The First Interview: Overqualified and Underappreciated?

The appointment was for 3:00, my first face-to-face interview since losing my job.  It was part of a job fair for seasonal work at a mail-order company, perhaps nothing to boast of, but at least I passed the first filter of the online application.   In spite of much experience as both interviewer and interviewee, I was nervous about how I would do.  What if I was not acceptable, in spite of my experience and education?  What if I messed up on some simple assessment?  Could my ego bear it?  I daydreamed about being recognized and singled out as especially competent and being offered a special position, in spite of no previous experience in retail.  The reality of the process brought me down to earth and left me with mixed feelings.

At ten minutes before 3:00, as instructed, I showed up at the facility.  In the lobby, a dozen other people were standing and sitting, obviously waiting.  I signed in with the receptionist and was given a nametag.  This wasn’t a 3:00 interview; it was a 3:00 group.  More and more people arrived, and most stood with wooden faces, hugging their arms, avoiding eye contact.  There was a boy in jeans and tee shirt who looked 16 (it turned out he is closer to 20), and a tiny woman in with white hair who could have been 80.  I managed to briefly break the ice with a comment to another applicant, but overall the environment did not encourage interaction. There was an atmosphere of mild tension; perhaps all of us were wondering who might be the competition.  We watched the receptionist chat with other employees, and we waited.

Finally, a friendly employee took our group of about 20 through the double doors into the workspace, past rows of shelving towering to the warehouse ceiling.  There was a relaxed buzz of activity in the corridors and packing areas, and a variety of office and meeting spaces carved out of this huge interior volume.  In a small room, our guide ran us through a presentation that introduced us to the company, its history, its values, and the expectations for employees.  There were a couple of videos, demonstrating the demands of customer service (taking the orders) and distribution (filling them.)  After further explanations, we were divided into groups according to the two types of positions. 

We customer service folks followed another guide through a labyrinth of doors, levels, and halls to the enclosed space where orders are taken.  The room was pleasant as office spaces go: the air was not too stuffy, the lighting was soft, and the murmur of voices was muted.  We were seated at workstations for the technology test.  I had wondered what level of expertise was expected and a part of me worried about it, but the sheet of directions was easy to follow.  They were testing ability to follow directions, comfort with computers, ability to type names and numbers in boxes, and ability to speak about a product.  I finished first, or close to it.

Following yet another HR guide, part of our group returned to an open waiting area floating above the warehouse floor.  (Did the others come later, or were they winnowed out by the test?)  People were beginning to relax, and there was a bit of chatting as we waited and leafed through the company catalogues placed on the chairs.  When called, I followed my interviewer to what is normally a café area.  For this event, it was set up like speed dating, with six to eight interviewers scattered around the area, assessing applicants across their round tables.

My interviewer was a young woman, friendly but professional and no-nonsense, experienced with the protocol and her script.  I was taken by surprise when she did paperwork first, to get it out of the way, she explained.  Suddenly I was being asked how many hours per week I wanted, what days I was available, which weekend day I would take, and what days I couldn’t work.  I hadn’t thought about these details, and I didn’t have my calendar handy.  We hadn’t even interviewed and I was being pressured to make decisions about schedules.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do this.  (I was especially not sure since I had learned the pay was $9.00 per hour.)  This was uncomfortable, and I got through it only by remembering that I have the power to say no at a later time.

Then we moved on to questions.  She worked from a rubric. “Why do you want to work here?”  “Give an example of how you have solved a problem at work.”  “Give an example of a success you have had at work.”  I found the questions very difficult to answer with specific examples. I was overwhelmed by the memory of hundreds of conflicts I have resolved, as well as hundreds of satisfying outcomes. Which one would be appropriate in this situation, intelligible without explaining the context? Long explanations didn’t feel appropriate, but my short answers seemed too general.  I was already off-balance from the scheduling pressure, and I felt that I did poorly in answering the questions.  (Later, I caught a glimpse of the rubric and noticed mostly “meets expectations” circled;  I also saw a lower mark, and wondered which question it was for.)  Finally, I was asked to return to the waiting area, to be called back again.

I assumed at first that this was a good thing.  At least I wasn’t being dismissed.  But I also worried that there was a problem.  Luckily, there were a few others waiting, and they were feeling optimistic.  One garrulous older fellow kept the conversation going, and the rest of us pitched in.  I learned something about other companies, other jobs, and the life of the seasonal worker – for example, finishing with summer landscaping work, looking at this job to keep going until snow plowing or ski lift positions opened up.  When I was finally called back, it seemed to be with the next level up in HR.  I was asked again about why this company, but that was the easiest to answer. (I like their product, and I like their family values.)  More paperwork was produced, and again I felt some low-level anxiety at the pressure.  On an emotional level, I felt oddly battered and reluctant to sign so quickly.  But again, I did sign, and after more waiting, was led to another area, my training schedule in hand, to complete the final paperwork of W-2 form, emergency contacts, and ID check. As I walked through the lobby, two hours after I walked in, I passed the 5:00 people, waiting with their stone faces and stiff postures, and took a deep breath of moist autumnal air.

The whole process was well organized, informative with regard to the positions and expectations, and clearly designed to find the right people for the positions. I respected the company’s efficiency in handling dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants for the seasonal jobs. It got me wondering how many people they process at this job fair, what percent of people are offered positions, and what percent of those eventually put in substantial hours.  I felt that the experience was also pressured and impersonal, but I recognize that I was filtering the experience through the emotions churned up by losing a high-paying, high-profile job and applying for minimum wage part-time work. 

So, do I do this or not?  Is it worth my time (half hour commute each way) and gas (30 miles, round trip)?  Do I do it for the experience? I don’t need this just to keep busy or to get me out of the house.  Do I do it for this little bit of money?  Would I be better off using my time to develop higher paying prospects? The money is a drop in the bucket of the my debt, but I could mentally assign it to a budget category, such as paying  the health insurance premiums.   Overall, I’m intrigued by the experience of starting from scratch in an unfamiliar work environment.  It’s a challenge and a learning opportunity, and I’ll try it.

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