am I being unrealistic in my expectations of the interview process? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I spent the past three and a half years trying to break into really competitive industries and haven’t had much luck. I’m not the most ideal candidate and am ready to just move on to plan B: grad school for an entirely different field that I’ve become pretty passionate about in the past year and a half or so. I’m totally okay with this and really excited about this path. In the meantime, I have bills to pay and I need a job to make some money while I go through the grad school application process and eventually start attending classes.

In the past, I’ve taken a lot of jobs at really toxic workplaces completely unrelated to the field I was trying to break into. In most cases, the hiring process left me feeling a little uneasy from the start, but I take the job anyway for a paycheck. Ultimately, the toxicity is too much for me to handle, and I end up leaving a few months after starting. I feel bad about doing this and realize this isn’t going to make it any easier to hire me.

In order to prevent this from happening again, I’ve made a list of red flags that lead me to believe I may not be the best fit for the company. Some of my close friends think I’m being unrealistic with some of the things I see as red flags, but I see them as things, if left unaccounted for, are indicators that this might not be the best place for me.

Some of these red flags are not notifying me of major changes to the timeline, changing interview times last minute, contacting me for an interview and asking me to interview that day or the next day, or sending a skills assessment to see proficiency on skills not mentioned in the job listing. None of these are necessarily deal breakers on their own, but when a company does many of them without providing reasoning, I become very leery of what I would be walking into.

The most recent job I interviewed for requires me to move across the country. They’ve done a few things that raised red flags for me and were never really addressed. I hesitate to take the position and move across the country if it is offered to me. People close to me think I’m being unrealistic with my expectations, need to be more understanding towards routine hiccups in the hiring process, and should just take it because I need the money. Am I being too unrealistic with my expectations? Is there a more realistic way to go about figuring out if a company is going to be a good fit for me?

You’re right that none of the things you listed are deal-breakers on your own, but they could be part of a pattern of other evidence that, put all together, is alarming. You need to look at the full picture though, because sometimes this stuff isn’t a danger sign.

Healthy, functional employers sometimes will need to change interview times at the last minute — like if someone is out sick or a crisis needs to be dealt with. Asking you to interview the same day is legitimately weird (unless it’s framed as “I know this is incredibly last-minute but we happened to have a slot open up today and if there’s any chance that would work, I’d love to get you in, but otherwise we can look at times next week”), but the next day — eh, maybe, maybe not. If they acknowledge it’s short notice and understand you may say no, it’s not a huge deal. Not notifying you of changes to their hiring timeline — annoying but really common, even with otherwise good companies. Sending a skills assessment for skills not mentioned in the job posting — really depends on the context. It’s something to ask about in the interview, but I wouldn’t write them off without knowing more.

Typically the things I’d find most alarming in an interview process are more substantive than these — they’d be about things you learn about the culture, the role itself, the manager’s management style, and so forth. It’s not that the things you named can’t be red flags too — they can — but I’m wondering why you’ve confined your list to these more logistical issues and not to anything that’s discussed in the interview itself.

What really jumps out to me in your letter is that you sound … well, impulsive and like you haven’t been thinking through your professional decisions very well. You’ve taken a string of jobs that you felt uneasy about but (it sounds like) didn’t do due diligence on (flag #1), then left a bunch of them after only a couple of months (flag #2), and have been trying to break into competitive industries without thinking through the impact of all that job-hopping (flag #3).

It’s great that you’re trying to be more thoughtful about how to avoid toxic jobs going forward … but it’s also true that at this point your options are going to be pretty limited if your resume is full of jobs where you only stayed a few months, and I don’t see recognition of that in your letter. So the question to ask is not just whether you’re being unrealistic in your expectations of employers, but also whether you’re being realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of your candidacy.

The thing about leaving a slew of toxic jobs very quickly is that the more often you do it, the harder it becomes to get a non-toxic job to hire you — because they’ll want to go with a less risky candidate with a more stable job history (and the sort of accomplishments you need to stay in a job for a while to rack up). At some point, the employers willing to hire you are mainly the ones you don’t want to work for — the ones that will keep the toxic job cycle going.

Given all that, at this point you might not be in a position to be as picky as you’re now realizing you want to be. Unless you’re getting a ton of offers, you may just need to go with the best of some not-ideal options and stick with it, even if it’s not perfect. (But I would not move for a job you’re not excited about, not unless your finances demand it).

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