a tale of bad interviewer behavior, this time with reference abuse

A reader writes:

After a 45-minute phone interview with a small non-profit in another state, I was invited to interview in-person. The interviewer contacted me two days prior to the interview to request that I provide the following to her, in less than 24 hours:
– Phone numbers for four references, who were then subjected to their own 45-minute interview prior to my in-person interview. (Two of them have since indicated they cannot be a reference for me again as they were offended and put off – I would have warned them but I had no idea that would happen!)
– A complete executive level communications plan. (I provided 10 pages).
– Two writing samples on a topic of the interviewer’s choice, written in two different styles.

To comply with these demands, I had to rearrange my work schedule, already crammed by the planned out-of-town interview. I lost business, and a lot of sleep.

When I reached the interview, they informed me that I would be in back-to-back 35-minute interviews with SIX people, one of whom was the prior holder of the position. Then I would lead a strategy session. After all that, they told me they’d let me know in two weeks.

After three weeks, they told me the position was no longer available. I found out they kept the prior person, who was, unsurprisingly, a rather unpleasant interview who spent the group session literally making unpleasant faces in response to my answers, although I tried to be as tactful as possible.

I guess all you can do is laugh, but I have two questions:

1) Do you think this was some sort of shock-and-awe interview system, that I failed?
2) Is there a way to reassure my references this won’t happen again? Or should I just try to develop new ones? I really feel awful!

For that matter, if I can throw in a third question, should someone request my references prior to the interview again, is there a way I can tactfully find out whether they’re planning to ambush them prior to even meeting me?


No, I don’t think it was an intentional shock-and-awe approach. I think it was just bad hiring.  Where to begin…

Warning sign number one was when they gave you less than 24 hours to provide fairly involved work, without any notice or any consideration that you might have other commitments for that time. That screams “we’re self-centered and think we hold all the cards, so prepare yourself for further inconsideration from us.”

And of course treating candidates poorly indicates an employer isn’t particularly strategic about hiring, which was further backed up when they did lengthy reference checks before they even interviewed you. It’s silly to do that before an interview — a smart employer waits until they know they’re strongly interested in a candidate before investing that sort of time. Plus, once they know the candidate better, they may find there are specific things they want to ask her references about. Talking to references before an interview denies them that opportunity (not to mention potentially wastes the references’ time).

I suggest contacting your references and apologizing profusely. Tell them you had no idea this was going to happen, that your experience with the company after that indicated that they weren’t the sort of company you’d want to work for anyway, and that you’re terribly sorry that the company was so inconsiderate of their time. Ask them to please forgive what happened.  And they should — this is obviously not your fault. The two references who have said they won’t speak on your behalf again — what’s up with them? This is obviously the employer’s fault, not yours, and it’s not as if there’s something about you that’s likely to provoke this sort of thing again in the future. Apologize profusely and ask if they’ll reconsider; if they won’t, they weren’t great references to start with anyway. Great references are your champions and want to help you.

And yes, in the future it’s absolutely okay to request that your references not be contacted until the employer is seriously interested in making you an offer. It’s reasonable to want to protect your references from fatigue.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I would DEFINITELY take advantage of emailyourinterviewer.com in this case. Given that they subjected you to all of it, they probably wouldn't heed any anonymous feedback, but they should certainly still hear it. Even though that tool is supposed to be geared more towards not following up, I think abuse like this needs to be clearly stated.

  2. Anonymous*

    Talk about jumping through hoops!

    That was harsh with what they did to your references. But their reputation followed them as we can see the other abuses they did. However, I can't get over how your references dropped you like a hot potato. I think that's more harmful than going through that harsh interview process. I wonder how they sounded once the reference check seemed like it was never going to end, and if their tone started to change the way the potential employer felt about you. I agree with AAM – touch base with your references, apologize, and then you might see really how your references really are. Maybe this little experience taught you something.

    One other thing – I don't agree with the prior employee of the position being there in the interviews. I also don't agree with them making faces. That's just as bad as someone saying "good" when they give an answer they like.

    OP, you definitely dodged a bullet here. Yes, it might mean you don't have a job currently, but I can only imagine the stories you'd have coming home from there everday.

  3. Patricia*

    Wow this seems incredibly strange. I am not surprised though. In this economy, businesses are getting more and more crazy during interviews. They expect more in less time. Simply because they can. I hate wasting my references time. It is good advice to ask for the interviewer to wait until they are truly interested to contact them.

  4. Danny*

    This is pretty appalling behavior on the company's part. I'm all for rigorous screening of candidates, but that should never come at the expense of respect for all involved (especially the candidate and the references).

    I just finished hiring someone, and some of the experiences you describe sound familiar; I did ask candidates to complete a written exercise prior to the interview, as a screening measure to make sure they have the skills (a third of the candidates were disqualified based on the quality of their work).

    And I did spend quite a bit of time on the phone with the references that I contacted (after the interview, and only for finalists for the position).

    I was always respectful of both the candidates' time, and the references' time, though. I can't get over the complete lack of respect and courtesy displayed by this company. You dodged a bullet, OP – nobody should have to work with people like that.

  5. TheLabRat*

    In answer to AAm's question, I had a thought about a possible reason why the two references begged off after this nightmare. Given that we are all agreed it is weird to call refs before an interview, maybe they assumed that this company followed this procedure and, based upon the length of the questioning, thought that the OP had raised some red flags. That's the only thing I can come up with that makes any kind of sense.

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