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.
The job-search process is, for many people, shrouded in mystery. Figuring out whether an employer is interested in you, or how good your chances are, or when you might reasonably expect to hear back after your interview, can feel like a maddening guessing game. You might think you nailed an interview and had amazing rapport with your interviewer, but then never hear from that employer again. Or you might walk out of an interview cringing at how poorly you did and be surprised with a job offer a few days later. When the stakes are so high and the process feels so opaque, it’s not surprising that people analyze the smallest details of every interaction and obsess over what they might mean.
I regularly get letters from people who are convinced that if an interviewer gives them a tour of the office space and says something like, “Here’s where you’d sit,” that means that’s where they will sit because they will definitely be getting the job. Or if an interviewer says, “We’re talking with other candidates but should be in touch in a couple of weeks,” some people are convinced the interviewer is hinting that they’re not getting the job. And I see a ton of letters from people who forward me routine emails from employers (like “Thanks for coming in. We’ll be back in touch soon”) and ask me to tell them what the employer is really hinting at.
One of the most common ways this obsessive overanalysis plays out is when an interview seems to go well. The candidate and interviewer clicked, the interviewer seemed enthusiastic, maybe a potential start date is even discussed. None of this, though, guarantees that a job offer is on the way. As strong a candidate as you might be, someone else might be stronger—a fact that’s really easy for job seekers to lose sight of. That’s what’s happening with this letter writer:
I interviewed with a company last week for an HR generalist position. Their HR manager and I interviewed for 2½ hours. I got a call back for a second round interview and was told that I had the first choice of interview times. … I then had a 30-minute phone interview with the VP of Talent Acquisition, who … said that it was a great interview and thanked me for my time. I then met with the HR manager again and she went over benefits, rates, pulled out an employee handbook and started telling me about projects that she wanted me to start working on, asked me about salary and vacation time, and walked me downstairs and through the network engineers area, introducing me to people. We passed a guy in the hall who had an H1B visa issue, and she started telling me about it. Everything was great!
But I got an email last night saying that they went with another candidate. What went wrong? … I’m just dumbfounded.
Sometimes it’s the uncertainty inherent in the process that drives job seekers to try to figure out what’s really going on behind the scenes—when often it’s just exactly what the employer says is going on:
I’ve been through two interviews at this company and was told that the decision was to be made early this week and that I was one of two candidates. They contacted my references and I was expecting an offer. Now they are telling me that they are bringing in one more candidate Monday and are delaying the decision until the end of next week. I really want this job, but I’ve not had this experience before. Should I assume that I did not get the job, or take them at their word?
People are often so driven to get an answer, any answer, that they leap to “Well, I must not be getting the job,” rather than taking what the employer says at face value (in this case, that they have one more interview to finish). To be fair, part of the reason people do this is that employers aren’t always transparent about their process. But people tend to invent alternate narratives even when the employer is being pretty upfront and direct:
I called today to follow up after what I felt was a great round of interviews. They told me that they are interviewing more candidates and will get back with me. Is this a nice way of them telling me I am no longer in the running for the job? If so why can’t they just come out and say that?
Hiring processes can be so opaque to job seekers that many of them try to read meaning into routine social niceties as well:
I interviewed for a position last Tuesday and it is now Thursday. I wrote the hiring manager an email last night checking the status of the position. He responded back at 6 am this morning and said, “I am traveling but will get back with you next week.”
I am not trying to read into this, but what is your take on this response? I personally think it is very positive because he could have just as easily forwarded my email to HR for a rejection or he could have spent an extra 30 seconds and told me himself.
It’s entirely understandable why people do this: They have a lot riding on the outcome, and so they’re hungry for any sign that might give them insight into what’s happening behind the scenes. But ironically, this quest to read mostly unreadable tea leaves tends to make the process harder by keeping people mired in stress and uncertainty—with nothing to be gained that would affect the ultimate outcome. And in fact, give into the anxiety enough and you can find yourself actually harming your chances, if it leads you to do things like check in excessively with the hiring manager.
Instead, the best thing to do if you’re worried about how an interview went is to assume that you’re not getting the job, put it out of your mind, and let it be a pleasant surprise if you do get an offer. And employers, for their part, should remember that anxious job seekers are reading into everything and make a point of being as clear and transparent as possible.