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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

There are few more anxiety-inducing and cringeworthy sensations than leaning on a wet bathroom counter right before an important job interview. There are worse things in life for sure, but the embarrassment of wet pants while wearing my best (and only) suit remains with me today. Although, to be honest, I should have seen this coming, earlier my new silk tie fell into the sink so it was fairly obvious how that day was going to unfold.

I’d like to say that this was an exception in a largely successful career but sadly it was just one of several awkward and unsuccessful interview experiences.

Once I dressed for an early morning interview in the dark and later noticed that I had put on one blue sock and one black. I had also forgotten my belt. I spent a good part of that interview shuffling my feet to hide my mismatched socks while trying to hold my pants up. I still feel that if the interviewer had made a sincere effort to get to know me instead of just asking overused scripted questions, I would have forgotten all about my socks and pants and come across better.

I’ve found throughout my career that this is the key – figuring out how to make interview subjects comfortable. Even though I work in Human Resources, I am not able to ace interviews as a candidate. I’ve never felt comfortable in a formal interview and this has been reflected numerous times in my 20-year career, often with embarrassing results.

In-person interviews have been as challenging for me as an awkward first date, and I’m sure the employer wished they had never swiped right on my application. Based on some of my job interview experiences, I wouldn’t hire myself!

Rigid or formal interviews often left me feeling like an inadequate misfit. If you want to truly get to know me and see if I’m a fit for your organization, don’t paint me into a corner with another tired, overused job interview process. Pair me up with a genuinely curious interviewer who prefers interactive conversation over a cross examination and you’ll get to know the real me. Once some trust and a rapport are built, I’ll happily share my experiences, what I’ve learned along the way and why I might be a good fit for the job.

In one interrogation, umm, I mean interview, a questioner was taking notes so enthusiastically, her notepad flew across the table and landed on my lap. My joke about my elite athletic skills in catching balls – and flying notepads – was met with a bored blank stare. Later, I received feedback from that interview that I was throwing a bunch of “junk” at the wall hoping something would stick. So much for my elite athletic skills!

After another unsuccessful interview, I was told that I was “low energy and lacked enthusiasm.” I rectified that in a subsequent interview with espresso beans and an energy drink. I definitely wasn’t low energy then but as you can imagine, there were other issues. On the plus side, I did have a fast-paced workout in the gym that day.

All these awful experiences are fodder for my current work – training executives on hiring better leaders by changing the way job interviews and performance reviews are done. The challenge – as I know all too well – is to truly get to know the interviewee and “peel the onion” to better understand their motives, drivers, traits and so on. This is often a new experience for both interviewers and interviewees who are more comfortable with standardized questions that focus on past successes as opposed to drawing out character.

Moving away from boring clichéd questions that candidates have researched and rehearsed to death has worked for me. A two-sided engaging discussion means that I too can comfortably ask about the organization, culture, work and other things that interest me.

My appreciation for this new way of interviewing – focusing on character not just job successes – hit home when I applied for the position I’m currently in. It took several interviews – three different senior managers on three different phone calls. But for each call, we slipped into a conversation as comfortable as a fleece onesie. After some easy banter about children, hobbies and my weekend activities, I enjoyed learning about these people and the work they were doing. It felt like reading a really good book. Even when a question focused on something I couldn’t do, I felt comfortable enough to be honest. I was asked about my interest and experience in HR analytics. While I was eager to join this team, I never considered bluffing my way through the question. Instead, I recommended a colleague who I knew would salivate like a junkyard dog at the chance to apply his analytics passion.

Later, I told my wife that even if the discussions didn’t lead to a new job, I hoped to stay in touch with them as their passion for their work was contagious. But it turns out, being completely honest and not trying to be something I’m not had its rewards. I was hired after all, and have been in a role that fits my skills better than analytics for almost two years.

Applying for jobs is never easy. But it’s amazing how much you can learn about someone just by being kind and curious. And, as a bonus, with many interviews now being conducted virtually, no one will ever know if you leaned on a wet washroom counter.

Bernie Goodman lives in North Vancouver.

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