Making a fabulous impression at your job interview is important, but it shouldn’t be your sole objective. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses the need to talk about dry details early on in the interview.
An old friend of mine rang me up last week and encouraged me to meet with one of his company’s recruiters. I was deeply grateful for the referral, and promised that I’d be sure to give the recruiter a full measure of ‘disco and waffles’ when we spoke. That joke won me a guffaw over the phone and a few verypeculiar glances from the other patrons in the coffee shop where I took the call. I didn’t have to explain what I meant to my mate, so everyone around me in the local Starbucks got to go home that night with a tantalizing overheard mystery to share with their friends.
The reality of the phrase is a lot less exotic than it might seem. It comes directly from local human resources parlance: when you’re interviewing for a new role, you must make sure that your dramatic performance includes relatively balanced measures of astonishing glamour (the disco part) and dry-but-necessary discussions of fact (the waffle part). That’s all. Sorry…
Most of the advice that I’ve read for job seekers focuses solely on the glam-and-dazzle part of the performance; you’re advised to be cheerful, enthusiastic, positive, excited, confident, approachable, warm, et cetera. Yes, I agree that it’s true that you need to present a slightly exaggerated, highly-polished, and attractive interpretation of your professional self to the hiring board or intermediary – the same way you’d gussy yourself up for your partner when you’re dating. That’s how you usually win over less-experienced interviewers: simply by dazzling them.
That’s not necessary wrong, per se, but it’s rarely in your best interests as a job seeker to focus exclusively on pushing how awesome you are. As I argued in my recent book about IT interviewing, you also have to delve into the nature, structure, and logistics of both the company and the role that you’re interviewing for. Captivating your interviewer is fun, but it’s a bloody waste of time if you’re incompatible with the job on offer. That’s where the ‘waffles’ part comes in. At some point in the discussion, you simply must examine the fine print. The sooner you get a comprehensive understanding of the role, the sooner you can decide whether the role is still worth pursuing. Likewise, the interviewer needs to know if you are administratively incompatible with their situation.
This isn’t just one snarky old curmudgeon talking. Spend some time browsing the various hiring manager forums on professional sites, and you’ll hear a common refrain: interviewing candidates is hard enough when you deal with people who clearly want your role. It’s a darned site harder when your candidates aren’t inclined to actually accept your offer, should you tender one. A poster calling himself ‘David A.’ posted a popular discussion over on LinkedIn on 22nd August 2014 titled ‘Thanks for your job offer, but no thanks’ that discusses some of the reasons why negotiations break down and offers to great candidates aren’t accepted. It’s worth skimming his post. I argue that a great many of the failed offers he discussed can be attributed to what I call a waffle-deficiency; the reasons why candidates turn down a good offer should be discussed and adequately addressed before the interview concludes, and not – as David mentioned – in a post-refusal after-action inquiry.
A trio of examples should help illustrate my point:
Last week, a small head-hunter firm that I’d never previously heard of contacted me out of the blue about a potential cyber security analyst contract that seemed to fit my experience, triggered my interests, and hit the low-end of my preferred bill rate. It wasn’t a full-time job with benefits; it was a time-limited, independent contractor opportunity.  I was okay with entertaining a contract; I’d just concluded a short one like that a few weeks before. The work looked interesting. Only one element of the contract synopsis caused me concern: the work was to be performed at a site in a city more than eight hours’ drive away from where I live. That was… odd.
I asked the head-hunter and asked what the client’s arrangements were for travel. When he responded that the contractor was expected to ‘eat’ the travel costs as part of their hourly pay, I presented him with the actual financial impact of doing it (e.g., per-mile cost, driving versus flying), lodging (e.g., hotel versus corporate apartment costs for the city), and associated costs (i.e., tolls, food, etc.). The numbers suggested that if I accepted the contract, I’d be spending approximately 40 per cent of my pre-tax earnings on logistics – expenses that would be the client’s responsibility for a full-time employee. That meant I’d actually be working for considerably less than industry scale for the work, and I wouldn’t be able to cover my household expenses by the end of the engagement. The head-hunter’s only mitigating offer was an additional $5/hour. I politely declined to move forward to the interview phase; there was no way that I could or would accept the contract terms as-written. My insistence on discussing waffle type issues saved everyone time, trouble, and face.
In a similar vein, I was contacted by a completely different head-hunter a few weeks prior to that first example about a short-term (three month) technical writer contract for a prestigious local company. This encounter, too, came right out of the blue; I hadn’t bid on a contract or applied for a role with either the head-hunter or the client before. My online profile suggested that I happened to check the right boxes for their role, so the head-hunter asked me if I’d be willing to chat with their client. Since I knew about the client and deeply respected their good works, I cheerfully agreed.
Once we determined that yes, I could deliver on all of the performance tasks that they wanted, I started asking administrative questions. First, I pointed out that the offered rate for the contract was nearly a third below the local rate for the required performance level; it was more suited for an inexperienced writer fresh out of university, not for a senior tech writer. It was also less than half of my usual bill rate for contract work, which meant that I’d be subsidizing half of the cost of the job out of my savings every month just to get bills paid. That wasn’t necessarily a red flag for me at the outset; even though the contract didn’t pay enough, I was still willing to consider the work for three months (four at the outside) in order to help a great company complete their project. I was clear about this position in the very first discussion with the head-hunter, and advised him that I’d be equally transparent about it when I talked with the client.
The actual interview with the client went very well. The people I spoke with were exactly the sort of experienced, cheerful, and funny people that you yearn to work with. The actual work that they wanted done was challenging, but not overly difficult, and would directly benefit both the company and the community where I live by helping to create more local jobs. Everything seemed like a strong fit between their needs and my interests … and then the other shoe dropped. This wasn’t a three-month contract; the client expected it to be a six-month contractat a minimum. It would probably run for nine months and could potentially run longer. Most importantly, they wanted one writer to cover the entire contract in order to guarantee consistent results. Ah, hmm. Problem.
I explained to the head-hunter what I’d learned from the client about the change in the contract’s scope. I explained that I’d initially agreed to interview for (and subsidize) a three-month, low-rate, contract, and we weren’t talking about that anymore. Now, we were discussing a nine-to-12-month, still low-rate contract. I was transparent about my situation and laid out the month-by-month economic impact of me accepting the revised contract: if the work startedimmediately, I could only afford to subsidize the contract for a maximum of five months before I exhausted my family’s savings. The economic pressure to walk away from the contract would increase dramatically month-over-month; for the first three months, I’d have to consider walking away from the client; by the half-way point (five to six months), I’d have no choice but to walk away from the client for a higher-paying opportunity – especially if the other role came with benefits.
The head-hunter was quite keen to get their contract filled as quickly as possible, and encouraged me to accept the contract as-is. I reiterated my situation: I was certainly willing to take the contract, but the client must be fully aware that I’d be required to walk away from it at some point in the near future – before the expected contract term ended. The head-hunter insisted that the only way that they’d accept me for the role was if I committed to serve out theentire contract, no matter how long it ran. Once it was clear that this was a non-negotiable expectation, I respectfully withdrew my name from consideration. There was no rancour involved; the metaphorical waffle simply couldn’t sustain my family over the length of the contract, and I wasn’t willing to lie to get work, so I walked away.
One last example: I was interviewing a slate of candidates for a senior manager role in a government agency several years back. We had one fellow that ticked all the required and desired boxes for qualifications and experience. We were ready to offer the fellow the job, but I wanted to make sure that we’d covered all of the administrivia before we locked in our selection. I asked the candidate if there were any factors that might influence him to either not accept the role or to leave it in less than two years. The candidate – who I’ll always respect for his transparency – admitted that the fixed pay scale for the role was simply too far below his expected standard of living. He said that he required a 25 per cent Technician Retention Bonus every year or he wouldn’t accept the job. Since the governing regulation for TRBs mandated that you couldn’t submit a worker for a TRB unless the worker was (a) entertaining a better outside offer and (b) was in a role that was nigh-impossible to fill, I couldn’t legally or morally submit him for a TRB. After all, this fellow didn’t have another job offer, and we had three other fully-acceptable candidates interviewing for the role. The candidate respectfully declined on the spot, we accepted the next-best candidate, and everything worked out for the best.
I appreciate how important it is to make a strong, positive impression on the interviewing board. Yes, that’s important and I’m not suggesting that you ignore the performance art aspect of a job interview. Instead, I’m arguing that it’s in your best interests to balance your flashy showmanship with a measure of rational and passionless discourse. It’s a waste of both your time and the company’s time to dance your way from introduction to offer if it turns out that you’re either unwilling or unable to seal the deal. It’s better to get all the facts on the table up front so that you can make a rational, pragmatic decision.
If everything is groovy, press forward. If not, clarify why it’s not and try to work out acceptable terms. IF you can’t, smile and move on. As an employer, I deeply appreciate it when a candidate is transparent and honest with me. I want to have a fair, fighting chance to address the candidate’s needs and desires. If I can, then we avoid future drama. If I can’t, then we cut each other loose. No one’s time gets wasted and no feelings get hurt. It’s the responsible and adult way to handle things.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.