Even worse than unemployment: The job interview

The process is an exercise in humiliation, and the prize for success is a nightmare -- employment by your torturers.

Published May 20, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

For months you researched the classifieds. ("Wanted: poofreader, mst Be xclnt with grammer!!!")

You networked with everyone from unhelpful relatives ("Well, have you tried looking in the classifieds?") to telemarketers. ("No really, thank you. By the way, if you're hiring, I too have experience in marketing motivational tapes to house pets.")

You wrote tons of cover letters. ("It is my ardent desire to support SIK Co.'s mission to boost profits to two guys on a golf course in Boca Raton through increased rejection of medical insurance claims.")

You maxed out your credit cards to invest in photocopying, postage, career counseling, résumé evaluation, and -- even though you are living on Top Ramen and tap water -- a "dress for success" makeover that screams, "I am a Republican congressional candidate from the year 1986."

And now, success! You've landed a job interview. It's time to develop a winning strategy. The prize? Confinement in a tiny, windowless cubicle and prolonged exposure to people even more neurotic than you.

But let's start with the basics. What is a job interview?

At least one dictionary defines it as "a painful surgical procedure designed to extract the last shred of dignity from the job applicant's ingrown psyche."

During the procedure, sharp probes are directed at the insult-awareness areas of the frontal lobe in an effort to stimulate the irony glands. These probes generally take the form of questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with the job applicant's career history, abilities or distinctions, but instead are designed to test one's ability to retain rigidity of the facial muscles, more commonly called "keeping a straight face." For example:

"If all your former employers were gathered in one room, what would they say about you?"

In this test, the applicant with an excess of intelligence and self-esteem, deducing that such an event would be predicated on the sudden and conveniently located funeral of said applicant, might conclude that the former employers would say things like, "She looks like she just fell asleep -- shove a desk under her face and you'd think she was still working in Advertorials," and "Well, that's that. Anyone for happy hour at El Torito?"

But this would be wrong. The correct answer is, "They would chant in unison that I am efficient, courteous and professional, the most accomplished employee ever to be included in a mass layoff. Then they would all run to the window to see the flying pigs go by."

Other questions are designed to test the limits of credulity and put pressure on raw nerves. For example:

"Have you ever worked with anyone who might be considered difficult?"

In this high-risk procedure, the success rate, particularly among applicants who have accumulated more than eight hours of job experience, is very low. Yet one study reports that at least one applicant -- a subject with more than 20 years of experience in working for large organizations staffed by overworked, underpaid, unloved, addictive personalities behind on their bills and living in apartments with orange shag carpeting -- was able to maintain an upright position and masklike expression while mouthing the words, "I have been very fortunate to work only with wonderful people as well as with terrific bosses, each so sweet and endearing that they collectively make Fred Rogers seem like the Marquis de Sade."

In the final analysis, what interviewers are really looking for is not competence or a proven history of success, but someone who can memorize vague yet analytical sounding responses to stupid questions. Think Ari Fleischer being interviewed by Kelly Ripa.

To help you, here are some standard interview questions and recommended answers.

"What prepares you to move from being a world-famous brain surgeon to putting hot dogs on sticks?"

Recommended response: "Well, although I have not had professional experience in putting hot dogs on sticks, I have 17 years' experience in saving lives, using highly specialized skills developed through intensive study and 48-hour unpaid shifts made possible by $75,000 in student loans, during which I affected the mortality rate by 20 percent plus or minus over the last quarter, and I'd like to be able to make similar contributions to your kiosk at the Westridge Mall."

"Why did you apply for this job?"

Never say, "Because I need income to provide my family with food and shelter." This gives the employer the impression that you are only willing to engage in exhausting, dehumanizing labor for years on end if there is something in it for you. At a time when employers are exercising their options to decrease overhead, reduce benefits, institute pay cuts, freeze pensions, double the workload, lower safety measures, implement cheaper materials and inflate profits, it's rather unseemly for the job applicant to express a naked desire for minimum wage.

(This would explain why more and more companies are running credit checks on potential employees. Clearly, the candidate who needs a paycheck is not as desirable as one who can also buy shares in the company, thus giving the CEO time to lock in a Florida mansion before declaring bankruptcy.)

Recommended response: "As a highly experienced professional, I have been targeting my job search for a company that would allow me to develop a marketing campaign for cemetery time shares. Or to insert wooden sticks into hot dogs."

"What do you know about this company?"

This is the biggie, your chance to show the interviewer that you are so desperate to be hired that you actually went to the trouble to track down and read a stack of annual reports written by sleep-deprived legal assistants and printed in 9-point type.

Recommended response: "Well, in my research I learned that your company headquarters move from place to place depending on the likelihood of a visit from Mike Wallace of 'Sixty Minutes.' I also know that at first you were primarily a brokerage firm and that you now mostly employ incarcerated individuals to provide customer service to an elderly demographic with liquid assets. I also read in a testimonial from one of your clients in the Pennysaver Freesheet, that she had switched to your product line and services even without understanding what they are exactly, because she felt that planners at your firm really cared about her, and especially about the possibility of her being accidentally run down by a gray minivan with no license plate."

Now, get out there!

Remember, an interview is simply an opportunity to lie about what you enjoy doing most and forget about what you do best. As the "I Ching" says, "Nourish the docility of a cow, and there will be good fortune." Armed with that, some well-rehearsed inanities, and an ill-fitting necktie or pair of pantyhose, you will impress interviewers with your ability to hammer one last nail in the coffin of your own hopes and dreams. Now get out there and dazzle 'em! You're closer than you think to achieving your goal of joining the working poor.

By Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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