how to tell an interviewer that I’m better than what I’ve shown

A reader writes:

What is the best way to say in an internal job interview that I don’t think I’ve shown the company my best work yet?

I’ve been an unpaid intern for a couple of months at this organization where I have an interview. I have it on good confidence that my interview is not out of courtesy, but that I am a serious candidate.

Due to a number of money, personal, and work structure stresses, I just haven’t been as nice and diplomatic as I normally am at work (or at home, but that’s a whole different matter!). Many of these issues would be resolved if I were to receive and accept an offer for the postion I will interview for, which would be in a different department and under a different manager:

– Money: I’d actually be getting paid, finally. I could afford to do more than buy groceries and pay rent, which I’m lucky is low due to location and living with my partner.

– Personal: not getting paid for doing equal or superior work (after doing underpaid internship after internship and several years real world work pre masters degree) has made me feel insecure and inadequate in general, and admittedly occasionally resentful when budgets and other people’s fees and salaries are openly discussed in front of me.

– Work structure: I’d actually be given a specific role and have more control over how I plan my work. My current department’s work plan is more or less non-existent, and since I’m the unpaid intern, I’m used wherever on a whim with an unclear mandate under a micromanager who is trying to maintain oversight of a growing department. I’m a structured and future-oriented person. I’m also decisive and enjoy having the responsibility to do my work so the boss doesn’t have to worry about what I’m up to; she just knows I’ve got it covered and can make final decisions when necessary.

I’ve asked for and tried to carve out for myself a more clear role, often in vain.

I don’t want to come off as whining, because I’m grateful I had the opportunity to intern and show them what I’ve got. I also don’t want to diss my current boss’s management of his staff and department.

Yeah, you can’t really make that argument. Saying “I haven’t been doing my best work because I’ve been resentful and unhappy, but give me this job and I’ll do better” isn’t likely to ring true. First of all, your track record is far more valuable information about how you’ll perform on a job than any hypotheticals. Secondly, the argument itself reflects poorly on you — it says that you only deliver your best work (and behave politely!) when you feel like it, and that you think an employer should be okay with that.

Look, it sucks to work without being paid for it. But you signed up for that when you accepted the internship, and your employer accepted that in good faith. You didn’t say, “I’ll work for free but I’ll be cranky and resentful and not do my best work” — and if you had said that, I can pretty much guarantee you that they would have said, “No, thank you.”

As for the work structure stuff, I wouldn’t cite that either. You’re always going to run into challenges like that, and no interviewer wants to hear that your response has been to decide that those problems justify not putting forth your best. Plus, you might think that you won’t encounter similar problems in another department, but in an organization that allows one department to have no work plan and a bad manager, it’s a pretty good bet that you could encounter problems on other teams too. (Frankly, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ll encounter that at other employers in the future too; this stuff is widespread.) There will always be adversities, and a good interviewer is going to want to hear that you can handle difficulties without losing your cool. Interviewers are also looking to see how you operate when conditions aren’t optimal … since they rarely will be.

Again, I get that not being paid sucks. I get that it especially sucks when it’s not your first unpaid internship. But an internship is your chance to make a good impression and demonstrate why they should be excited to hire you or recommend you to someone else. You can’t mess around during the internship and then say, “Oh wait, that was just my internship behavior — let me show you the paid me.”

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. op*

    Thank you for your gracious tough love. I like being the type of person to own up to my failures – I definitely have failed in letting my unhappiness in my life affect my behaviour at an internship that I love in nearly every respect save some quite typical issues. I guess I have to come up with a different answer to the potential question “How do you hope to improve from what you’ve shown us so far” or any variant thereof.

    1. Eric*

      “How do you hope to improve from what you’ve shown us so far” does not require an explanation of why you would change, but instead should focus on what outcomes would be different.
      You acknowledge that your work has not been of the highest quality, so you would want to point out some places that you believe have shortcomings, and explain what you would do differently to produce higher quality work in the future.
      Your bank account is irrelevant to answering the question.

    2. Anonymous Accountant*

      “How do you hope to improve” could be answered by “As I have gained skills in XYZ, I would be more efficient at preparing reports for the weekly board meetings, processing reports, etc”.

      I’m not juding you so please don’t take this as a personal attack. From what I’ve seen, telling a manager “When I’m paid more, you’ll see my best work/better work” typically hasn’t went well for the employee.

    3. Lisa*

      I think you can say, “I’m continually growing as a person, I value self-evaluation, and I think I’m good at setting high expectations for my own improvement. I strive to be open to feedback and even actively solicit it so that I can improve. This opportunity would help me continue working with people whose feedback has already been highly valuable in my growth, and, in line with my focus on continuous, honest self-evaluation, I intend to push myself to achieve more in X, Y, and Z areas especially.”

      1. Anonymous*

        If I were the hiring manager this would sound like BS to me at least when you consider he hasn’t done any of these up to this point. And i wouldnt be surprised if they say you do good work,but are concerned with your attitude. I’d much rather hear there were some personal issues you were dealing with that affected you at work. Now that they’re resolved you’re excited and ready to [insert lofty goal].

    4. fposte*

      Other people may see this differently, but that seems to me to be an unlikely question. They’re not likely to be hiring you in the hope that you’re somebody other than what you’ve been and ask you how you’ll become that person. If there’s a specific skill required in the position that you haven’t demonstrated competitive proficiency at, sure, they may ask how you plan to get up to speed on Pagemaker or whatever. But that hypothetical question suggests an interest in your personal drama that they just don’t have–and that’s the point to Alison’s answer, that they don’t want to have.

      Honestly, while I’ll take you at your word that you could have been happier, you can’t have sucked that badly if you’re a serious candidate, and I think it’s likely that a lot of this is in-your-head angst that nobody else even noticed. Resolve to be more positive going forward even if the process isn’t handled to your liking (this may be your chance to demonstrate the grace under pressure you’re saying you can muster), and even if it doesn’t get you this job it’ll make you happier and likely get you better chances there in future.

      1. A Bug!*

        This is all really good advice. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by going into the interview expecting them to ask you how you’re going to suck less going forward.

        In the unlikely event that they think you suck, you probably won’t change any minds by bringing it up.

        If they don’t think you suck, for Pete’s sake don’t tell them you do.

        Find your areas of improvement and have a game plan for improving them (and take steps toward that end, too). Then you can use that if they do happen to ask you how you plan to suck less in the future. But you can also use it for the more standard “what are your weaknesses” type of questions.

        And you should always be looking for areas of improvement, anyway.

        1. Jamie*

          These are really good points you guys are bringing up.

          They are considering you seriously so it’s possible you are fine as you are and will blow them away once you set to making positive changes.

          I keep telling my employer how much I suck (I just did it today in fact – as Rome burns and I’m desperately trying to put it out with a super-soaker I told him I was doing the best I could but I suck at network admin. Which isn’t quite true – I don’t suck – I’m adequate for 98% of the problems I have…but this is in that top 2% which kicks my ass.)

          Unfortunately he didn’t agree with my self-assessment and take this little task of fixing email off my hands.

          I’m glad you guys are here – what I’m doing takes a while to compile and I’m watching progress bars and if you weren’t here as a helpful distraction I’m not sure I’d have any stomach lining left.

          Anyway – check out the post on imposter syndrome – it’s possible your boss doesn’t have the issues with you that you have with you.

  2. Jamie*

    When I was reading this I was reminded of someone with whom I once worked who said she could save the company $100K + with a change in XYZ – but would need a raise to do so because that’s a lot of work.

    That plan of “pay me more and then I’ll show you what I can do” rarely ends well.

    I’m not judging your resentment, lord knows I’ve had my own from time to time and while I don’t think that affected my performance per se – it definitely affected my attitude (so performance in that respect.) It’s hard, but you just have to concentrate on the deals you’ve struck and focus on all this due paying coming to fruition at some point. It generally does, but the wait just sucks.

  3. Thomas*

    “Oh wait, that was just my internship behavior — let me show you the paid me.”

    The line above is brilliant, and can be applied to a bunch of different situations.

    “Oh wait, that was just my temp behavior — let me show you the regular employee me.”

    “Oh wait, that was just my entry level behavior — let me show you the senior level me.”

    “Oh wait, that was just my busy period behavior — let me show you the regular workload me.”

    I’m early in my career, but I’ve learned that you have to have a good attitude regardless of the situation. A bad attitude at work always reflects you, not circumstances, in others’ eyes.

    1. A Bug!*

      That was always the advice I heard.

      “Perform as if you’re being generously compensated, even if you’re not. Then you can build a track record to support your request for that generous compensation. And if your employer doesn’t agree, you have an excellent track record to put on your resume so you can find an employer who will.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Similar advice that I have heard, carry yourself the way you would if your job was the next level up. Meaning, use the perspective your boss would use- think in broader terms and longer terms. “What’s it like to be the boss? What concerns him/her right now, in the short future, in the long future?”
        I have found this hugely helpful and sometimes I am able to help with not-so-nice situations because of anticipating a problem.

  4. KayDay*

    I’ve got a slightly different take on this, although I still completely agree that it’s a very bad idea to say in an interview, “I know I haven’t done my best work, but giving me x, y, and z will change that.”

    Is your only problem that you “haven’t been as nice and diplomatic as I normally am at work” ? Because, really, if that’s the case, I don’t think it’s a big enough deal to address at all. If they’re willing to interview you for another job there, they obviously don’t find you intolerable to deal with. No need to bring it to their attention!

    And even if your work product hasn’t been as good as you would hope, the same sentiment applies: it’s good enough that they are willing to hire you for a paid position, so don’t bring your failings to their attention.

    Everyone always has room for improvement. If asked, it’s okay to say, “going forward I hope to improve at X/develop Y skills/etc, and in order to do that I am going to do a, b, and c.” No need to get preemptively defensive about it.

    1. Kelly O*

      I have to admit, the “I haven’t been as nice and diplomatic as I normally am” line threw me too, and I’ve had a time trying to come up with the right way to respond.

      And I agree with the idea of not bringing failure to anyone’s attention, but be prepared to address it.

  5. Worker Bee*

    I agree with everything that’s being said but I am missing the advice for this situation. OP now knows what she should be doing in the future. Still doesn’t solve her problem right now.
    OP, since you have worked where you were need, maybe you can say something along those lines: I got a lot of insight in different parts of the company/deparment, got a bigger picture and gained skilled XYZ that will come in handy for the postion ABC…

  6. EngineerGirl*

    Yes, this all comes down to “professional behaviour”, which is really who you are and not what job you hold.

    OP needs to focus on how things will change positively going forward. Through the internship you’d learned some weaknesses and here is what you are now doing and already accomplishing to overcome them.

  7. A Bug!*

    I’ve worked with a few people who performed to the bare minimum of their job requirements. They’ve all had a similar rationale – “Well, [Employer] gets what they pay for. They want more, they can promote me or give me a raise.”

    None of these people were ever successful with internal job openings (and they always applied for them, and they always overestimated their chances). Why? Because the positions always went to people who had already shown that they’re capable of more than the bare minimum.

  8. Not So NewReader*

    OP, if you know you are a serious candidate- that is HUGE.

    Forget the past, even if it was just yesterday. Don your “Serious Candidate” attire and tell them how much you love working there and all the different ways you can help them. Tell them all the advantages there are of hiring you on full time. (You have worked there, seen many sides of the business, they know you… go forward from here with this list.)

    Just for a moment, throw away the mental image of your current life. Picture yourself paying the bills, eating nice meals and smiling. Why? Because that mental image does not serve us when it comes to job hunting- it only pulls us down. It makes a person feel beaten and discouraged. (Been there.) Personally, I think this is a very tough thing to do. (Still doing that.) But if you are happy with the prospect of this job opening- be sure to show it.

  9. AB*

    OP, correct me if I’m wrong, but I interpreted your question as pertaining to, “how do I show my interviewers that I have more to offer than what they’ve seen / heard from others based on my current role?”

    And this may be important if the OP is competing with external candidates who haven’t a history with the organization of being rude / impatient / stressed out / whatever is that makes him/her say she wasn’t being “nice and diplomatic”.

    If I were in this situation, knowing that my internal references wouldn’t be very good, what I’do is, during the interview, express genuine interest in the new role, and at the same time be very candid about the circumstances, saying something like this:

    “I’m actually very grateful for this opportunity to interview because I don’t feel I’ve been offering my best performance to this organization up to this point. Not getting into the personal reasons why, as they are not pertinent, I wanted to tell you that I recognize that I could be doing better at X, Y and Z, and that even if I’m not chosen for this position, moving forward I’ll be putting my best effort into fixing these issues and making sure I adopt the behaviors necessary to sustain and improve a strong performance from now on.”

    1. fposte*

      I disagree pretty strongly–I have real reservations about offering up past performance as problematic in this situation. If they don’t have a problem with the OP’s performance, I think it’s unwise for her to treat it as a problem. If I had a solid candidate say this in an interview, it would impair my willingness to move her forward. This isn’t a confessional for things that haven’t caught my attention, and I’d be put off by a candidate who used it as one.

      If they bring up a concern about her performance , then by all means she should face it head on, admit it, and outline how she’s already started working on its improvement; she should treat it as part of a general strengths and weaknesses discussion, though, not an opportunity to hang her head–this is a job interview, not a performance review. But bringing it up first neither covers her behind nor strengthens her candidacy.

      1. AB*

        fposte, I see what you mean, but my description of how I would react obviously assume the OP knows her shortcomings are known, and may be a disadvantage in the decision-making for the other position.

        I often see internal candidates being interviewed out of consideration, but with the unspoken understanding that they would only be included in a short list for potential hiring if no impressive external candidate applied (which, in this market, is a rare case). For that reason, if, of course, the issues are big and well-known enough in the organization, I’d rather deal with the elephant in the room than hope nobody cared. But I understand others would prefer to take their chances, which is fine too.

        1. fposte*

          Right, if this is a courtesy interview for a regular paid employee seeking to keep her job and who’s been reprimanded, that would be different. But the description sounds like she’s a serious candidate and that nobody has given her any performance warning. If that’s the case, she should treat the job interview as a job interview and leave the mea culpas for another time.

  10. jesicka309*

    I feel for you OP, in that a terrible work situation can turn you into a terrible employee. My first part time gig at my dream company turned into a nightmare where I was working 7 days a week, sometimes two shifts in one day. I got food poisoning from eating the cafeteria food, my boyfriend nearly broke up with me, I crashed the company car because I nodded off at the wheel. Whilst still studying my final year of uni. Then the company started to push me out….most likely because I was irritable and edgy.
    I ended up getting a full-time job at a competitor, and my final week there was lovely. A new assistant actually commented that she had never seen me so talkative and friendly. Probably because the pressure was finally off me…there was an end in sight.
    OP, my advice for you is to act as though you have not worked for this company before. When you interview, put aside all your worries and dramas. If they ask about your weaknesses, bring up that you tend to get irritable under the pump, but you’ve learnt to deal with this by doing XYZ. List your achievements with the company in quantifiable ways, keep any emotion or bitterness about the intern situation out of your words/tone.
    You would never walk into a new company and say in your interview “I’m actually pretty cranky these days, but if you give me a job, I’ll be sweet as pie and the best employee you’ve ever had!”. Internal interviews are no different.
    Also, good luck, and I hope you get it!

      1. jesicka309*

        Yep it was. I’d love to work for that company again, as I think I’m mature enough to stand my ground and not let myself get into the position I was, but I’d be worried that past performance would come back to haunt me.
        Also, media in my country is super competitive. You take what you get (and the companies know this, so they treat you like rubbish if you let them.)
        That job stands as a testament to how a bad job can cloud your judgement. Objectively, I would never have taken my current, boring, off track job if I had not been so eager to get out of the nightmare role.
        So I think the OP needs to make sure that the role they’re going for is still on their career track. No good moving internally because of one bad situation, only to find you’ve messed up your whole career track.

  11. Steve G*

    I wouldn’t consider how to work this argument. Reason being, every position has its own issues and stresses, but looks interesting and maybe glamorous from the outside. So after a while in the new role, one could hypothetically have the exact same bad attitude.

  12. Anonymous*

    Also remember that unpaid internships may come with lowered expectations to begin with. For instance, if the last two interns your boss had were flakes that never got their work done, for all you know you may be a wonderful and highly productive intern in their eyes. One person’s “cranky” is another person’s “goal-oriented” behavior.

  13. Tasha*

    Actually that brings up a point I have always been confused about since I’m still just starting out in jobs.

    Why do people expect full professionalism in unpaid internships? After all many times that is the only or best way to start out in a field and get relevant experience but at the same time very few people have someone to pay their bills while on unpaid internships. This leads to having to juggle two jobs which of course means either one or both suffer in terms of work quality in the majority of cases which wouldn’t happen if the internship was paid and thus solving the problem. I’ve seen it happen with people trying to juggle full time school and internships as well.

    I could just not be understanding part of the whole unpaid internship thing though.

    1. KayDay*

      I don’t see why not being paid should affect an intern’s professionalism. It’s still a job,and you still need to demonstrate that you have a good attitude, are a hard worker, etc. I expect college students to behave similarly at school (okay, the norms are a little different, but the attitude and hard work thing applies) and they aren’t getting paid either.

      There is one exception, and that is flexible scheduling. It’s been my experience that unpaid internships are a lot more likely to allow interns to work 30 hours a week or create an arrangement to accommodate part time work, although that’s not always the case. But it is expected that the intern would create this arrangement in advance. I don’t think it would reflect poorly on an unpaid intern to approach their boss and ask if their schedule could be rearranged slightly to accommodate a second job, but it would be bad if the intern simply left early/came in late.

  14. Anonymous*

    When you accept an internship, it’s your chance to shine and to show the company how amazing you are. THAT was your time to show the company your best so that they would be interested in hiring you for a paid position. If you’ve been slacking on that, then step up your enthusiasm NOW.

    You were the one who accepted an unpaid internship, so you need to take responsibility for that. The job market is a disaster, so there’s no need to feel insecure just because you didn’t land an amazing job right out of university. If you seriously have insecurity issues, consider seeing a life coach or someone who can help you with that.

    I apologize if this sounds harsh, but it sounds like you need to make a major attitude change and step up your performance in this internship.

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