiling. I mean, wouldn’t it have been easier to just answer some questions and get this job on a full time basis?” said Stephanie, with her arms crossed over his resume resting on her chest.
“I suppose you have a pretty good handle on how I resolve conflict now,” said Brian.
Umar Saeed is a fiction writer disguised as a business writer