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

I’m still sick so I’m pulling this post from 2012 out of the archives so I can continue resting.

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.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

    To the OP: I look at it like this- The same way a company can “reject” you, you can “reject” a company. If you feel that you wouldn’t be a good fit for the job, you can certainly turn down the offer if one is made. You can just say, “Thank you, but after having a chance to think it over, I find that my skill set may be better suited somewhere else” or something like that. I actually did that once. It was a very empowering feeling. Hee hee.

    1. KR*

      +1 Your labor and skills are worth something and deserve to be paid for it and be in a position where your needs are being met.

    2. Natalie*

      Yes, it’s super empowering! I’ve turned down two jobs, for good reasons, and I felt great about it even though it meant staying at my kinda-not-great job longer.

      1. dragonzflame*

        I know! I recently had an internal interview, which went well, but I walked out thinking ‘I don’t want this’. Then I read a bunch of stuff on AAM about listening to your gut and I rang the hiring manager and said it didn’t feel right and I wanted to withdraw from consideration. It didn’t seem fair that I was hoping for the phone not to ring while someone else was probably carrying it around with them waiting for a call.

        That’s probably the first time I’ve really, consciously acted on a gut instinct (it’s so hard to know if it’s your gut or your mind playing tricks) and it felt fantastic.

    3. SJ*

      Exactly. I had several interviews for a position that I just wasn’t sure about, due to its focus on data and other things I’m not crazy about or even great at. However, I could tell that the would-be supervisor love love loved me. I had a third interview where I met with a panel (the would-be supervisor wasn’t there) and someone said they weren’t sure the would-be supervisor had adequately explained just how data-heavy the job was (she hadn’t), and that they suspected that while they thought I could do the job and would be happy to have me on the team, it might not really be what I was looking for career-wise. They were totally right, and I said right there in the interview that it didn’t sound like it would be a good fit for me. We parted on very good terms. It was such a relief to turn down a job I had actually been afraid of getting an offer for! Luckily, I got an offer for a different position in the same organization the next week, and I’m a thousand times happier than I would have been in the other one.

      1. SJ*

        **argh. that should say “…and that while they thought I could do the job…” wrote too quickly!

    4. Jen S. 2.0*

      This. You are allowed to turn down a job offer. I have several times had multiple job offers at once. I can only accept one, so obviously I need to decline the rest. I also have been offered jobs that came to me when I wasn’t actively looking; they weren’t 110% awesome fits and I was fine where I was, so I declined. You aren’t obligated to accept just because there is an offer.

  2. Anon4this*

    Something I never understood about the Cat House brothel line up is that the customer seems to be choosing with only one factor in mind, namely personal appearance at the initial impression. Wouldn’t it be better for the customers in general to get a chance to meet the women in a less pressured setting, like at the bar or in the parlor, talk to a few of them, and then make their choice? Also, there seems to be no mention of pricing at the initial line-up, which one would think should be a major factor in the customer decision making process…

    1. Allison*

      I haven’t seen the show, but I was always under the impression that a woman in that situation could turn down a customer under certain situations, like if she has reason to believe he had an STD.

      1. Honeybee*

        I haven’t seen the show either, but I did read an article about Nevada brothels from the sex workers’ perspective. The sex workers can (theoretically; I don’t know how much power they have in practice) turn down customers if they want to. And some women build up a stable of regular customers that make appointments or come in at the same time, so they don’t need to do the line-up or don’t do it every time.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        The clients can go to the bar if they’d like to get to know the girls first. Don’t forget that many people go in there already knowing what or who they are looking for (and they probably checked out the girls on the website before they got there). I am also fascinated by this show!

    2. Natalie*

      Brothels aren’t generally price-fixe like a restaurant. Each transaction is negotiated between the customer and sex worker beforehand. This is one primary way a sex worker can turn down a client – quoting a prohibitively high price so they will have to go back to the floor and negotiate with someone else.

      1. Natalie*

        Should have added that the above is generally speaking. I read a book a while back that mentioned one brothel with set prices, although who knows if they’re still operating today or under the same management.

      2. ErikaMercure*

        Not sure where you live/where the book was talking about but (real life sex worker here!) this has generally not been my experience in Australia. Typically there is a standard price which covers a certain amount of time spent with the lady, and it is the same regardless of who the client chooses. Some women charge for “extras” which could be anything from kissing to anal sex, and for these you can set your own price.

        Refusing to kiss (or charging an exorbitant amount for it) is certainly a way that some women discourage clients they don’t want to see, but there are other ways. Most places I have worked have cameras where you can see the clients before they see you, so it’s possible to screen people this way (mostly this is used to not accidently run into someone you know outside the job or to avoid regular clients who are known to be a problem). We also have the right to say to the reception that we won’t see a certain client, especially if there’s a good reason for it (eg he has signs of an std or he’s being very disrespectful or aggressive).

        Ps if you’re also a sex worker I hope this doesn’t come across condescending, I wasn’t sure and I thought it might be useful to others too

    3. ThatGirl*

      I think they do that sometimes, pick a woman out but then talk to her in the bar for awhile before things go further.

      I also suspect some of that was staged for the show.

    4. Maybe I'm wrong, but...*

      I would imagine that men visiting a brothel aren’t too interested in personalities.

      1. Doug Nunya*

        It’s been a while since I’ve visited one, but the ones I visited generally had a bar area where you could get to know the women. And yes, there were some clients who just wanted a quick release, but as has been mentioned, many of the ladies develop a cadre of regulars. And there are some who men (and women and couples) would visit especially to see – Air Force Amy comes to mind. In the towns where there is more than one house, the regulars will follow their favorite to another house if she moves.

        Legalized, well-regulated prostitution as one sees in some of the counties of Nevada, as well as other countries would go far in reducing sex-trafficking women. De-stigmatizing sex work and its consumers would go even farther. It’s healthier and safer for both sides, would raise revenue for the government jurisdictions, and significantly reduce the law enforcement costs associated with vice.

        1. BouncingBall*

          It’s interesting that you point out legalized prostitution reduces sex trafficking. Morally I have no problem with adult women (or men) choosing to exchange sex for money, so I’ve always supported legalized prostitution. But a few people recently have told me that in areas with legalized prostitution, sex trafficking actually increases. So now I’m not sure. I’ve got to get my hands on some actual data, which I haven’t been able to do yet.

          1. ErikaMercure*

            I can’t say that I know the statistics related to sex trafficking off the top of my head but I’d be interested to know where those people were getting them, because there is a lot of false information out there. It also depends how trafficking is defined, for example I believe some organizations define all sex work as sex trafficking. In any case, I couldn’t tell you if those statistics are accurate or not, but here is some stuff I can tell you about the way decriminalizing sex work helps both sex workers and victims of sex trafficking (as someone who is a sex worker in a region where it is legal):

            *It protects workers by allowing them to go to the police if there are problems with clients. I have two friends who have dealt with abuse by ex clients and both of them were able to get help from the police and end the harassment. Obviously the extent to which police involvement is a useful option will depend on a lot of factors, but making it more available by ensuring sex workers won’t face legal reprisal as a result of their jobs is a step in the right direction. In at least one of the situations I mentioned above, I wouldn’t be surprised if the police had gone through specific training on interacting with sex workers – they were very respectful and supportive, took my friend seriously and went above and beyond to help her.

            *It minimizes harassment /by/ police. I’m not saying it cuts it out entirely, my situation is fairly privileged so I’m not sure I can say I have a completely accurate picture of this, but it does create greater accountability and removes the legal justification for targeting sex workers. While of course people with power can always find excuses to target minorities and members of stigmatized groups, I can also say that based on speaking to people who worked in or otherwise interacted with this industry before it was legalised in my area, things have gotten so much safer and less corrupt in a whole host of ways since it was legalised.

            *It makes it easier for people to leave sex work and move into another job. If you are arrested for sex work, it can go on your criminal record, and once you have a criminal record it becomes so much harder to get a job.

            There’s a whole lot of other arguments in favor of decriminalization too, but in my opinion these are some of the strongest ones. Victims of sex trafficking aren’t automatically treated better than non-trafficked sex workers by police or other authority figures, and honestly the lines between who is a victim of trafficking and who isn’t aren’t always clear cut (eg, someone who has escaped a trafficking situation may then turn to sex work to support themselves). As such, creating a safer environment for sex workers helps trafficking victims too, reducing the corruption in legal institutions that often disproportionally affects them and the chance that they’ll be accused of a crime if they seek help.

        2. neverjaunty*

          Destigmatizing sex work is a great thing, but legal brothels will not wipe out (or even significantly reduce) human trafficking.

      2. BobcatBrah*

        You would be surprised. Think about it: would you want to have sex with some soulless person who is not into it? If I am going to shell out the kind of money they charge at Cathouse, I’d at least like somebody that doesn’t hate their job. Personality has a lot to do with it.

    5. De Minimis*

      If I remember right, if they ring the doorbell they do the lineup, but customers can also just come inside and hang out at the bar and meet the women that way too.

  3. Berry*

    This question also makes me think about Impostor syndrome – you could be better than you realize and they see it even if you don’t.

    1. Whats In A Name*

      I was just going to comment almost this exact same thing so I”ll just piggyback here!

      OP mentioned that she was willing to learn and could catch on quickly – perhaps based on interview they picked up on this. I know this advice might not apply to this particular OP but anyone in a similar situation should certainly keep in mind that all interviews are a 2-way street but also remember that sometimes interviewers are keying in on others aspects of the interview/answers that candidates give.

    2. So Very Anonymous*

      At the same time (speaking as someone who was burned very badly by this line of thinking), if you really do have a strong gut sense that this isn’t the job for you, you should pay attention to that. You know (or should, hopefully) your own abilities/strength/weaknesses better than an interviewer is going to, and the company’s believing in you is only going to carry you so far if you really do have significant gaps.

  4. Allison*

    I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to say this, but if someone is collecting unemployment benefits, they’re required to accept the first job offered to them. At least, that’s how it works in some places, I’m not 100% sure if that’s true everywhere, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were. If OP is on unemployment, they may have no choice, and that’s why it may be important to clarify the employer’s expectations before an offer is made.

    1. Allison*

      AND, it may be worth mentioning – not that I’m assuming OP is in any of these situations, but it’s possible – but if someone is crashing with someone temporarily, or living with someone long-term but unable to contribute their share of living expenses, there may be pressure to take the first source of income they can get, even if it’s not perfect.

      In other words, some people are in situations where they can’t reject an employer unless the job or the offered salary is ridiculously bad.

      1. Waiting for an offer*

        If we’re on unemployment and in the OP’s position of waiting for news about a job that we’re probably under-qualified for, what would be the best way to move forward?

        1. KellyK*

          There’s probably no one answer to this. It depends on the laws in your state, how badly you need the unemployment payments, and how underqualified you are. If you think you’d be a disaster at the job and likely to get fired or have horrible references, that’s different from thinking that the transition period would be miserable, but that you could pick up what you need to know. Likewise, if losing the unemployment payments means dipping into savings to pay bills, that’s more doable than if there is no savings and it means you’ll be hungry or homeless.

    2. mskyle*

      This depends a lot on your state and how long you’ve been receiving unemployment. Even in states where this is strictly true there’s usually some kind of appeals process where you can try to persuade them that the job was unsuitable.

    3. LQ*

      This might not entirely be true. Unemployment varies from state to state. Some are more strict, some are more lenient and it may make sense to turn down jobs and that might be ok. Check with your state.

    4. YRH*

      In the state that I live in, you have to show that the job isn’t suitable if you turn down a job while collecting unemployment. If this is the case here, OP could say that the job description sounded like the job involved doing X but that the interview showed you really needed to know more about Y and Z than X and OP knows nothing about Y and Z.

    5. Jessie*

      “they’re required to accept the first job offered to them”

      This is not a general rule, as others have mentioned. The general rule (and again, states vary on the specifics) is that you have to accept a “suitable” job offer. As time goes on, most states expect you to be less and less picky about what is “suitable.” But if you are trained in graphic design, you don’t have to take a job as a veterinary technician in order to keep your benefits just because you happen to be offered a job as a vet tech.

    6. fyeo*

      I was terrified of this while I was unemployed and interviewing. There was one place where I KNEW I would be miserable, just based on my interaction with the interviewer, but I knew unemployment would consider it “suitable”. So I turned them down before they could offer me the job. And I recorded the interaction with unemployment as “I interviewed at this place” and that was the end of that.

    7. Ouch*

      In PA you have to accept the job unless there is something substantial that you learn that changes the terms of the job as it was first presented to you. I know some one who had to have regular hours as they had to be able to pick up and drop off their child at school/daycare. At the original interview they were told there were set hours and no overtime. Then at the next stage they were told there was mandatory overtime. Since that was a material change to the job he was free to say no and continue getting unemployment.

  5. Honeybee*

    I know that this OP happened 4 years ago, but this might be useful to someone else in this situation later: many technical interviews are designed to get you to say “I don’t know.” A lot. The interviewers often want to test the limits of your knowledge and see how far they can push you; they also want to see what you do when you don’t know the answer to the question (do you lie/BS? Do you try to figure it out?). So in many technical interviews, it can feel like it’s going terribly but really your interviewers don’t expect you to know all the answers!

    1. LBK*

      Totally agreed – a big part of testing someone’s technical knowledge isn’t just what they know or don’t know, but their self-awareness about the limits of their knowledge and their ability to problem solve when they don’t have the answer.

    2. Electron whisperer*

      One of the best technical interviews I ever attended started with the interviewer asking me to explain what happened when you turned on a modern desktop computer.

      Then kept asking for more details, repeatedly….

      Electronics, electromagnetism, control theory, software, architecture, mechanical design, semiconductor physics, thermodynamics, mechanical design, quantum physics, it went all the way down the rabbit holes (repeatedly), and explored the contours of my skills in a way few have before or since.

      Excellent brain workout that three hours or so was, and I found the phrase, “I don’t know, but I can find out, and I would expect it to look generally something like…” and variations rather useful.

      I eventually took another job, but I still remember the approach, and try to use it (Adjusted for what we do).

  6. Blossom*

    I wouldn’t worry about then just wanting to pick your brain about the system they don’t knew how to use and then get rid of you. Chances are, if they don’t know how to use it, it’s because nobody else has the time, inclination or responsibility to learn. And, if they focused a lot on your experience with this system in the interview, that means they really need someone to be the go-to person for it. That potentially puts you in quite a good position.
    (I know this is an old post, but just in case anyone reading today is in a similar situation)

    1. Koko*

      It would also likely be a lot cheaper and easier to just hire a consultant to provide some insights on a one-off basis than to onboard a new employee and fire them a month later.

  7. Stephanie*

    Oof, yeah. FirstJob was a bad fit. Bad enough that I got to the “quit or we’ll fire you” point. SecondJob was only mildly different from FirstJob; I ended up in SecondJob because I was out of work and preferred eating to not eating, but it was baaaaad. I was probably mediocre at best in that job–I ended up on a PIP and survived it, but my days were numbered there.

    If you have the luxury to say no to something that’s would be a terrible fit (and take an honest assessment and ignore the impostor syndrome), I would. (But I get needing to eat and pay for shelter to not doing those thing). Having two crappy jobs in sequence did a number on my professional confidence. I was convinced I was the Worst Employee Ever until my most recent job. Now that job had its own issues, but it definitely helped me a ton to have a job I did well at and was reminded that “Oh hey, you’re good at some things, just not those two Teapot Glazer jobs you had. Don’t do anything related to teapot glazing again.”

  8. HNL123*

    Hi OP!
    Chiming in here because I was in a similar situation.
    I went into an interview for a position that required skills a level or tow above my own. It was clear from the interview that I definitely lacked several of the key technical skills.

    However, the job was really interesting to me, as well as the company. I made it 100% clear in the interview that while I did not CURRENTLY have the skills, I was more than ready to dive in and get my hands as dirty as possible.
    One challenging side to this, was that the only person in the company who previously had those skills already left, so I knew I would be on my own to figure it out.

    After the interview, I made several phone calls to the HR person, making sure the team understood that I did not have these skills, but that I believed I could pick them up quickly. It was important to me that there was no misunderstanding of my skill set.

    They hired me anyway. For the first three months on the job… that was a whirlwind! I read everything I could. I called all our vendors and suppliers and set up meetings so they could explain to me the history of our relationship, and exactly What and WHY they provide a service to us. I called the tech support on all our products we used, so I can learn the ins and outs of each on my own.

    All this to say — Maybe they see something in you that the company needs. The thing is – skills can be taught. A hunger to learn, a desire to improve, a thirst to do a good job — these cannot be taught. Perhaps you impressed them not with your skill but your track record of overcoming obstacles or challenges.

    If you are worried, I would say don’t be afraid to reach out with more questions and concerns. Like others said, it’s a two-way street to see if you’re both a good fit.
    It would give you tremendous relief to be upfront, and also, you won’t spend your first weeks there feeling like a major imposter, counting down the minutes until they ‘find you out.”

  9. Trout 'Waver*

    Even for highly technical positions, I don’t rate technical skills too highly. You’re going to have to learn our system and that takes time and retraining no matter what. Technical skills are a positive, but I really want to know if an applicant can see through a project from beginning to end, work collaboratively with a team, and take initiative to start the next project. Besides, if you make it through the resume and phone screen phases, I’ve already determined you have enough technical skill to do the job.

    1. SarahKay*

      Seconded. Some years ago I was in a team that needed a new head; our manager kept specifying that new head would need to be skilled in use of a specific software system. The problem was that we had a highly customised, but horrifically cheap version of that system. It lacked all sorts of the basic stuff that people familiar with it would expect, and had loads of site-specific stuff that nowhere else used. We finally managed to convince manager that experience of the system was absolutely non-essential, because it was at least as easy to train people from scratch. What we needed was someone who was willing to learn!

  10. AFRC*

    “You are not in a brothel line-up. You’re in a two-way business discussion.” – my new work and job search motto! Thank you!

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        I know, right? Don’t you wish you were in a conversation where you could say that and it would be totally appropriate?

  11. Pari*

    I wonder if you’re not confident enough in your abilities. I offered a job to someone who despite her impressive accomplishments was petrified she would fail and didn’t want to accept. When we drilled down she was more intimidated because of the environment (she’d never worked in a high profile environment). That alone led her to question whether she could learn all of the normal things you have to learn when you move to a new company. She’s been great so far but I feel like I had to convince her she could do what she’s already done successfully. But the key is she was upfront and we talked out her concerns for both of our sakes.

  12. Annie*

    Why do you think a “brain pick / subsequent fire” is a possibility? Does the company need knowledge about that in your estimation?

    Clearly they need someone to do the job and either think you are capable of being trained, or are recruiting you (as above) and a.n.other to carry on the “real” job.

    Your intuition and/or canny questioning of the company is the only way to tell imo.

    Your scenario isn’t necessarily the case as someone I recuited felt that it was the “worst interview ever” (don’t ask how I know) and he was my top candidate!

  13. Brett*

    I think it would have also been valuable to the OP to ask at the time of the interview about the capabilities of the other people they are working with.
    No one on my team really has every single skill set we use. We have one very very key skill set we ask about in every interview. As key as that skill set is, only 3/4 of the team have that skill set. The other 1/4 do not have it at all (though they are learning). We hired them because they had other skills that were not common among the other 3/4 and that we badly needed. The people we hired had those uncommon skills, and we felt that they had the ability to learn the other skill set and the time to learn it while the other members of the team took up tasks needing the key skill set.

  14. CQ*

    Hi Alison,

    I hope you feel better soon! We miss your posting, but of course we all understand that your health takes priority. Rest up – hopefully you can at least enjoy a good read while you’re down and out c:

  15. Moonsaults*

    I was just telling my partner about the time I just had to stop an interview in the middle because I knew I didn’t want the job at that point. The person interviewing me was super confused about the plug being pulled but otherwise it was the best decision I ever made. I will strongly advocate anyone put in a situation that they know suddenly they do not want the job to do the same, for whatever reason your gut is telling you. In all my years, it was just that one time that set off all my alarm bells thankfully.

    In that case, you are also not put in a weird situation of having to decline an offer that comes out of it in the end, not putting your unemployment on the line if that’s a worry or what not.

    There are always going to be things to learn in every new position. Nobody comes in and knows right off the bat the answers, so it’s normal to second guess and worry about how fast you’ll absorb what they want you to do. I have an accounting background and each set of books is another story, sometimes more like a cross between the jumble and Sudoku puzzle depending on what you’re inheriting…so you really have to be confident in your ability to learn and adjust most of all I’ve learned.

  16. J*

    As my lecturer once told me, the only wrong question is the one not asked.
    (but of course apply some common sense yes?)

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