Knowing When to Drop Out of the Interview Process

In March, we lost singer/songwriter Kenny Rogers. When the country crooner cashed in his chips amid the height of the pandemic, it prompted a few people to note that "The Gambler" really did know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

I recently found myself confronted with a situation that made me ponder the fine art of knowing when to bow out.

It began when I was contacted via LinkedIn by a guy from a startup looking to fill a writer/editor/public relations role. 

Initially, it sounded appealing. (Subtext: When the monthly cost of healthcare coverage for a family of five is more than the average U.S. mortgage payment, you can convince yourself that almost anything sounds good.) And, with many of my other gigs drying up, I agreed to an informal chat. 

This casual conversation felt more like a grilling as the interviewer asked dozens of questions about my background (the answers to most of these were evident from my LinkedIn profile, but "whatevs," as my teens are so fond of saying.) 

The call wrapped up with him requesting that I present him with my 30-second elevator pitch for his company. Despite wanting to scream, "Dude, you're the one who contacted me!" I played along because (a) I'd done my due diligence, and (b) I'm probably just two jelly beans away from needing a root canal. (And did I mention they'd promised dental (and vision!) coverage?) 

After this lengthy discussion, he asked me to complete an unpaid three-part, trial assignment. I was definitely losing enthusiasm at this point but took it on because I'd exhausted most of Netflix's and Amazon's free offerings. (The only other entertainment option on my bleak horizon was to begin work on a musical for my cat—one I've tentatively titled "My Fur Lady.")

After submitting the trial assignment, which wasn't challenging so much as it was tedious and time-consuming, I received an email inviting me to a 90-minute Zoom meeting with the initial interviewer, the startup's founders, and another employee.

Again, I agreed. I dressed professionally, put on the makeup I'd nearly forgotten how to apply, and gave myself a pep talk about good posture and limiting my eye rolling. 

The interview was nerve-wracking, as any hour-and-a-half Zoom call with strangers who have the power to save your family from financial ruin can be. 

These folks dug deep, practically inquiring about how my parents selected my preschool as well as any and all career highlights, accomplishments, challenges, and the old, "If we asked your former manager to rate you on a scale of 1-10, what would they say?" 

Here's where the reminder to minimize my penchant for eye rolling came in handy because, honestly, does anyone ever hesitate and then confess, "Um... a 2? I'm notorious for missing deadlines. I thrive on stealing other people's lunches from the community fridge. Also, I've been known to break wind in packed elevators and blame it on the emotional support skunk I keep in the Lululemon bag I pretend is a purse." 

Anyone with an ounce of sense is going 8 or higher, am I right

From there, we moved into the "hypotheticals" portion, in which I was presented with a scenario designed to test my wits, salesmanship, and problem-solving. Maybe it was because I'd showered before the call or that I'd shaken off the cobwebs during that decades-long stroll down memory lane, but I felt pleased with my responses. 

All seemed to go well, and I was asked to provide four references, which I did. Feels like we're approaching an offer, right? Reader, we're not even close. 

Though I heard from my gracious references, who all said they'd vouched for me and wished me well, the initial interviewer emailed to see if I'd be interested in applying for another position—one that focused more heavily on writing and editing. 

So, wait, did I not get the first position and this was his way of letting me down easy? Not quite. I was still being considered, I was told, but I might be a better fit for this other opening, which—wait for it—required yet another trial assignment. 

I thought some things I'd prefer not to put in print and then emailed back to say that because I was on a deadline, I couldn't make their tight turnaround. 

I asked if they'd consider my other trial assignment and offered to submit work samples that aligned with the type of pieces I'd write if hired. No, they wouldn't consider that. Instead, they'd give me additional time to tackle this multi-step written test, which ranged from 1,000-4,000 words (whatever I thought it warranted) and included a complicated chart. 

If my work was published, I'd be paid $225. If they deemed it unusable, I'd be compensated $100 for my time. Yeesh. Math may not be my strength, but I knew this added up to a great big "No, thank you." 

I responded by saying that after studying the scope of the work, I'd typically charge three times the higher rate. "If that's a dealbreaker that takes me out of the running, I understand," I wrote.

Eventually, and not surprisingly, I received an email that the initial position had gone to someone else BUT would I consider the second position if they shortened the trial assignment? 

At other points in my career, I've continued on with interviews and even jobs far longer than I should have, going against my instincts, for the experience or because, in the moment, it seemed easier than starting over. 

But with this, I just couldn't do it. I didn't want this job nor did I want to work with this crew, who called to mind the phrase "nibbled to death by ducks" at every turn. 

I thanked them for considering me but wrote that I intended to pursue other opportunities.

Despite longing for a steady paycheck and the promise of benefits, I knew that I'd probably be miserable in this role if it were someday offered to me—like after they asked me to write an e-book on flat fee real estate commissions as my final trial assignment. (Complete with blurb from Barbara Corcoran!)

As I've learned after being laid off twice in the not-so-distant past, if the thought of continuing a soul-destroying job search feels better than actually accepting the job, keep looking. If you seem to have gotten yourself caught up in a con in which you're suddenly agreeing to polish the founder's grandmother's memoir from the dank basement of her nursing home as proof you "know how to write," get out now. If you sense that the team you'd work with has no respect for your time or talent, save yourself the deodorant and skip the next half-dozen rounds of interviews.

Rather than view this experience as a colossal waste, I'm focusing on the fact that it reunited me with a former manager (one of my four references). I'd lost touch with him and dearly missed his wit and wisdom. We're now emailing each other weekly and sharing our creative writing projects, and that alone has made the whole endeavor worthwhile. 

This isn't the first time I decided to go with my gut and walk away from a potential opportunity. I'll never know if these are the right decisions. I can only choose to move forward, trusting that what lies ahead is better than what I've left behind. 

If the last few months have taught me anything, it's that life is short, precarious, and, most of all, too precious to waste. Of course, I say this now, talk to me when I'm staring down that root canal and selling pictures of my feet to perverts online to pay for it.

Until then, be well. 

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Rose said…
Your humor alone is worth 10 times their payment!
Liz Alterman said…
I adore you, Rose! Thanks for reading!
Anonymous said…
Now THIS is a piece of writing! Love the humour. You’re so much better than that role. Wishing you all the luck for the future.
Liz Alterman said…
Thanks so much for reading! I have no regrets about letting this opportunity pass me by. All the best to you too!

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