asking for feedback when you were hired as the second choice

A reader writes:

I wondered if I could ask you a question about feedback after not being hired (a subject I know you have covered before); I am in a somewhat interesting position regarding this issue.

A bit of background: I worked for nearly a decade in the entertainment industry, before deciding to completely change careers; I went back to school for a masters’ and a PhD in a particular branch of history. I then found a part-time job listing at a museum where I had spent quite a bit of time as a student. I applied for the job, and was granted an interview, which I thought went quite well. But two weeks later I received a curt email from the HR department saying only that my application had been unsuccessful. Disappointing, but fair enough.

Then two months later I received a phone call asking if I was still interested in the position. Apparently they had hired someone else, who had either quit or been fired quite abruptly. I was still very keen on the job, and accepted it. I have been with the museum for nearly 18 months now, and have done very well, I think. I have established a very good relationship with my supervisor (who was one of the people who initially interviewed me), my hours have been extended significantly, and I have received consistently excellent evaluations for my performance. In the past few weeks I have been made aware of several new full-time positions that will open up in the department, which I would like to apply for. Because of the policies of the institution, these openings will require an entirely new set of applications from me and another round of interviews, and hence my question… My next performance review is in a few weeks, and I am considering whether I ought to ask my supervisor about why I was initially turned down for my current position.

I am concerned that this not come across to her as me complaining about why they didn’t ‘love’ me at first sight; I am more interested in any advice that she could give me about how to improve my chances in the future. Working in entertainment had probably not adequately prepared me for the kind of formal interview system they use at the museum (they have checklists and a very elaborate points system using the STAR method of evaluation, apparently), but I’m wondering if there’s something else that put them off.

Well, it’s likely that you didn’t do anything that put them off in that initial interview, since they called you and offered you the job down the road. It’s more likely that the other person simply seemed like a better match. A lot of times, people feel like they must have done something wrong if an interview doesn’t lead to a job offer — but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to reject candidates who I would have been perfectly happy to hire, but someone else was simply a stronger match.

That said, go ahead and ask for advice, because maybe there is something that would be helpful to you to hear. That said, I would couch it less in terms of “why didn’t you hire me originally” and more about how you’re planning to apply for the new openings in the department and would love her advice on the interviews. Within that context, ask her to think back on your original interview and whether there’s anything you could have done better there.

Remember too that you now have a very significant advantage that you didn’t have back then: not just more experience, but more experience with them. You’re now a known quantity with a great track record. That’s a huge leg up when you’re interviewing. Good luck!

{ 2 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    To The OP: My manager told me (towards the end of my internship; in a random conversation) that I was actually a second choice intern. The returning first choice intern rejected the offer; hence I got it. It didn't really faze me; instead it motivates me. I am now working part-time with them as I finish my schooling (Been with them for Fall and Spring Semesters) and I had accepted a full-time offer from the company.

    Therefore, from my experiences, as long as you work hard, network with the right people and show that your skills add value to the company; it doesn't really matter if you're a first or second choice at all.

  2. Anonymous*

    Especially given the current job market, I'd take your prior interview performance as being a silver mdeal rather than being "second best". Also, if you are trying for an inside transfer, your existing performance reviews, your current reputation (and your superior's – good or bad) matter much more than whatever you did that cost you the initial shot. If you don't get the transfer, then I think asking for construction feedback would be very helpful.

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