Getting Turned Down
Three times in my life, I've been turned down for jobs due to race or sex. Well, at least three. There could be more. I could also have landed jobs due to my perceived race or sex and not known. It can be hard to understand what's going on in the minds of hiring managers although, in a some cases, they give it away.
1. When it happened the first time, I had to be told.
I'd graduated from Control Data Institute, an achievement that still makes me proud. The courses were self-driven, not to mention they were taught at an electrical engineering level minus the calculus. I finished the hardware course, including circuit design and repair, in time to take and pass the COBOL course. I also took the defunct (even then, no longer offered) Unix course, which was all in Xenix. The Unix courseware was sitting next to the COBOL course. I read it and found I liked Xenix enough to break into half the accounts of my long-departed classmates and do their unfinished assignments.
The hardware course included repairing supercomputers because Control Data Corporation was a mainframe company. However, the job interviews arranged by CDI included: almost nothing. In the Bush recession of the early 1990s, no one could find entry level jobs even in technical fields, even in the growing field of personal computers.
CDI had campuses all over the country. My school building sat near Baltimore in an office park a couple miles outside the city. The CDI staff arranged for a single interview after graduation. In theory, they were trying to arrange more but they canceled all but one. The interview took place at a custom computer hardware contractor in Baltimore.
We had to drive on a special trip to make the interview. When I arrived, I saw the contracting business occupied a brick tenement that had long ago converted into the cheapest sort of commercial real estate.
"Wow, you have the best grades by far," the interviewer exclaimed early on. We sat down in a beige office at a beige desk. "You've actually done something with computers, too."
We launched into a discussion that I found entertaining. He had lots of questions. I had lots of answers. Then I had questions about his business's custom hardware.
"You would have to get a clearance to do some of the work," the manager said. "But it's possible."
The business did a lot of fixes and custom jobs for the federal government. The manager, who wore a brown, two-piece suit and a Tom Selleck-style mustache, gave me a tour of the facilities, which looked kind of run-down. For some types of work, my home equipment was as good. The manager apologized for messes at the workbenches, the missing soldering irons, and the broken oscilliscopes.
Then he sat down with me at the round table in the beige office again.
"I can't believe how much you already know," he said. "I want to be honest."
"We advertise ourselves to the government as a minority-friendly company. You know how it is." Although I had no idea, he continued. "We employ a certain number of African Americans and a certain number of women. We get tax breaks for it. Our contracts depend on it. The work is based on our minority status. For this job, the one you're applying for, we're really looking to hire a minority. Or a woman. A black woman, ideally."
Two interviews behind me on the CDI schedule, which I had read on the clipboard at school, sat a young, black woman who had earned the second highest grade average in class. She was as smart as anyone. Smarter, really. And beautiful. And she smiled a lot and had a great attitude, better than mine. If anyone deserved the job, it was her. She would get it, too. At least, I felt pretty sure.
"I appreciate you letting me know," I said.
"I didn't want you to think you had a bad interview." He reached out as if to punch me on the shoulder, realized that it would be unprofessional, and settled for a tap. "Crap, you had a great one."
"Thanks." I sat lost in thought for a moment about the black woman coming up. I had cozeyed up to her halfway through class to see if she were single. She made it clear, though, that if I wanted to date her I'd have to join her in church first. For me, the church-going was a dealbreaker. Still, she was seemed utterly fantastic.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I think I want to tell you about someone coming up two interviews from now."
2. The second time, I didn't have to be told. Well, almost.
Six years later, I had an interview in a large office building in Northern Virginia. The corporation had advertised for a technical writer. My resume was strong, hence my call to interview. I'd worked as a technical writer on historical subjects. I'd worked as a computer technician and programmer. I'd gotten a graduate degree in computer science.
The hiring manager seemed impressed. We skipped quickly to her selling me on the company. She gave me the tour. She sat me down for a close-out talk.
"Can I ask why you're looking for a technical writer position?" she asked. "And not an engineer? Most men look to be engineers."
"The writing pays well," I replied. It paid twice my current computer technician salary but I wasn't going to say that. "And I like technology. And I like writing."
"It's just that our technical writer positions are usually staffed by women."
"Yeah." For a moment, I thought back on University Publications. The atmosphere was different but the work had some similarities. "My previous writing position was mostly women, too."
"You had a strong interview. You have a good resume. However, we have strong minority hiring incentives."
"Okay." She let it hang there for a while to see if I would get the hint.
3. The third time, I was taken aside.
After my first interview for yet another position, I got a call to critique my performance.
"The IT staff around the table loved you," he said. "But we don't pull much weight. All the people in suits? They're the ones you needed to impress."
"I guess I didn't, huh?"
"When the boss asked, 'What makes you special' and you answered, 'Nothing' I could practically see steam coming out of her ears. I loved that answer, by the way. You followed it up. I completely agree that lots of people do good deeds, good stuff. But 'nothing' is not what the suits were looking for."
"What should I have said?"
"That's your chance to brag. You must have got a lot of things to brag about. I even know some of them. You should have jumped in. Because that's your chance."
"And Eric? Do you own a tie?"
"Yeah, sorry. I drove to the interview after working seventy hours in four days on a firewall problem. Got it fixed, though."
"See? That's the kind of stuff you should brag about."
"Will I get a second chance?"
"Probably not this time. You don't seem to know but the job was set aside for a woman. You've probably noticed all the bosses are women and they are looking to hire another for this position."
"Oh, okay." That made my wrong answers seem less disastrous.
But the next day, the fellow from the interview team called again. His voice sounded scratchy over the cellular carrier.
"Remember I said the job was set aside for a woman?" he asked.
"They made the mistake of telling her. Like, they said it outright before the interview. So she came to the meeting way too confident. She got in an argument with the woman hiring her."
"Now she's out. You can't argue with the boss. Not this boss. So the position is open. And you're in the final list of candidates. I want to be forthright, Eric. Get yourself a goddamn suit. Act like you're a supervisor. Try to fit in."
So maybe this last time doesn't count. The fix was in. But it didn't stick. It proves something about the hiring process. Very likely, it's worth going through the motions and maintaining good form for some of the time even if everyone on the hiring team think they know the preferred candidate in advance.
In all of these cases, I appreciated being told. Or in getting the hint. Or in being told I should pay attention to the hint a few second back. Whatever it took. Getting the information meant not forever questioning what went wrong. Indeed, for some interviews where I wasn't hired, everything went right as far as I could see. I don't think there were always preferred candidates, either. The hiring manager simply liked someone better. That's the way it goes.
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