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Hardly the Proper Fit
Watch for Warning Signs in the Interview

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Have you ever ordered a pair of shoes online that looked and sounded so perfect, only to put them on at home and realize they were all wrong?

Sometimes the same thing happens when choosing a job. You get to the new office, this place of new and exciting opportunity, but it's just not what you were told it would be. And unfortunately, it's not so easy to just pack it up and get your money back.

People often land in such a position because they are simply too eager to take that new gig. And why wouldn't they be? People spend their work lives trying to show why they should be hired. But they forget that they have to do a little careful shopping, too. And so sometimes (perhaps I should say oftentimes) workers go from one bad situation to a worse one because they were so excited for a new opportunity.

A few questions may help an interviewee figure out if this particular workplace is just right, according to Gregg Stocker, director of performance improvement for plastics company Ico Polymers in Houston. He is also author of the book "Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing and Eliminating the Signs of Decline."

"They're just too desperate to get the offer. And they're so busy selling themselves, they don't see if it's a good fit or not," he said. He understands this all too well.

Years ago, Stocker jumped at the chance to work for a Japanese company when the general public was obsessed with the way Japanese companies were run. Within about a week "I could see this was not Toyota," he said. The managers "managed by fear," and he was required to work 50 or more hours a week. He knew this wasn't good for him but decided to stick it out as long as possible because he didn't want a short-term job on his résumé. "I was learning how to cope," he said. He lasted six months -- until a much better opportunity popped up.

But for 10 years after he left the horrid job, he had to explain in every interview why he had spent only six months there. He figured out a perfect explanation: "I always wanted to get into this and got the opportunity and didn't want to pass that up," he would tell interviewers.

Since that tough situation, Stocker has learned to ask a few things in interviews that might protect against a similar fate. If a job seeker is interviewing with someone from human resources, he or she should ask for a description of the potential boss's management style. (For example: "Very Hands On" = Micromanager.) It's also important to find out what the turnover is so a new worker doesn't step into the Pit of Despair that no one has yet survived.

And if a job seeker is talking to the would-be boss, be alert to body language, Stocker said. Among other stories, he's heard of managers who kept checking their BlackBerry while interviewing. That's not a good sign if that interviewee wants a job where he is appreciated or respected.

Sometimes it's impossible to tell from an interview just what might be in store at a new workplace. One analyst at an environmental consulting firm in Arlington has suffered through a year of what she says is a glorified admin position. That's not entirely uncommon in the D.C. area. But lately her life has been 50 to 60 percent envelope-stuffing work. When she interviewed for the position, she was told she would work on "substantive, challenging projects."

She tried to ascertain in the interview what the place was really like by asking the "What's a typical day here?" question. They replied that every day varies and she would be involved in a wide range of projects. She also asked how much of her job might be spent doing administrative tasks. "They said there might be times where you'll pitch in to help," she said. Obviously, it did not turn out that way.

Now the analyst feels paralyzed. She's afraid her senses are off and she won't be able to tell if a new job will be a good job. Her solution? Only take something that she finds through networking. That way, she will know the person who recommends her and who recommends the job. It's much safer that way, she thinks.

Others find that they are able to return that bad pair of shoes, after learning a little about themselves as well. At the age of 50, after a long career in technology and as an executive at a small nonprofit, Cate (who asked that her last name not be used) decided it was time to downsize her career. She wanted a position that would have "lots less responsibility" and accepted that it would pay less. She wanted to end those crazy working hours, have specific tasks and move out of her "Type A" personality into "Type B," she said.

So she took a 35-hour-a-week job as an executive assistant at a mid-size nonprofit. She was told throughout the interviews that the job would be clerical. Just what she wanted.

Soon she discovered she had to take on much more work because there was no one else to do it. Not only was she an executive assistant for the director, but she had to take over duties for other departments because the organization didn't have enough help. Cate was working 45 hours or more a week and still couldn't get everything done.

After about six months, she realized she might as well be paid at Type A levels if she was working that much anyway. She resigned, took a job similar to the one she had left and is "loving it. Most days."

At least she knew what to expect.

Join Amy Joyce on Tuesday from 11 to noon at washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. E-mail her with your story ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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