The Employer Who Asked to Look Inside a Job Candidate’s Purse

How the weird power dynamics of job interviews can brainwash you into putting up with outrageous behavior.

Photo illustration, boss digging through exaggeratedly large purse.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress, Thinkstock, Unsplash.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

One of the weirdest and most stressful parts about looking for a new job is figuring out how to navigate the power dynamics that exist between employers and job candidates. I’ve been writing the workplace advice column Ask a Manager for 10 years now, answering questions about everything from how to ask for a raise to what to do if you’re allergic to your boss’s perfume. One of the most frequent themes in my inbox has been rude and power-tripping behavior from prospective employers during the interview process. In letter after letter, people have written about feeling obligated to suck it up and deal with it because they think their interviewers hold all the cards.

One commonality I’ve seen is a free-flowing disrespect for candidates’ time, like interviewers who instruct candidates to clear the entire day to wait for a short phone screen, or unapologetically leave them waiting for two hours past the scheduled interview time, or require candidates to write two dozen mini-essays before they’ll even be considered for an interview.

Then there are the interviewers who ask inappropriately invasive questions with no connection to the job. Take this person’s experience:

Questions ranged from “Tell me about your life history, starting when you were young” to “Who was the biggest influence on you when growing up and how?” to “What did your parents do?” and “What did you talk about as a family?” Not once did the interviewers ask about my recent job experience or the work I was performing at this organization; they were more interested in what my family discussed around the dinner table growing up.

Also in this category: the interviewer who demanded to look inside a candidate’s purse– presumably because he’d be able to draw deep conclusions about her from the detritus in her handbag; he explained that he found this “to be the best indicator of how organized a woman is,” then “fingered through it, muttered something,” and handed the purse back. She didn’t get the job.

And there are interviewers who get so drunk on power that they cast all manners aside and are simply jerks, like this guy:

My interviewer asked me what my salary range was, so I researched and sent an email back. He replied stating that it was too high, so I sent him an email back just asking what an acceptable range would be. At that point, he sent back three paragraphs bashing me, stating that I was high maintenance and full of myself.

Then there are interviewers who haven’t bothered to learn how to hire effectively and instead subject their job candidates to things like this:

In what I later learned was a test for the job, the lead person on the interview panel suddenly yelled “FIRE!” and the entire panel got up and started running around the room like crazy people! I promptly got my phone out and dialed 911. They stopped dead in their tracks when I was on the phone to 911 and got upset because it wasn’t a real fire. They were just trying to see what my reaction was to emergency situations (which was not part of the job by any stretch of the imagination).

Or my all-time favorite, the employer that managed to wring a catered dinner party out of its job candidates, for an entry-level program coordinator position that didn’t require any cooking or entertaining:

They made the 20 final candidates cook dinner for and entertain the senior staff at the executive director’s house. We were given two and a half hours to plan, shop, and cook for 40. … It wasn’t clear if it was supposed to be an evaluation of our skills, but the senior staff spent the majority of the night drinking and dancing.

The most fascinating thing about interviewers behaving badly isn’t that it happens—people behave badly when given small amounts of power in all sorts of contexts, and most managers haven’t been trained in how to hire effectively—but that so many job candidates feel obligated to put up with it.

Some of this is understandable, of course. When you need a job and an income, there’s a pretty strong incentive to go along with whatever an employer throws at you, at least up to a point. But even candidates who have multiple options—candidates with lots of interest from other employers, or who already have a job they’d be perfectly happy to stay in—usually hesitate to cut short an inappropriate interview or withdraw from a hiring process that’s gone off the rails.

Why don’t candidates with plentiful options say that they’ll need to reschedule (or simply leave) after being kept waiting in the lobby for more than an hour, cut short interviews with openly rude or hostile hiring managers, or push back on inappropriately invasive questions? Yes, they might really want the job—but there’s an argument to be made that employers who treat candidates poorly aren’t likely to treat employees any better and that candidates who have options should act more like, well, candidates with options.

There’s something about job interviews that makes even strong candidates feel like they must simply wait compliantly to receive the interviewer’s judgment. Job seekers would be so much better served by realizing that interviewers aren’t doing them a favor by bestowing time upon them and that each party is there to determine if they’d like to enter into a business arrangement with the other. Just as the employer is assessing the candidate, candidates should be assessing the employer right back—and figuring out whether they want this job and to work with these people and for this company.

When people lose sight of that, they become far more likely to make bad decisions for themselves. When your focus is on “I should do whatever it takes to get offered this job, and I need my interviewer to like me,” you’re more likely to miss danger signs that you’ll be miserable in a job or bad at it. You’re less likely to ask the questions that you need to get answered in order to determine if this is a job that you’d want, in a culture you want, working with people who you’d want to work with.

None of this means that you should storm out in a huff when an interviewer is 10 minutes late to interview you. But it does mean that you should expect to be treated with a reasonable amount of consideration, and assert yourself—pleasantly and professionally, as you would in other business contexts—when you’re being treated poorly. If you’re asked to clear your whole day to wait for a call, it’s OK to say, “I can’t clear the whole day, but I could schedule the call for between 2 and 4—does that work on your end?” If you’re asked a bizarre and invasive question, it’s OK to say, “That’s an unusual question. Why do you ask?” If an interviewer asks you to hand over your purse, you’re allowed to say, “I don’t generally let people go through my purse, but I’d be glad to tell you how I stay organized at work.” And if an interviewer is openly hostile or abusive, it’s more than fine to say, “As we’re talking, I’m realizing that this isn’t quite the right fit for me, so I should remove myself from consideration.”

Even if you’re not in a position to do those things—because you need the job and aren’t willing to risk losing out on it—there’s still huge benefit to being clear-eyed about that choice, so that you’re not blindsided by a difficult boss or dysfunctional culture after you’re hired. Plus, job seekers who show they’re thinking rigorously about whether the job is the right match for them are much more appealing prospects (at least to healthy employers) than overly deferential candidates who focus on impressing without seeking to be impressed in return.