"ASK HR" is our advice column where we answer readers' questions about pressing work dilemmas, job search queries, resumes, and navigating Hollywood. If you have a career-related question, email us, and the answer could appear in a future newsletter! All submissions will remain anonymous.
Dear Hollywood Resumes,
I’ve been running into a consistent problem during job interviews. After I tell the interviewer about my role and all the things I’m doing in my position, they say, “Wow! Sounds like a lot of interesting work! Why are you looking for a new job?” I never know what to say. The truth is, I am doing interesting work, but I’m severely underpaid, and the culture of my workplace isn’t great. I’m leaving because I have to GTFO! Obviously, I can’t say that. But I get thrown off every time I answer, and I can feel the interviewers hesitating that something is off. I need a new job, yesterday. How can I answer this question next time?
Inept at Interviewing
Dear Inept at Interviewing,
First of all, good for you for realizing you deserve to work somewhere that pays you fairly and treats you well. It’s hard to escape an abusive or toxic work situation, and we’re glad you are actively hunting for a new job. There are a lot of toxic workplaces like yours in Hollywood, so this is a very common conundrum, and one we’ve faced ourselves.
The key is to remember that the interviewer is trying to ascertain whether you’d be a fit for the role they are hiring for. This includes whether you’ll be happy in the role, and if your expectations will be met. With this question, they’re trying to figure out what you hope to gain from this new position. If you’re applying for lower-level jobs out of desperation (which is very common!), you’re more likely to get that moment of surprise. In that situation, the interviewer is expressing concern that you may be bored in this role. Before you try to convince them otherwise, consider what it really means to leave a toxic role only to land in a place where you’re totally stagnant. If there’s no room for growth, and your work is below your level, you may feel just as taken advantage of as you do now. You don’t want to wake up in five years and realize you spent the first half of your career in the wrong jobs. If you really need to leave your current situation that badly, you may be better off quitting and taking a short-term gig to pay the bills while you focus your job search on appropriate roles. If you can handle your current situation a little longer, let them pay your bills while you phone it in at work and focus on applying for roles that are more appropriate.
That said, if you’re applying for roles you’re qualified for (not underqualified for) and still flubbing this question, you’ll want to reframe it when you answer. Instead of thinking about why you want to leave an old job, think about what you hope to gain from this new job. What does this specific company offer that interests you? Maybe they work on a different style of content you’re excited about. Maybe they have a larger slate of projects, or a more focused one. Maybe they work with different types of clients than you’re used to. As you do your pre-interview research, consider what excites you about the prospect of the position, and answer positively about that. “Why are you looking for a new job?” becomes “Why are you looking for this new job?” Avoid talking negatively about your current employer or sharing gossip. Stay focused on the future, and you’ll have a much more confident and convincing answer!
-- Angela & Cindy
Figuring out your salary is the most awkward part of the job application process, and arguably, it's the most important. After all, the main purpose of a job is to earn money -- even if it also comes with the bonus of fulfilling your creative dreams. When it comes to salary negotiations, you don’t want to lose out on a job because you aimed too high with ridiculous demands, but a low salary sets you up for lower earnings for years down the line. Remember, most raises are calculated on a percentage basis, and 10% of nothing is, well, nothing.
In entertainment, there’s very little you can do about your salary in your first entry-level position -- assistants are typically offered a certain rate, especially at agencies, and that’s that. But just because you don’t have much power to negotiate when you start your career doesn’t mean you should hold on to that bad habit forever, nor does it mean you should settle for a job that's massively underpaying you.
Unless a company has uniform starting salaries (for assistants, these will often be public information, as many companies promoted their wage increases in the trades a few years ago in response to #PayUpHollywood and social activism), you should negotiate. And certainly, as you move up in your career, you're likely to come across a version of the question, “What are your salary requirements?” in a job interview. But how exactly do you negotiate your salary, particularly in an industry that knows it's competitive?
First of all, do your research before you apply! In California, Colorado, and New York City, companies are required to publish salary ranges in job postings, so you can read a few postings to get a sense of the market rate. Glassdoor is also a great resource for figuring out average salaries for your title in your area, and it can help give you a more realistic understanding of where you might fall in the listed range (if there is one), since many larger companies comply with the law by posting outlandish ranges (like $50K - $350K). It's also a good idea to talk to your friends and peers about their salaries -- while many of us were taught that this is rude, the truth is that talking about salaries is a way to build equity in the workplace. Once you have the data in hand, you'll be empowered to walk away from an offer that's egregiously below market rate -- and even avoid applying in the first place, if the pay is listed. Underpaying employees isn't usually a sign of a healthy workplace. And if you find that the jobs you're applying for typically pay below your cost of living, you might consider pivoting your job search or adjusting your expectations.
The salary conversation itself depends on whether the range was listed or not, and how big of a range it was. If no range was listed, or the range was too big to be meaningful, you'll probably be asked about your salary requirements during the interview process. Do your best to avoid throwing out a number first. Try to force the interviewer or hiring manager to show their cards, so you know what you have to work with -- when asked about your requirements, pivot with, “Well, I’m actually curious, what is the salary range you anticipated for this position?” It gives you room to bring up other types of negotiations -- maybe for flex time or more benefits.
If the hiring manager doesn’t let you get away with the pivot technique, DO NOT give up and tell them your current salary. In California, it’s actually illegal for them to ask, which gives you a big advantage. Start off with a question about benefits – what’s the vacation policy, 401K, insurance coverage, stock options, bonuses, etc. This will allow you to assess how much you need to make as base salary to maintain (or really, to improve – the goal here is to move up in the world!) your current lifestyle. Then, you can offer a range. The range should start at the lowest number you’re willing to take based on how good the benefits are and go up $10-$25k from there, or whatever’s reasonable based on your research. They might only offer your minimum, but there's always a chance you'll get lucky with an offer that's in the middle or top of your range. The beauty of giving a range is that it helps you avoid giving a number that's lower than what they had in mind -- if you say you were thinking $60K, and they were going to offer $75K, they will probably accept your low standard, costing you a ton of money!
When the salary is listed, this can be a little trickier. You might feel like you can't negotiate, and that by applying, you were already accepting their salary offer. However, even listed salaries are negotiable, within reason! In these cases, you'll likely be presented with an offer that falls within the range or is the stated salary in the posting. If this doesn't align with your expectations -- if you're offered the lower end of the range, or if the rate listed was low to begin with, but not so low that you avoided applying -- ask the hiring manager for a higher number. Explain why you think your expertise demands that higher rate, and cite your research on the market if it applies. If they hold firm on money, you can ask if they can make up the difference in benefits, and suggest specific benefits that would persuade you.
Whenever you are offering a range, make sure the number is enough money that you'll feel good about accepting the offer. If you want at least $70K but can theoretically, if absolutely necessary, trim your budget and make some sacrifices for $60K, don't start your range with $60K! Ask for the $70K you want, and if they respond with "Well, we only budgeted $60K for this role," then you can entertain the "theoretical, if absolutely necessary" lower number. Similarly, when countering a listed rate with a number of your own, offer a number higher than the one you'd settle for, as they are likely to meet you in the middle -- if they list $1800/week, and the lowest you'd feel comfortable with is $2200/week, counter with $2500.
Remember that a good employer will respect that this is an important dialogue, and anyone who treats you rudely during this negotiation will likely take advantage of you in other ways. It's not a shameful secret that people work to make money, or at least, it shouldn't be. It's totally okay to turn down the job offer if you can't find a compensation package that works for you -- don't shortchange yourself. If a company doesn’t hire you because you’re too expensive, you probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway. Decide what you're worth beforehand, and stick to your guns -- you'll thank yourself in the long run.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
If you’re thinking about starting to look for a new job, the most important tool you'll need to get started is a skills list – that is, a long list of all the responsibilities and projects you’ve taken on in previous roles and the skills you’ve learned from each. It takes some time to create a skills list, but it's very worthwhile, because it helps you see your main strengths and pinpoint projects you were proud of. Not only will this be a huge confidence boost, but it will also serve as the basis for your resume and interview anecdotes.
To create a skills list, make a chart that lists out all the previous roles you’ve held. And don’t limit this to paid work experience either. Volunteer experience and leadership roles in school count as well. Even acting as a parent or caretaker can provide skills that will be useful at work – your skills can come from anywhere!
Under each entry, think about all the things you did in that role. What did your day to day look like? What were some key projects you completed? What were your biggest achievements? List them out, then look at each to extract the core skill you used for every task.
As you list out the skills, you’ll probably notice some repetition – and that’s a good thing! These are indicators of your main areas of expertise. And by creating a skills list, you now have evidence to back up the fact that you have deep experience in these areas. These are the things you are going to want to highlight in your personal branding materials and during interviews. Be sure to refer back to your skills list when you work on your job applications.
As you look at the final document, consider what tasks you enjoyed doing and would want to continue doing in future roles. Target your job search to roles that will let you utilize your main areas of expertise in a way that excites you. And most importantly, take a moment (or more!) to be proud of everything you've accomplished so far, and reread your list whenever your job search leads to self-doubt. Your imposter syndrome voice will quiet down when you force it to face the fact of everything awesome you've achieved.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
Most job interviews will have some version of the question: Whats the biggest challenge you faced in your current position?
Your instinct might be to scream, "Nothing as challenging as this question!" It really can feel like a doozy. You want to answer the question honestly, but also not show too much weakness, or give away too many negative feelings about something (or someone) that might have been problematic at work, and at the same time, you want to show that you will be up for any challenge in this potential new role without being too cocky about your skills.
Skilled interviewers can also tell who has prepared for this question and who hasn't. We don't share that with you to add to your stress, but rather to reinforce the deep need to prepare. By preparing, you're also showing that you're the sort of person who takes yourself and your work seriously and that you're conscientious.
The first step to preparing an answer for this question is to consider why it's being asked. There are three main qualities that your interviewer is trying to assess here:
1. How well do you handle difficult or high-pressure situations?
2. Will the responsibilities of the position you’re applying for be too far out of your comfort zone?
3. Can you speak about your current (or most recent) position with poise and professionalism?
The second step is to figure out an anecdote that you can share. This is important for all interview questions, but especially here. The interviewer really wants you to be specific, so saying, "Well, we often had a lot of tight turnarounds on set, so that was challenging, but I made sure to work with the AD to keep everything on schedule" isn't going to cut it.
The anecdote should be a situation that sounds legitimately challenging and doesn't give away personal information about your current employer or proprietary information about a project. For example, maybe the following is true: "I worked on SHOW X, and our budgets were only $150K an episode, and the producers above me were insisting I book CELEBRITY A whose going rate is $80K, and there was no way to get it done with the rest of the show budget, so I had to come up with 50 other pitches of affordable celebrities while my boss screamed at me for being an incompetent fool." But you don't want to say all that, as it includes protected information and a lot of bitterness, and your interviewer might know the producer you're talking about directly -- this isn't the time for gossip or therapy. See if you can figure out a way to share that story without the details or bitterness, or pick a different story that's challenging for reasons that have less to do with mismanagement.
The story should offer an opportunity for you to show how you work through problems, what you learned, and what skills you developed as a result. For example, let’s say your company received an RFP from a coveted client, but your boss was on her honeymoon and you had to fill in to lead the team at the last minute, knowing that you needed to land this contract or your boss would come back upset, and that you absolutely couldn't bother her during her time away. You can talk through your ability to learn quickly, how you used your client services skills to cover for your boss so the potential client wouldn't think they were getting the short end of the stick, how you tapped into leadership skills by rallying junior members of the team to brainstorm awesome ideas, and leaned into your creative problem-solving and intuition to use the bones of a deck your boss had approved for a previous project for this one so you knew it would be to her liking, and ultimately landed the client. This story would also work if you didn't land the client -- you can showcase what you learned in the process and explain how it informed your approach moving forward.
One thing to note: if your actual biggest challenge is something you’re still struggling with, and you have yet to come up with a solution to your problem, find a different challenge. This questions is very much about what you've learned and how you solve problems. It's okay not to be 100% literal here with the "toughest" or "biggest" challenge, but rather just a memorable, illustrative one. If you choose a current challenge, you run the risk of getting mired in whatever is driving you out of your current role, rather than focusing on how the skills you've used over the course of your career will impact your next role.
Overall, keep this answer short and sweet. Don't give every detail of the challenge, but just enough to set the stage. Focus on what your personal role was in responding to the challenge -- not the team's role, but yours. Explain how your perspective has shifted because of this, and why you think your approach will be beneficial to the new employer.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan