is this company’s interview process unreasonable?

A reader writes:

I have spent the past 10 years building up a small client base in my industry. I’m a terrible self promoter, so this is very small and I really need to ramp up or get a full-time job. I applied for a position pre-COVID-19 and did a phone screen. I was successfully added to a list of folks for an in-person interview the following week. But that Friday, shelter-in-place orders were issued for two weeks. I was interviewed through a video conference call. Apparently that went well too, because they wanted to bring me in to tour the facility before making a decision; I was told it is between me and two other candidates. Unfortunately, we’ve been extended out another month for the sheltering.

I got an email saying they want me to do another video conference interview, but need to talk to my references first. I told them I would connect them with a current client after a conditional offer was made, and provided three other business references. One is a former supervisor, one is another business professional whose business dovetails with mine and we have worked closely together, and one is a current client. I know these are solid references. They contacted the references and then told me they planned to have me meet next week with other folks in the organization by video conference and would then like more references from current clients.

At the start of this, their plan was the phone screen, single interview, references, then decision. Now they keep adding components to the process and have changed the layout. I know this is a result of our current new reality and we’re all operating in a strange place. But, I have concern over them dragging this out. I don’t want interviews just for the sake of keeping in touch through the crisis. I am still actively working, as my field is in high demand right now. I worry that I will damage my current client relationships if they know I am looking for a job and I don’t ultimately get the job. I don’t want to give up current client references.

I suppose I also want to make sure I’m right in thinking if next week’s round of interviews goes well, I don’t want to accept a job without ever having seen the workplace. But I can’t realistically see it for at least a month and I don’t know if it’s fair to put that on them. It would have to be a month, see the facility, then give me a few weeks to give closure to my clients. And that doesn’t seem right either. (And woah! I am putting the cart before the horse on this one, but I can’t help thinking about it!)

Do you have thoughts on navigating all of this? How should the recruiting picture look in these times? Is this all reasonable?

Well, they have to change the process because they can no longer bring you in in-person. It sounds like they’ve only added one piece to the process. Their original process was a phone screen and single interview. Now they’re doing a phone screen and two video interviews. That’s not unreasonable even in normal times, and it’s definitely not unreasonable to take the time for you both to be extra sure since you can’t meet in person.

But they’re being unreasonable about the references. Of course you don’t want multiple current clients knowing you’re looking for a job, since that may prompt them to start looking for someone to take over the work you do for them, which will be a problem for you if you don’t get the job (or if you turn down the offer). Insisting on reference from current clients before making a conditional offer to you, when you’ve explained your concerns, isn’t that different than employers that insist on a reference from your current manager; both can jeopardize your livelihood.

You already gave them one current client as a reference. You gave them two other references as well, including the previous manager (the gold standard for references). They’re out of line in insisting on additional clients at this stage. Or at least they are if they understand your concern — so importantly, have you spelled it out for them? If you haven’t, do that, because they may not realize you feel they’re jeopardizing your business with the request. (But also, any chance you have a former client or two who you could use? That might solve it.)

As for accepting the job without ever seeing the workplace, I understand why you want to see it — but it probably isn’t realistic right now. It’s unlikely businesses will have reopened a month from now, and you’ll probably need to make a decision without seeing it. But think about what types of deal-breakers you’d be looking for if you could see the space, and figure out if there are ways to ask questions to get at those things remotely.

In fact, it’s even okay to say, “Normally I know you would have shown me the space before we got to this stage, but of course that’s not possible right now. Can you tell me about the facility and what the workspace for this position is like?” (And employers who really want to be on top of recruiting right now: consider that this is a concern for people and think about creating a video tour.)

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Autistic Farm Girl*

    I agree with the amount of references being unreasonable. I’d have said 1 or 2 references would be fine, 3 would still be ok. But they’ve had 3 and they want multiple more (not just one more). And that’s ridiculous.

    Unless the references you gave already were on the fence about you (not the case by the sound of it?) I’m confused about the added value of getting more and more references.

    1. Stormfeather*

      TBH it kinda seems like they might just be spinning their wheels, trying to figure out more stuff they can do to be Doing Something while they’re bogged down a bit due to Covid making things topsy-turvy. Maybe they’re trying to drag their feet so that the SIP orders are removed and potential candidates can be met in person, see the workplace, etc. Maybe they’re just a bit thrown by things being thrown off their normal track and stalling a bit to make sure they have/have given all the necessary info.

      1. gsa*

        I agree. They are just trying to pass the time, and potentially “look” busy.

        At least they trying to keep thinks moving along…

        1. ccnumber4*

          They might not be trying to “look busy”, so much as possibly getting a hiring leader comfortable with making an offer sight unseen. If a leader is on the fence, the recruiter may be trying to give them as much info as possible to feel comfortable extending an offer. The company takes as much risk as the candidate does in closing the deal without an in-person interview.

            1. Fikly*

              +1

              If new hire doesn’t work out, all the employer is out is some time.

              For new hire, if they get fired/the company turns out to be a nightmare, they are out their old job, and all the potential opportunities they did not pursue or turned down due to accepting the offer.

              1. CmdrShepard4ever*

                Yes the employee has a higher risk, but the employer is still out money spent on hiring and training the employee, lost opportunities of other candidates they could have hired etc. The company should try to make sure they hire a good candidate, in person interviews do give you a better sense about a person.

                1. DerJungerLudendorff*

                  Yes, but that’s still much less risk than the candidate has.
                  The company isn’t going to suffer heavily from one bad hire. The employee is.

            2. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

              Agreed, WellRed, The company holds the power.

  2. Phony Genius*

    On the issue about seeing the workplace, would it be out of line to ask for some photos and/or a video tour? (This assumes that there is a small number of people who still work on-site.)

    1. Daffy Duck*

      I like the video-tour idea. You don’t get to talk to potential coworkers, but you do see if they have offices/cubicles/hotdesking etc. Hotdesking or noisy workspace would be a make or break issue for me.

      1. WorkingGirl*

        Yeah… I don’t think I’d want to work somewhere where I’d be hotdesking, or even an “open office”… that sounds so dreadful.

        1. Batty Twerp*

          Open office *is* dreadful!
          Unfortunately, a video tour would only confirm the layout. If it’s empty, you’re not going to know the noise level until it’s back to capacity.
          We have three floors of open-plan offices – floor 2 is the quietest and has the fewest people. Floor 1 is unbearably crowded (economy flights have only slightly less legroom!), but not a lot of chatter. Floor 3 is the noisiest and is at “normal” capacity.

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          Noise level in an open office can change radically with changing staff leveld. I’m thinking of one former VP whose voice boomed jarringly…but whose retirement took off a lid of chatter on the other side of the wall from me.

    2. Free Meercats*

      Plus one on this. Ask to have someone video conference on their phone and walk you around the workspace. That way you could ask questions if you have any.

    3. Kes*

      The only problem is that a lot of places are already locked down, so unless they already have a video tour it would require someone going to their office for something that’s probably not essential. I know our admins recently asked people for photos of our office to create a photo tour, which is probably more feasible even if the video tour would be nice.

      On their side though, they’re probably concerned because they’re not getting the additional info they would from the additional time with you. However, I still think they’re being a bit unreasonable by asking for more references than you’ve already given, especially if those are clients. Apart from that, having a slightly longer process isn’t necessarily surprising as they adjust to how to do this virtually.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Yeah, our offices have been deep cleaned and shut down, after we were given lots of warning to get anything we needed. Now we need VP level approval and a very good reason to go back in so they don’t have to do that again.

    4. prismo*

      My team is doing remote interviews right now, for a position that will start remotely (and eventually work in office). One of the candidates asked us to describe the layout of the area where she’d be sitting and how we usually communicate when we’re in the office. That covered it pretty well as it allowed us to talk about noise levels, communication styles, daily routines, lunch habits, etc. I thought it was a smart question.

    5. OhNoYouDidn't*

      Video tour would be great, assuming they’re onsite. They may all be working remotely at this point and the actual work place may be off limits. I know that’s the case with my current job.

  3. Casper Lives*

    If this is the same industry, I’d be a little concerned they are trying to steal your clients. Regardless that’s 2x the usual number of references. It’s unreasonable.

    1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      Oh yeah, since these are clients rather than supervisors, that’s a good concern to have.

    2. OP*

      The consultant/recruiter works for a specific industry which matches with one of the references I gave. This reference told me she asked her if she was available to work for other companies the recruiter represents, which was a little disconcerting. I think the work is different enough that this would be the only reference I’d worry about, although I have a very strong relationship there and feel pretty safe.

      1. Lance*

        Oh, yeah, that’s definitely a flag that you should keep in mind. I get that times are tough, and many are struggling to look for work/business… but you don’t do that through what’s supposed to just be a reference check.

        As far as the possible work scenario goes, though, I agree with others that some sort of virtual tour could be good, and maybe seeing if they can get you a call with some of the people that would be your co-workers; even if you can’t meet in person, it’s still the next best thing.

      2. Qwerty*

        Is the recruiter a full time employee of the place that you applied to, or is she a contractor? It sounds like the latter, but I want to double check. If so, consider telling the company that the recruiter tried to poach your references to be her clients. She was hired to check your references as work for them, but she’s attempting to drum up more business for herself.

        1. CmdrShepard4ever*

          I don’t think it’s really poaching. OP works for the reference and has them as a client. The recruiter wasn’t asking the client to leave OP and work for someone else, they were asking the client if they were allowed/wanted to work for other companies I think the recruiter wanted to present the client as a potential hire/employee to companies.
          When you are in sales I don’t think a soft pitch “Hey if you are interested in a new job, I have some companies you might be good for.” is out of line.

          1. DerJungerLudendorff*

            Yeah, but you don’t do that under the guise of checking references. And the fact that the recruiter would be competing with OP is just an extra layer of underhanded behaviour.

      3. Kes*

        Yeah, that definitely seems kind of unethical and sketchy and I would push back on providing further references, especially further client references

    3. Potatoes gonna potate*

      Honestly that’s exactly where my mind jumped to – they could be trying to poach clients.

  4. I'm just here for the cats*

    I think a short video your would be great. In one of my departments we had hired someone in January who is supposed to start next week. Her onboarding is completely different than normally, although she has seen the space briefly we are thinking of a virtual tour. Plus we just posted for a 2 new positions today.

  5. Bostonian*

    The interviewees probably wouldn’t find it unusual if you asked about the working space. In fact, I recently interviewed someone who said something along the lines of, “under normal circumstances, I would get to see the office at this stage, but since I can’t, could you describe what the layout is like?”

    ALSO, you can look at the company’s LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. They usually post pictures of their employees doing “fun” things around the office (happy hour! ugly sweater contest! Friday potluck!) back when people were actually in the office. In my experience, it gives a pretty accurate window into what the space looks like.

  6. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    A video tour, some photographs, or a graphic description of the work space is critical, in my opinion view. You also need to know where you would be sitting. Are there a lot of nice window offices but they’re offering you a cubicle? That’s something I would want to know. Also, I wonder if this building is on some real estate broker’s website so you can get an idea of the layout of the floors of the building. I live in New York City. This may not be an option where you are.

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      This is also a good point. Generally, companies post pictures of their beautiful offices and workspaces (or even stock photos) on their websites, and the ex-broom closet you’ll be working in will not be anywhere to be seen.

  7. From That Guy*

    I don’t like to be negative but there are red flags, of which others have mentioned. There is a saying “It ends as it starts.” And this is not starting out well.

    Good luck with whatever path you choose.

  8. Turtle Candle*

    LW, you said “at least a month” and I’d like to emphasize the “at least.” Chances are extremely good that places will still be on lockdown for several more months, which makes it even less likely that you can get them to wait until you can see the facility. I second seeing if you can get a video tour. We just made one–it’s not exactly professional quality, since it was just done by one of our IT guys (we still have a skeleton crew of IT on-site to babysit the servers and so forth, so they had one of them do it so as not to bring anyone else in), but it’s better than nothing. If that’s not enough for you and you’d want to see the workspace in person, or see it when it has people in it (a totally reasonable desire!), this opportunity is probably not going to work out.

  9. CBM*

    Heh. I took a not-quite manager level job in the early 90s – my own 7yr job went away because of corporate bankruptcy – and got a happy news that I had a tiny office with a window onto a courtyard. Then I found out that they were moving to a cube-farm, 3 miles and a lot more minutes’ drive away, and did so in 3 months. No one mentioned the upcoming move. Or the cube-farm.

    In terms of what may be relevant to others:
    I had to advocate loudly and obnoxiously for the security of our tax-dept files – they were planning to make the 3ft tall versions of file cabinets a pseudo-wall between two work-groups. Our company was wholly owned by one guy, whose financial info was super-secret and known only in part to our dept. My supervisor was all ‘oh, whatever….’ These considerations had never even occurred to him. We got a small, locked-door room, with locked cabinets, which was about the level of security in our old offices. I got SUCH a reputation for being difficult, loud, and so on.

  10. A Penny for Your Idea!*

    Depending on whether their business is struggling financially right now — which many businesses are — I would be seriously concerned that a possible reason they want to connect with your current clients is because they would like to poach those clients for their own business.

  11. dunstvangeet*

    Somehow, the title reminded me of the ultimate “Bad Interview” process, where the candidates were required to cook the staff dinner, and provide entertainment.

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