I’m afraid I’m about to be offered a job I won’t be good at

A reader writes:

I had a second interview with a company last week and it went horribly, in my estimation. There were a bunch of technical questions, and I did my best to answer them to the best of my abilities, but for the most part, I did not know the answers and I told them so. The interview was to last about an hour and it lasted about 20 minutes, so I figured it wasn’t a good fit and that was that.

Fast forward to today. They asked for my references. I, of course, sent them back immediately. Now, I’m scared that if they offer me the job it will be to do a bunch of things I cannot do. Though they are aware of my shortcomings, I’m willing to learn and do pick up on things very quickly, but I don’t want to disappoint after 30 days and have them find that I am not a fit. The other thing that scares me is that I am completely versed on a system that no one at their company knows anything about and in the back of my mind, I think they could possibly offer me the job to pick my brain about that system and once they get their information they won’t need me anymore.

I haven’t been offered a position yet, but don’t even know how to react if it happens. I almost want to act surprised if they do call to get some sort of answer as to why they took me after not being able to answer the questions in the interview. Any advice would be helpful. If they were up front and said they are hiring me because of my knowledge in system X, but while I taught them about that they would train me, that is one thing, but if they just offer me the job without any speak of the “bad interview,” I would come away a bit afraid.

I’m fascinated by the HBO late-night show “Cathouse,” which is about a real-life, legal brothel in Nevada. There’s tons of fascinating weirdness to love about the show, but one of the oddest parts is this thing called “the line-up,” which is where a customer arrives and all the women currently on-duty line up inside the front door so that he can choose one of them. This is a one-way selection process; the customer makes a choice, the women wait to be chosen, end of story.

Your letter makes me think of that because you’re talking about interviewing as if it’s a one-way selection process too. But it’s not — far from it. And if you treat it like it is, you’ll dramatically increase your chances of ending up in a job that you won’t do well in or be happy with. (You also won’t come across as well to the employer, interestingly.)

You should see all hiring processes as two-way streets: The employer is interviewing and assessing you, and you should be interviewing and assessing them right back. It’s not about you just waiting for them to decide if they want you or not; you also need to decide if you want them.

So in this case, that means that you’ll ask these questions that are on your mind. Ideally, you would have asked in the interview: “I’m noticing that you’re asking a lot about X and Y. Is that a substantial portion of the job?” and “How important is it that the person in the job have technical knowledge in these areas from the beginning, versus being able to pick it up through training and learning on the job?”

But even though you didn’t ask then, it’s not too late — if you get a job offer, ask about it then:  “During our interview, you asked a lot of technical questions and X and Y, and I wasn’t familiar with many of them. How much of the job will those areas account for? Is it something I’d need to pick up on my own or is there any training?”  And so forth — and anything else that you’re wondering about too.  Ask as many questions as you need to until you’re satisfied that you fully understand what you’d be signing up for, and never, ever accept a job offer until that part is done.

You are not in a brothel line-up. You’re in a two-way business discussion.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Lexy*

    I had a job once where the manager gave a technical skills test to all applicants that wasn’t so much a “how good are you at [X]” but more “how do you go about working on problems where you don’t know the answer”. She didn’t expect that most people would get all or most of the answers right, but she expectected that you would try and that you would admit what you don’t know.

    In short: Should you get the offer, do what Alison says. Find out if those are skills you’ll really need to be fluent in from the start or if it was more of a way to gauge how you react when presented with unfamiliar information.

  2. jmkenrick*

    “You are not in a brothel line-up. You’re in a two-way business discussion.”

    I laughed out loud.

      1. Scott Woode*

        This is my favorite AAM post to-date. Well written, creative, hilarious and direct. A+!

  3. AB*

    Seems like yet another example of how companies, “the state of the economy,” etc. have bullied us into believing we have to take any job offered to us because we are lucky to get it. Like Alison says over and over again, there has to be a mutual fit. I know it is not easy for everyone to turn down offers, but in my personal experience, it can be very reaffirming to leave an interview and think, “No, they aren’t good enough for ME! I can find something better.”

    1. ChristineH*

      AB – I’ve operated under that perspective myself. In my experience, job offers don’t come easily, so when I am offered a job and I have any reservations, I still take it so that I, 1) don’t come across to those helping me that I’m being picky and 2) don’t end up waiting another lengthy period. All my jobs were good experiences; I just regret not asking those additional questions.

      1. Mike C.*

        They aren’t helping you – you are engaging in a mutually beneficial business relationship.

        1. just another hiring manager...*


          And it’s not picky as in unreasonable/unrealistic. When you are job hunting, you SHOULD be picky when it comes to choosing a position that is a good fit for you. Like Mike C said its “engaging in a mutually beneficial business relationship.”

        2. ChristineH*

          Oh I didn’t mean interviewers were helping me…I meant people in my network. But I see what you mean Mike.

          1. Mike C.*

            Gotcha, I can see how if a friend or colleague directed you towards an opportunity you’d feel bad about not taking it.

    2. Piper*

      This! I had an interview a few months ago and walked out of there with absolutely zero interest in the job. The recruiter who I was working with called after the interview to discuss and I said, “thanks, but no thanks.” I hate my current job, but I had enough sense (and asked the right questions during the interview) to know that taking that other job would have been jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

      1. K.*

        I had a similar experience very recently and I was bugging out because I, like many, have been trained by the economy to think “I must take any and all jobs that come my way.” And a wonderful friend told me exactly what AAM told the OP (minus the brothel analogy) – even in a recession, interviewing is a two-way street, and employers do not have all the power. It made me feel MUCH better. (Piper, you and I seem to have a lot of similar experiences!)

        I think it’s also important to remember that a bad hire will cost the company more that just moving on to the next person (there’s always another candidate), so you’re not doing them any favors by taking a job you (general “you”) know you’ll hate.

    3. Laura L*

      It’s a lot like dating. Don’t date someone just because you’re lonely and they’re interested. They might not be right for you.

  4. Joey*

    Interesting analogy. I’ve never thought of job seekers as prostitutes or a hiring manager as a john

      1. juepucta*

        I’m going to start applying other techniques from Cathouse in my future interviews. I might not get the gig but they will never forget the dude in the pleather skirt and platforms!


        1. Long Time Admin*

          If you’re a guy and you’re wearing a fake leather skirt and platforms, I’d remember you for the rest of my life.

  5. L. A.*

    Some advice from someone who’s been there: run. After asking follow-up questions, of course. If you’re having this much anxiety about being offered this job, then you’re only going to make yourself sick as you sit there waiting for your start date and then driving in that day and then as you sit at your desk waiting for them to ask you a questions about that thing that you don’t know about. I’m a firm believer in the gut feeling that you get when you’re in an interview situation. I was recently in a great interview and had a great rapport with the hiring manager. I was really excited about the job and then the two women I would work primarily with came in and I got the impression that they wanted someone with a lot more experience in XYZ while my experience lies in ABC. The hiring manager wanted the whole alphabet, but was focusing on ABC. Had the position been based in the same office as the hiring manager I would have been happy, but knowing we would be in a remote location and these coworkers seemed dead set on getting XYZ that dread set in. Perfectly nice individuals. But I agonized the entire time that I was waiting for the phone call offering/rejecting me. When I finally got the call I almost had a panic attack as I scurried calling my contacts to try to figure out if it was good news or bad news and then trying to figure out if I considered the offer good news or bad news.

    Any time any of my friends have agonized over whether to take jobs or not, as well, they end up absolutely hating them if they do. That gut feeling is key.

    Long story short: you sound terrified that these people are going to call you and offer you this job. If that happens, ask more questions and if you don’t like the answers you aren’t required to take this job.

  6. ChristineH*

    From my experience, references are usually requested only when you’re the likely choice for the job, or at least one of the top couple of candidates. So it’s very possible that they saw some potential, and thus want to do a reference check to perhaps find out how you handle new information or learn new programs. If you are indeed offered the job, I wouldn’t even bring up how you thought your interview went poorly as it shows a lack of confidence. Definitely take Alison’s advice and ask thoughtful questions to assess whether it’s the right job for you or not.

  7. JT*

    “I did not know the answers and I told them so.”

    This is a strong response to a question for which you do not know the answer, and may have been far better than other respondents who tried to bluff their way through and then failed.

    1. L. A.*

      This. When interviewing for my current position I was asked if I had any experience in something. I took a beat, realized I didn’t and then smiled a bit as I said “Honestly, no I don’t.” The hiring manager sat back, broke into a huge smile, and told me thank you because he was sick of people lying their way through interviews. Knowing that that was a weakness for me, he set up an in-depth explanatory meeting in my first week to bring me up to speed and had me shadow another coworker. Best “oh my god, I’m not going to get this job because I’m an idiot” moment turned awesome ever.

  8. Anonymous*

    I had something similar happen to me not too long ago. I applied for a job for which I knew I was underqualified, and was shocked as I found myself moving from step to step until I was in the final two. The day after my final interview, the HR manager called me to tell me that I was not going to be offered that job, but they liked me enough to offer me another position that hadn’t been posted yet (a job for which I was much better suited). I’m not saying this happens often, but it may be that the company just wants the OP to work for them sometime in the future, and are going through the necessary steps now so that when a position opens, they can just offer it.

  9. Sparkle*

    I have a former friend who recently took a job that she was not qualified for and she cannot handle it. The best advice I can give you is to never take a job that you don’t think you will be successful in. And…be honest (with the employer and with yourself) about what your abilities are. If you don’t know how to do graphic design, don’t sign up for a gig where graphic design is 50 percent of the job. If you can’t handle press releases are haven’t ever done them, don’t take the job. Do yourself a favor and really take a good look at your skills. Being in a job where you aren’t successful won’t be good for you or the employer.

  10. Blinx*

    I was recently in a similar quandary. Had several good interviews with a company. Thrilled that they didn’t blanche at my salary expectations. Really liked the company and people. I had an excellent background for the position, but no experience in X. When they sent me a rejection email, I was half crushed/half relieved.

    As a job searcher, how much should we be pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone in order to boost our careers and gain new experiences?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The key is to get a solid understanding of what the job requires, and whether you’re realistically going to be able to excel at it in the time period they need, which you can often figure out through honest conversation with yourself and with the employer. You definitely don’t want to bluff your way into a job and then struggle in it — because you’re likely to be miserable / get fired / harm your reputation.

      1. Blinx*

        Luckily, I’m terrible at bluffing, so I was upfront about my lack of experience. I think it was more a situation that L.A. described above, where different sets of interviewers place different values on skill sets.

        It’s probably easier to stretch yourself at another position within the same company, rather than switching companies.

  11. Natalie*

    OP, if you are noticing red flags about the culture, management style, etc, and you are employed or can afford to be unemployed for a time longer, then absolutely turn down the job if it is offered.

    But if the only reason you are concerned about the job is because you think you aren’t qualified, ask them more questions about the technical issues of the job. You may have struck gold – the company that understands that end-user software can be easily taught, but other qualities, like problem-solving or honesty, cannot. And in that case, take the job!

    AAM, you might like the book Brothel by Alexa Alberts. The author is a public health researcher, IIRC, and lived in a (now closed) Nevada brothel as a researcher while completing her PhD. It’s a bid outdated on certain aspects (I think it was published in the late 90s) but overall a really fascinating book.

  12. AD*

    Also, consider whether there really ARE people who have experience in X, Y, and Z, or whether that was a highly unrealistic wish list. Maybe the company knew going in that they wouldn’t find all of that in one person or maybe they realized it during the interview process. But you should have some idea of what’s “realistic” for a candidate in your industry and in the salary range they are offering, and if you don’t, see what kind of research you can do to find out.

  13. Sabrina*

    I also had a similar experience. I was not qualified and knew it, and figured that surely there was someone else who was better qualified that was also in the running. I didn’t even send a thank you note and put the whole thing out of my mind as soon as I left. Imagine my surprise a week later when they hired me! I was shocked but accepted. Big mistake. Turns out that they just needed someone with a heartbeat and I had some experience and was unemployed so I could start on their schedule (which is not the same as immediately because it took a month to go through all the hoops). I was only mildly qualified for the job I interviewed for and not at all qualified for the job that I actually ended up in.

  14. LJL*

    It’s also possible that the knowledge they’re looking for is specialized and/or it’s not in their applicant pool. Be sure to ask what kind of training is planned for the new position. When I was looking at filling positions that required the use of a rather specialized software, I looked for transferable skills and problem-solving ability. Prior experience was gravy as we had planned to thoroughly train the new hire.

  15. Long Time Admin*

    Asking questions is all well and good, but if you’re out of work and your unemployment is about to run out, you take any job you can find. If you hate it, you just start your job search again. But at least you can keep a roof over your head and food on the table.

    1. Vicki*

      And when the next interviewer asks “Why are you looking to leave your current job so soon?” and you say “Well, I only took it to put food on the table, but I hate it”, what do you _really_ think your chances are???

      1. Anonymous*

        Why would you say that to an interviewer?

        The interviewer only needs to know that it’s not a good fit, they don’t need to know how you got there.

      2. Long Time Admin*

        Actually, I said there was no room in that company for advancement, which was true.

        Come on, who looks for another job unless they don’t like their current job? What do you say to interviewers?

  16. sparky629*

    I currently work in a place where a mid level administrative position was offered to someone from another department. I wasn’t in on the hiring process, so it remains unclear if he lied about his actual skills or just made them think he could fill the position because he would learn/do whatever it would take to be successful.

    It has become SO. INCREDIBLY. PAINFUL to watch the story unfold over the past few years (yeah, I know–years).

    After the first year in that position, his immediate supervisor and co-workers complained to the Dept Director so badly that he was ‘demoted’ to basically the office receptionist. In all fairness to the supervisor and co-workers, they needed someone to come in with a strong admin background who could pick up the intricate departmental stuff. He could barely type and he didn’t even know how to open email. :-(
    He was basically sent to admin/typing classes (during that year) to learn basic admin skills. It didn’t work, he still doesn’t have the talent for it.
    As the office receptionist, he’s still pretty bad. After 2 years in that role (which did not exist prior to his demotion), he still can’t get the lunch orders correct. I’ve stopped eating at staff lunches because he STILL can’t correctly order my salad with bleu cheese dressing. I’ve gotten every house/italian dressing combo known to man but never bleu cheese (yes, I’ve written it down and even circled it on the menu *sigh*).
    This morning, he came in my office and asked me what he was supposed to do with the fax machine report. Wow just wow. Um, I don’t even do anything remotely related to his position but no one else will answer his questions because frankly it’s common sense and it’s painful to watch him flounder in the lower position.

    So that was my long way of telling you…if you don’t think you can or are able to handle the job. Please please please don’t take it. Please don’t make your unsuspecting co-workers work lives miserable. *on my knees praying to the work Gods*

    However, if you feel that it’s just a matter of knowing how to do something and you are up to the challenge by all means take the job and be excellent at it.

    1. class factotum*

      what he was supposed to do with the fax machine report.

      Maybe it wasn’t so unreasonable of the head secretary/South Asia at the World Bank to stress to me that I had to wait for the FAX CONFIRMATION NOTICE! If the FAX CONFIRMATION NOTICE did not say OK, then I had to RE-SEND! I kept nodding and saying, “OK,” because I already knew all this.

      She told this to me three times, at which point I looked at her and finally said, “You must be used to working with really stupid people.”

      1. Jamie*

        One of my best bosses did this my first couple of days working for him. He would over explain the obvious repeatedly. Followed by apologizing for forgetting that I was different than the previous holders of that position.

        When he caught me trying not to roll my eyes for the 800th time that morning he wrote “smarter than the average bear” on a post it (complete with a bad drawing of Yogi Bear) and stuck it to my jacket as a reminder to stop repeating himself.

        I miss that guy – he was awesome.

        1. Anonymouse*

          Day one of my very first job out of college included an elaborate 3 or 4 minute demonstration on how to use a binder clip. What they were. Their purpose. How to squeeze just right. I started laughing because I thought it was a joke to break the ice. She was not amused. In fact, she was quite angry. I should have known then and there that it was going to be a freakshow.

      2. sparky629*

        If only it was that easy. *sigh*
        It wasn’t a confirmation report, it was the monthly usage report. I would think if you’ve been in a position for two years you should probably already know what to do with the report. Also, I will say that it’s the same report that prints every month and it’s the same fax/copy machine that we’ve had in the department for at least 4 years.
        Someone had sat it on his desk and he thought it was mine (I’m not even sure HOW he came to that conclusion other than I get reports from my immediate supervisor).

        When the person in the office next to me told him she sat it on his desk (you know because he’s the receptionist/clerical person) he looked incredibly perplexed like she had just sat the dead sea scrolls on his desk and asked him to translate them. *shrug*
        There are so many many more examples to that never ending story of incompetency. One off the top of my head, he still doesn’t know who to route calls to in the department even though he’s been given several flow charts and a script.

      1. sparky629*

        I ask myself that EVERY. SINGLE. DAY but it probably has more to do with the environment. It’s really hard to fire anyone here. I’ve been here 9+ years and have only seen 2 people get fired the entire time and they both were stealing money (in large quantities I might add).

  17. Anonymous because I know this is mean...*

    “After 2 years in that role (which did not exist prior to his demotion), he still can’t get the lunch orders correct.”

    Same situation here – what IS this?? Every lunch meeting requires days of panic and roping everyone into the planning. We’re on sandwiches now because getting a selection of Chinese food is as complicated as building a Turing machine out of bottlecaps and electrical tape.

    I miss Chinese food.

    1. sparky629*

      I would just like to have a salad with bleu cheese dressing. I don’t even need kung pao chicken or fresh spring rolls. Just a salad.
      *banging my head on the desk*

      What’s so incredibly sad about that particular situation is that every. single. time. I ordered the salad with bleu cheese…he comments that it’s his favorite salad dressing too. I can’t decide if he just hates me in particular or he’s that clueless. :-(

      1. Anonymouse*

        Does he stink of weed? I went to school with a guy whose short-term memory was so fried, he’d forget he’d answered the phone, put it down, and just wander off. Look… there he goes… no particular purpose…no idea where he is….or why he’s there….

  18. Ellen M.*

    “You are not in a brothel line up.”

    I love this! I am going to try to work it into a conversation whenever possible. Maybe make it my signature for my work e-mail. (With proper attribution to Alison, of course!)

  19. Suzanne*

    I have very mixed feelings about this. A few years ago, my employer closed up shop, dumping me and my co-workers out on the street, so to speak. I had been sending out resumes, and got an interview at one place, but not a bit anywhere else. I got the job which involved a great deal of managing, something I admitted to not having done, but was assured that I would be mentored. It was a nightmare from the beginning and I ended up lasting about a year before I quit. Following that, I experienced 6 months of unemployment.

    What does my story illustrate? I would be the first to tell anyone to run from a job that isn’t a good fit, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. I had bills to pay, no job, and no other prospects. If the field you are in and have all your experience in has hit the skids, you may simply not be able to find a job in your field (or a job of any kind at all) even to tide you over until you can find a job that fits you. So you take that lousy job out of necessity and try to grin and bear it.

  20. SisterTech81*

    I have been in a position for over five years now and I started in a technical position with no technical background. If the company is aware of your shortcomings and are willing to work with you, they may have judged that the skillset wasn’t (yet) what they were looking for but they are willing to assist you in developing because you came accross strong in other areas. I also bombed my technical questions, but that wasn’t really the skillset my interviewers were looking for and I interviewed well in those areas. In fact, some people prefer that you come in with a lesser skillset for things technical to be trained, versus having to deprogram you before teaching you the basics of their product. Just my two cents on that part.

    The prospect of learning a technical role can be a daunting one but it’s not rocket science. Like any position it’s a matter of adjusting to the lingo and learning the mechanics. If you put a little faith in yourself you might be surprised. That said, if you don’t WANT the job, you shouldn’t take it. There’s a difference between being scared of the unknown and being uncomfortable with the job for other reasons.

  21. Anonymous Job Seeker*

    You might want to consider taking the job. I am looking for a job now. I applied for Position A instead of Position B with a specific company. I have many – but not all – of the qualifications that Position B required. I received a call from the company, and they encouraged me to apply for Position B. I explained that I learn new concepts quickly (and I do), but that I did not have the experience that Position B required. They encouraged me to apply anyway. This occurred last week, so I have not received a definitive answer yet. However, I think that companies are sometimes interested in hiring people who have the potential to learn – even if they do not have all of the skills that are required for the position.

    As a side note, I am using websites and online tutorials to master the skills that I am lacking. Hopefully, by the time I receive an interview (speaking optimistically here – smile!), I will be able to state that I have the skills that I now lack. Best wishes to you in your job search.

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