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The Job-Interview Vortex

I sing opera and musical theater and my goal was to perform a lot in 2011. I went to three auditions in January and February and got two of the roles I was after, Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music and Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. I was happy enough to hear from the two directors that I’d been cast in those parts, but it was the role I didn’t get that burrowed its way into my brain.

I didn’t know anything about that part when I auditioned for it—a friend recommended it and I impulsively reserved an audition slot and showed up. I sang Why Can’t You Behave? from Kiss Me Kate and they liked it. I read some lines and saw the directors smile, so I left happy. I got an e-mail the next day, inviting me to a callback—a dance callback. I asked the friend who had nudged me to audition: “Is this a dancing part?”

“Not too much,” she said. I went. I danced. The choreographer said, “great energy,” which is choreographer-speak for: “Good try, Miss Not-a-Dancer.” I got an e-mail message. I didn’t get the part. By then, I knew that there was only one line of singing for my character in the show. I didn’t even like that particular musical. Plus, thanks to my other two parts, my rehearsal-and-performance dance card was full. Why did the rejection bug me anyway?

It bugged me, of course, because it was a rejection—a disappointment on the heels of a gratifying audition process (until we got to the dancing part). It doesn’t matter that my reaction wasn’t rational: I wouldn’t have had fun in that part. As it turned out, the show ran into problems and turned out not to be the world’s most enjoyable experience for anyone involved. (A friend in the crew kept me posted on the backstage dramas.) Still, a little voice in my brain nagged at me. What didn’t they like? Should I have read the lines more broadly? Should I have sung a different song?

The Thrill of the Job Quest

Job-seekers run into this phenomenon when they’re flying through the selection pipeline with a prospective employer. Once you’re in that vortex, it can be hard to keep your mind clear enough to continue asking, “is this the right job for me?” It’s fun and affirming to hear voice-mail messages that say: “We’d love to have you come back and meet a few more of our managers.” If you’re working already, you feel like a double agent—you have another life your boss and co-workers don’t know about. There’s a level of drama involved. People like you and want to talk to you.

Your brain is engaged in someone else’s business problems while you’re interviewing with a new employer. That’s intellectually rewarding, plus a nice boost for your business mojo. Often, when friends and clients accept new positions while working elsewhere, they’ll give notice and their manager will say, “I sort of knew something was up.” The job search shifted the employee’s mojo to a higher level.

When you’re deep in the energizing vortex with a given potential employer, it’s easy to miss red flags. You’re caught up in the river’s current. When people are taking you out to dinner and calling you for advice and shoving job offers in your face, there’s plenty of incentives to sign on the dotted line. That might prove a great thing for your résumé and your well-being, or it might be a disaster. If you’re interviewing for a job that wouldn’t please you, or one with an employer who won’t appreciate what you bring, you’d be smart to bail on the process. Once in the vortex, though, it’s easy to get pulled right through.

Six Ways to Judge Your Prospects

Here are six questions to ask yourself when you don’t trust your judgment on the question: Is it the role itself or the vortex that’s influencing me?

Is this job significantly better for me than the one I’m in now—better than other jobs I’d be likely to get if I weren’t working now? If it’s more of the same, with different wallpaper and carpeting, why am I bothering to change companies?

Do I trust the people I’m meeting in the interview process, both as ethical business people and as smart individuals I can learn from?

Are there red flags I can identify now and ask questions about, before I accept an offer—such things as weirdness in the role definition, major and unaddressed compensation issues, questions about people in the mix who were hostile, needy, or psychotic in the interview process, or concerns about the organization’s priorities or direction?

Is this job going to fortify my résumé, contacts, and confidence enough to warrant taking myself off the market?

Is the role clear, important to the organization, and intellectually stimulating?

If I take the job, will I grow professionally and emotionally (mojo-wise) in 2012—faster than I’m doing now?

Is the employer milking me too much—taking advantage of the “free consulting” it’s getting from me during the interview process—without giving any indication of my status as a candidate?

From the standpoint of a job-seeker looking at opportunities, there are only two types of employer. There is the kind that “gets” you and values you, and then there is the other kind. If you’ll be getting involved with people who don’t get you and don’t value you—who see in you only what you can produce for them and treat your personal life and priorities like annoying distractions from the main event (Making Me Look Good with the Big Bosses, or Helping Secure My Quarterly Bonus), you’re better off looking further.

Keep your eyes open in the vortex and hold out for an employer that lets you bring your whole self—your brains and pluck and spirit and entanglements—to the job. Those employers are out there, I promise. A happy ending can await you at the end of the vortex.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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