How to Talk Yourself out of a Job
We tend to think of interviews as processes that select suitable candidates for different jobs. But in many ways the purpose of interviews is more accurately to reject unsuitable candidates. After all, by the time a search reaches the stage of meeting a few finalists on campus, the institution has largely been satisfied that everyone being interviewed is qualified for the job. The candidate’s résumé has been examined, references have been contacted, and the candidate has already answered a number of questions appropriately during a phone interview or an off-site at a conference. The critical question now is, Which of these finalists is the best fit for the program and the institution? Seen in this way, interviews are often less about demonstrating the qualities you possess in order to convince the committee that you deserve the position than they are about not demonstrating the qualities that might rule you out from further consideration. It is not uncommon for search committees to discover that a candidate who has all the right qualifications “on paper” acts so inappropriately that one begins to wonder, “Is this person actively trying not to be offered the job?” In fact, this experience occurs often enough that, as a public service, we would like to provide tips on how to talk your way out of a job during an interview. Follow these simple guidelines, and you’ll significantly increase the likelihood that the position will be offered to someone else.
1. Treat the interview like a vacation. One of the great benefits of doing an on-sight interview is that you get to visit another institution and perhaps even experience a part of the world that you’ve never seen before. But, for serious candidates, that remains an added benefit: The real purpose for their travel is to make themselves available to the institution in order for people there to get to know them a little better and discover whether they’re a good fit for the school’s current needs. But if your goal is to eliminate yourself from serious consideration even before you set foot on campus, simply approach the interview as though it were a free vacation. Treat the administrative assistant who’s arranging the trip as though he or she were a personal travel agent, insist upon extending your visit a few extra days for sightseeing or personal purposes, inquire about bringing along members of the family (when the institution hasn’t specifically invited them), and try to conduct personal business between interview sessions. These simple actions will convey the impression that you’re the sort of person who’s willing to inconvenience others for your own purposes and thus not the type of colleague anyone would want. Many people at the school will decide that they don’t want to hire you before they’ve even met you.
2. Act like you’d be doing the institution a favor by working there. Interviews force candidates to strike a precarious balance: They have to talk extensively about their own accomplishments without appearing arrogant or overly impressed with themselves. Search committees usually understand how artificial the conversation during interviews has to be and realize that the candidate is not going to spend so much time talking about himself or herself after the hire has been made. But if you really don’t want to be offered the position, it’s easy to get around this inconvenience. Simply convey the impression that you’re overqualified for the position or too good for the institution and you’re well on your way to talking yourself out of a job. After all, “You’d be fortunate to have this person on your staff” is something for a candidate’s references to say, not for you to say yourself. Successful candidates tend to mix discussion of their own attributes with positive statements about the position, program, or institution. Your goal should be to turn the conversation back to yourself any time it begins to drift to any of the needs or goals that other people may have. Remember that search committees want to hire people who seem excited about the prospect of working there, not those who will condescend to accept an offer of employment that is beneath them. So, do whatever you can to place yourself in the latter category.
3. Focus on what you’ll get out of the position rather than what you’ll contribute. Administrators and search chairs see an immediate red flag whenever candidates seem to care only about the salary, benefits, and other personal advantages of a job. Certainly, no one expects you to take a position without adequate compensation, and there will be an appropriate time during the interview process for serious candidates to inquire about the salary range and benefit package. But if you’d like to get out of the running fast, give the people you’re talking to the impression that all you’re really interested is what you’ll get out of the job, rather than what you’ll put into it. For instance, several of your meetings are likely to conclude with someone asking you, “Do you have any questions for us?” Rather than having a few substantive questions in mind and perhaps asking about the salary range after you’ve discussed five or six other issues, lead with this question immediately. The person you’re talking to is likely to conclude that, if he or she makes the mistake of hiring you, your first priority will always be advancing your own interests, not those of the institution as a whole. In fact, you’re likely to be the sort of person who will be in your supervisor’s office constantly, complaining about your compensation package and wanting a raise. Most colleges and universities have plenty of employees like that already, and they’ll probably conclude that it’s a good idea to diversify the staff so that it includes a greater number of collegial, team-spirited employees.
4. Ask for or even demand special treatment. No search committee will refuse to make special accommodations for a candidate who requires reasonable assistance because of a disability. But they’ll probably resent making a lot of changes to the itinerary because of a candidate’s individual requests. It can be a logistical nightmare to set up even the most basic interview schedule because of the complexity of everyone’s schedule. So, when a candidate starts requesting changes to that schedule, the problems arise very quickly. By asking for special treatment, you’ll make it clear that, if you’re already “high maintenance” even before you’ve been offered the job, you’ll make their lives miserable once you’re hired. Serious candidates know that, if a search committee asks whether there’s anyone else they’d like to meet during the interview process, they’ll make suggestions only when such a conversation is extremely important, and they’ll be understanding when, even then, it may simply not be possible to meet that request. You, on the other hand, should ask to meet with several senior administrators and possibly even the chair of the governing board just as a “courtesy call.” These people are all extremely busy, and few things will destroy your candidacy faster than wasting their time.
For the occasional person who might actually want to be offered a job, our advice is simple: Just don’t do any of these things. If, on the other hand, your primary goal is to ensure that someone is hired, the four simple steps outlined above have proven themselves in innumerable searches. Milk the interview process for all it’s worth, treat your prospective colleagues with barely disguised contempt, and place your needs above those of the institution and you’re all but certain to talk yourself right out of the job.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006), The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership (2007), and The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career (forthcoming). All are published by Jossey-Bass.