One night many years ago I arrived in Detroit for a job interview the following morning at the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper had put me up at the fancy Renaissance Center hotel. After checking in, I went up to my room. The phone was ringing.
“Are Wanda and Cecilia there?” asked a male voice.
“No, I think you have the wrong ...”
“Well, do you want them to be?”
I mention this because I believe it may be the only amusing and non-ghastly thing that has ever happened to me involving a job interview. Job interviews are perilous adventures for many people, especially blurters, panickers, stammerers and, above all, neurotic losers with five-second synaptic delays, a category that includes me. That is why I was concerned when I read that Russian scientists had invented a computerized job-interview robot that can identify, interrogate, judge and spit out applicants at record rates. Seems to me this is taking an already disturbing, high-stress situation and making it immeasurably worse. (We’ve all seen what happens when a job competition is determined by Russia and its bots, which just might have access to hacked personal data.)
Russian-accented job-interview robot: For which place are you wanting for to work in five years, please?
Applicant: For this company, of course!
Robot: (Click, buzz.) Not with your bilirubin levels. You will be taking dirt nap! Ho-ho, is just joke. No, is true.
When I’ve mentioned my unease to friends and colleagues, they were quick to certify the ghastliness of the job interview process, and offered their own experiences. My editor, Tom the Butcher, was once applying for a coveted journalism fellowship. The admissions committee started him off by lobbing a total softball, the sort of non-question designed to put an applicant at ease: What was the name of the editor of the paper for which Tom worked?
Tom felt his brain double clutch then ... freeze. He could picture his boss’s face as clearly as if he were sitting beside him. But, with growing horror, he realized no name would happen. Didn’t get the fellowship. Possibly they had a policy against giving scholarships to imbeciles.
Dave Prevar did nothing dumb like that. He simply had the misfortune to be introduced by a secretary to his prospective boss as “Mr. Pervert.” The interview was all an uphill slog from there.
My Washington Post colleague Shefali Kulkarni was once interviewing for a work-study job at her college. The interviewer asked what sort of person she had difficulty working with, and she mentioned a particular guy, without naming him. She said he was arrogant, petty, thin-skinned, etc. Her interlocutor good-naturedly pressed her for a name. Shefali figured, “Well, how could it hurt?” and coughed it up.
Here’s how it could hurt: The guy was the interviewer’s boyfriend.
The day after my experience in the Renaissance Center, I went in for a round of interviews, and they went well. Finally came the big one: I would have to pass muster with Kurt Luedtke, the Free Press’s brilliant, notoriously hard-nosed executive editor. I was 25 and scared witless.
Kurt shook my hand, then pivoted his chair to face the wall. He would go on to conduct the entire interview facing the wall. It lasted about five minutes. He asked me what I would do if I got a tip that the mayor had installed his girlfriend in a no-show city job. I said I would try to cozy up to some of the people in the finance office, who might resent being in a position of laundering his money, and ...
“WELL, I WOULDN’T,” Luedtke thundered. “I would just walk up and ask the mayor if he did it.”
“B-but,” I stammered, “wouldn’t that give him a chance to cook the books and ...”
“I HAVE NO PATIENCE FOR THAT SORT OF SNEAKY REPORTING,” he said. He nodded peremptorily toward the door. We were done.
It turned out, I’d get the job. Kurt had no problem with investigative reporting; he was just messing with me.
But I wouldn’t know that for some time. I left his office in a semi-suicidal state. I wanted to be comforted. I half considered going back to the RenCen and trying to find Wanda and Cecilia.