Pop quiz! You're in an interview with your (hopefully) future employer. The hiring manager just asked you to describe how you respond to challenging situations at work. You:
a. Say that you’re a problem solver who meets every challenge head on, considers all the various risks for each possible course of action, makes data-driven decisions, and gets the job done no matter how late you have to work.
b. Share an anecdote from your previous job, in which you found out at the last minute that one of the main locations for an upcoming shoot was no longer viable, so you made a list of other similar locations, secured an appropriate alternative option, and quickly contacted the crew department heads to make sure they knew the change of plans and had the necessary equipment to fit in the new location.
When comparing the two, hopefully it became obvious to you that the correct answer is B. Why? Because as nice as A sounds, it’s kind of meaningless. Anyone can claim to have the skills an employer covets. Sure, you’ll get points for having researched the type of candidate the company is looking for, but that’s about it. But with an answer like B, you’re sharing a real-life example that shows your work ethic and helps an interviewer picture you in a similar situation.
Sharing specific examples is also a good way to convey that you understand the job at hand -- the more relevant your example is to the job you want, the more you’re proving your ability to walk right into the role. However, if you're trying to make a career transition -- for example, from production into marketing -- your best example of responding to a challenge might not be 100% relevant. In this case, tack on an additional explanation as to how your skills translate to the role at hand. Using the example above, you could add, “I know that clients can make last minute changes, and marketing messages may need to pivot for any number of reasons, and I'll be able to call on my problem-solving experience from working in TV production by responding to those sorts of challenges calmly and quickly and ensuring there aren’t any lapses in communication.”
Getting specific will also allow you to build a stronger conversational connection with your interviewer. Remember: The interviewer already knows you’re qualified enough to be considered for the role. Now they’re trying to assess whether you’ll fit in with the team, so your aim should be to create a friendly, comfortable rapport. How many good conversations have you had where you simply listed off general character traits about yourself? Likely not too many. But it’s pretty typical to swap anecdotes when you’re connecting with someone.
The next time you prepare for an interview, think of a few specific experiences you can share for some of the most popular interview questions -- strengths, weaknesses, a big challenge, how you work with a team, a time you showed leadership, and how well you operate under pressure (hint: these experiences might overlap with some of your greatest accomplishments). Practice telling those stories, ideally to another person, but to yourself in the mirror/shower/car is fine, too. It might make all the difference!
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
A boss who makes you keep your Zoom on all day to make sure you're actually working. A coworker who constantly passes her work along to you and takes all the credit for its completion. A supervisor who gives you zero direction for a project and screams bloody murder at you when you turn in something slightly different from what they imagined.
These are examples of toxic workplaces. And unfortunately, they are endemic in Hollywood.
Though The Hollywood Commission recently reported that a majority of survey respondents have seen less abusive workplace behavior in recent years, instances of abuse are still troublingly common. There are a ton of problems associated with working in a bad environment, but one that's especially concerning is the fear of how to describe your job when you're finally able to leave its clutches. If toxic jobs and job interviews weren't tough on their own, they can be even more stressful when you put them together! But have no fear: We're here for you with some tried and true experience and answers to the three most common questions we get from job candidates seeking freedom:
How do you respond to an interviewer who asks you why you left your last job without badmouthing your boss and/or turning your interview into a therapy session?
Even if your boss is known to have a difficult personality, or your company has the reputation of being a hot mess, you want to come off as even-keeled and professional in your interview. Instead of focusing on the negative and the past, tell the interviewer why you're excited for the opportunity they're presenting. In general, the best interview tactic is to reiterate why you'd be great for the role at hand. Whether you acknowledge that you left (or are planning on leaving) because the previous role "wasn't a fit" or refer to the company's dissolution, make sure the bulk of your answer focuses on what excites you most about the job you're applying for and why you've applied. If your interviewer pushes you to gossip, resist, and consider whether this new job may also be a little toxic.
When asked about challenges you faced at work or a time you had to resolve a conflict at work, how can you answer honestly without disclosing too much about your awful colleagues?
It's super hard to think clearly about difficulties at work when the majority of your time at work was difficult! You're going to need to practice answers to this question before your interview, so your emotions don't get the best of you. If you can, pick a challenge or conflict from a previous role that wasn't toxic -- the point of the question isn't to understand your immediate work history, but rather to get a sense of how you've handled problems throughout your career. If the toxic job is your first or most relevant job, find an innocuous example that isn't going to lead you down the path of badmouthing. For instance, if your micromanaging boss had an anger problem, you can say something like, "My last boss had very specific preferences for how he wanted work turned in, and that meant I often had to redo tasks, especially early on. I learned to get more detailed instructions before starting the project, and when that wasn't an option, I made sure to turn a draft in early so that any revisions wouldn't stop us from meeting a deadline." Inside, you might be seething about that one time he berated you in front of the entire office for using Calibri instead of Helvetica and called you Calibri Cathy for a month, but by practicing a polished, surface-level answer to the question, you'll be able to keep your calm in an interview.
*We highly recommend sharing your actual stories with trusted friends and/or mental health professionals to get the emotional support and validation you need -- that'll also help you control what you say "publicly."
If your current boss would freak out if they knew you were interviewing, do you have to ask your interviewer to keep it on the DL?
Some toxic bosses understand that you are not obligated to suffer under their thumb for the rest of your life. But many will absolutely lose it if you try to leave. They may attempt to sabotage your potential (or even firm!) job offer, threaten to blacklist you if you don't stay until they're ready for you to leave (even if that's beyond an appropriate 2-week notice), fire you on the spot if they hear you've been interviewing, or force you to resign unless you sign a contract that you won't go on any more interviews. None of this is acceptable, and some of it may not be entirely legal, either. But that doesn't make it any less scary! If this happens to you, remember that this kind of behavior is exactly why you need a new job. Do not let your boss's scare tactics intimidate you. It's not really necessary to mention anything to your interviewer, and it could teeter into awkward territory. Instead, know that most hiring managers won't call a reference that isn't listed on your reference list, and it's not a huge red flag if your current boss isn't on there -- in fact, it's a quiet signal that you may not have told your boss you're looking.
But the most important thing here is to focus on getting the new job and not about the repercussions from your terrible boss. You do not need to stay at a job that is so abusive you're afraid to leave it. If possible, try to save up a bit of money so you'll be okay if you don't get the job you're interviewing for and your boss does fire you. If saving isn't an option, commit to yourself that you come first, and you'll find a way to make ends meet with a temp job if you need to. Don't let yourself be held back by an abuser any longer. And if you did get the offer, know that 2-week notice is a courtesy, not a rule, and if your boss tries to sabotage your offer, leave. They will never be helpful to you in the future anyway, and the relationship is not worth preserving; there are good people in Hollywood whose referrals and respect means something, but your boss is not among them.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
In Hollywood, it’s easy to feel like everyone’s against you, especially when preparing for an interview – you’re thinking about all the trick questions you might get asked, worrying that your interviewer has some negative preconceived notions about you, and convincing yourself that she’s just trying to weed you out of a big pool of candidates. But in reality, the hiring manager is on your side! It's sort of the flip-side to finding reasons to say "no" to a candidate's resume to narrow down the list; employers don’t want to spend their days interviewing tons of candidates, so they're looking for a reason to say "yes" quickly.
If you can remember this, you’ll be able to drum up a lot more confidence during your interview. Think about it: This person has already seen your resume (likely more than one person has), and she’s come to the conclusion that you probably have the skills to do the job adequately. She believes in you enough to spend 30 minutes to an hour of her workday getting to know you better. That’s saying something. You are a qualified candidate. Just the fact that you got an interview proves it. This is good news, because all you have to do is confirm the interviewer’s expectation. You’re not working to overcome a negative first impression. This should be enough to calm your nerves.
At this point, the interviewer is trying to assess whether or not she and/or the team can connect with you on a personal level, and her hope is that the answer is a resounding yes! Especially if you've been referred for the role or someone's called on your behalf, the expectation is that she'll like you. Even if she's meeting you blindly, she connected with something on your resume or in your cover letter or LinkedIn profile. It’s kind of like online dating – when you like someone’s profile enough to go out with them on a date, aren’t you’re going into it hoping that it will work out? It’s the same with a job interview. The hiring manager really does want this to work! Keep in mind that if it doesn't work out, it doesn't mean you were unlikeable (just like you might go on dates with perfectly nice people who aren't "the one"), but there's only one person who can ultimately get the job.
When you’re mentally preparing for your interview, take a moment to remind yourself that you’ve gotten the interview because you deserve it, and that the hiring manager wants to like you. You should be going into the meeting with excitement and confidence – you’re meant to be there, so all you have to do is prove to the hiring manager that she was right to bring you in! And everyone likes to be right, right?
-- Angela Silak and Cindy Kaplan
"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 had a job interview back in March, two days before the industry shut down and the quarantine went into effect. Now that it's almost four months later, with no real end in sight to the "new normal," should I check back in with the company? Or is it too late? If I do follow up, should I be generic and ask about how they've been faring in the pandemic, or should I be direct and ask if they are hiring again soon?
-- Waiting and Wondering
Dear Waiting and Wondering,
It's not too late! It's possible (but unlikely) that they already filled the role, and it's certainly possible that they decided against filling it altogether or are otherwise in a hiring freeze. But since there's the distinct third possibility that they're starting to adapt their business practices to the new normal for the long haul, they may still be looking to fill the role. You won't know unless you ask! If they are revisiting the hiring process, following up now will let them know you're still interested and available. If the role is filled or non-existent, you'll be opening lines of communication for the future and reiterating your interest in the company. That's no small thing; many job applicants move on to the next available opportunity and apply anywhere that's hiring, but the best way to get the job you really want is to target a few specific companies and let them know you're eager to work for them. And persistence often pays off!
When you follow up, make sure to use the initial email chain you used to set the interview and send your thank you email. That'll help them contextualize who you are and when you last spoke. Be direct and thoughtful. Try something like, "I hope you and your family are staying safe during this uncertain time. I'm checking in to see if you have an updates on the hiring process for X role, as I am still very interested in the opportunity. I understand the process has likely been affected by the pandemic, but I would love to know if the position is still open or if you have any additional insight."
As with all follow-ups, there's a difference between showing interest and being a pest. If they respond that they aren't sure when they will be hiring again, it's okay to check back in in a month or so (depending on how drastically the pandemic surges or abates; if a new safer-at-home order is in place, you can probably assume they still aren't hiring). If the position is filled, a simple "Thank you for letting me know. I'm still excited about the prospect of working for your company and would love to be considered for future roles" will do for now, and you can follow up if another posting goes up or at a natural check-in time, like the holidays. If they don't respond at all, you can ping them again in two weeks, but that's it; avoid following up often if they aren't responding or have indicated that they're not hiring any time soon. Though more regular follow-ups might have been good practice before the pandemic, they may be perceived as annoying now, when most people have a lot on their plates. Take any continued radio silence as an indication that the role is not a priority and wait until a new job posting opens up to check in again. The key is to make sure you come off as interested, respectful, and non-oblivious.
-- Angela & Cindy