Balancing act: Avoid nasty surprises of new job by preparing before interview
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In the spring of 1990, I was in the final months of one journalism internship and preparing to start another.
My spring gig included working for a college wire service (kind of an Associated Press for university newspapers) in Washington, D.C., and it was incredible. I was able to spend almost six months living and working in that amazing city, enjoying weekly trips to the Smithsonian museums and everything else our nation's capital had to offer.
My summer plan was to work for a small paper in a town near a popular lake resort in Iowa. I knew other South Dakota State University journalism students who had worked at the paper, and they generally gave the experience rave reviews.
As so often happens in life, things didn't work out as I planned. I had the great fortune of falling in love with one of my fellow interns in Washington, and I ended up following her to Denver for the summer. Instead of working in journalism, I did telemarketing and, after getting laid off, a series of temp jobs.
That may seem like a downgrade in summer employment, but it definitely worked out for the best. Not that I needed any extra motivation, but my various temporary positions helped solidify my desire to never work in several occupations.
Even better, I eventually married that other intern, and we're still together today.
But what about that journalism job I didn't take? Well, I eventually found out a few things they didn't tell me in my interview. For example, they didn't mention that the paper was struggling financially. In fact, all the employees would race each other to the bank on payday, knowing that the last few people to arrive would likely have their paychecks bounce.
I heard about that and a few other less-than-stellar aspects of the job from a friend who did work as an intern at the paper that summer. Yikes!
This dodged bullet came to mind recently when I read about a new survey from professional staffing services company Robert Half regarding the things hiring managers say about a position during an interview.
I wouldn't necesarily expect a company manager to tell a prospective intern about a newspaper's financial troubles. But I was interested to read that 41 percent of workers surveyed by Robert Half said a role they had accepted at a company was different from what had been outlined during the job interview.
It also appears that younger workers are more likely to face this challenge. According to the Robert Half press release about the survey, 51 percent of workers ages 18-34 said they have had a job that was not what they expected, while only 27 percent of workers ages 55-64 said they have had a similar problem.
This doesn't surprise me much. When I was interviewing for my first few jobs, I wasn't great at asking questions about the position I was trying to get. I assumed one reporter position would be pretty much like any other, and I knew that I was likely to move to different beats during any extended tenure at a newspaper. It's just the nature of the business.
As I got older and a bit more experienced, I think I did a better job of interviewing the people who were interviewing me. This helped me approach new positions with my eyes wide open.
The Robert Half press release goes on to indicate that 53 percent of survey respondents said unexpected duties were the top surprise for them, while 23 percent listed corporate culture as the shocker.
While I haven't been surprised by some of the duties of the job I now hold, I guess I would have to admit to feeling nervous about my abilities to complete them. As for the culture of my company, I guess I have been surprised, but only in positive ways. In other words, some of the perks and benefits are even better than I expected!
However, I'm sure not everyone is as fortunate as I have been. So how can you protect yourself from nasty surprises when seeking a new job?
Robert Half's press release offers several suggestions, including:
- "Research the company in advance of the interview. Knowledge is power." I've definitely found this to be true. I did quite a bit of research on my current employer before my interview, so I felt ready to ask good questions.
- "Ask questions to reveal the story behind why the role is being filled — is it because someone left the company or got promoted?" I haven't been as successful at this in the past, but if you have the chance to gather this kind of information, I would highly recommend it.
- "If the opportunity presents itself, take time to talk to your future co-workers. They will have the inside scoop." We did this at one of the newspapers I worked for, as a bunch of us would take potential new reporters to lunch after their official interviews. I think the candidates liked it, because they could get a healthy dose of truth. We liked it, too, because it let us get to know possible future co-workers.
Leave a comment online or send me an email with your ideas, and I'll likely use some of them when I revisit this issue in a future column.