Many years ago I had an interview for a fundraising position with a non-profit. I was feeling very proud of myself as I had just been informed that one of my grant requests had been approved.
As I entered the non-profit’s offices and approached the receptionist I heard someone yell out, “I just wish someone would call me a ‘stupid son of a bitch!” So I did. And then I introduced myself to the receptionist who was in shock.
A few seconds latter an older gentleman appeared. “Who the hell are you?” “I’m someone who believes in customer service and when a volunteer, donor, or board member makes a request, if I can, I grant it!”
Turned out he was the chairman of the Board. While I was supposed to meet with the HR director, he immediately took me to meet the executive director. I told them that the HR director was probably waiting for me. They didn’t care, so neither did I.
We had a very good meeting. Obviously, they liked my sense of humor. That’s what got me straight to them. But, with all due modesty, I also had an impressive record of achievement. The clincher was my approach to customer service. While I had made my aforementioned comment humorously, I was also very serious about my beliefs about the importance of serving one’s customers.
After about 10 minutes the HR director came in. She was clearly unhappy that she had not had the opportunity to screen me first. Naturally, I immediately apologized (even though it was not my fault) and told her that I had, in fact, told them that I was supposed to meet with her. When I finally met with her in private, I was sitting across from her at her desk. Her computer monitor was clearly visible to me. The executive director sent her an e-mail. As soon as she heard the “ping” that an e-mail had arrived she turned around and opened it. It said, “We want him!”
I put on my best poker face. One of the things that I have been trained to do is to “read a room.” The HR director had an office that was cold and impersonal. The only thing on the walls was a poster of an event that the charity had had years before. No diplomas. No awards. No family photos. No photos with staff. The fact that she jumped and immediately read the e-mail showed that she lacked self-confidence. It was as though she thought she would be fired if she did not respond immediately to him. (Her response, by the way, was “Received.”) But the clincher was what happened on my way out. The receptionist came over to me, put out her hand, and asked me, “How did it go with Mary?” When she said “Mary,” the HR director’s name, she squeezed my hand.
When I got back to my office I did a little more research. This was before LinkedIn – when dinosaurs roamed the streets! – so it took a while. But I found a former employee of the non-profit. After I told him what happened with the Board chair, I asked him about Mary. He said she was the reason most people left.
Two questions that I always ask employers are, What is your turnover rate? and What is the average length of time an employee remains? (I also ask if they promote from within, but that’s another matter.) The turnover rate was rather high, and the average length of employment was usually no more than 3 years. She explained the bad numbers as policy: “We like to be seen as a non-profit from which larger non-profits like to find employees.” When she told me that I knew I would never get along with her. No employer wants to lose employees after 3 years. It’s bad business. She was covering up and doing it poorly…very poorly.
The executive director called me to offer me the job. I declined. I told him that I did not think that I would work well with the HR director. He asked me why and I told him that I did not like her response to my questions about turnover and tenure. (I did not mention the receptionist or his former employee.) A few months later she was gone and he called to see if I was interested in working for him. I thanked him but, as I had already started a new job, I declined.
Three lessons: First, you only have a few seconds to make an initial impression. Don’t do it by telling the interviewer about yourself. Tell them what you can do for them. (“I focus on customer service” means, and subsequently I made this clear, “I’ll keep your donors and volunteers happy and out of your hair.”) Second, check out the key people with whom you will be working. And third, be polite but honest. I may have actually done the exec a favor by telling him about his HR director. He obviously appreciated it…